Studies show that resilience has a positive influence on academic performance of undergraduates, as well as their social and emotional wellbeing.
It’s not always clear, however, how to develop more resilient students. I believe there are three main areas to focus on: a child’s competence, their tolerance to mistakes, and their ability to set goals. These components help young people to sustain effort even when a challenge seems too great.
Competence builds resilience
It is not uncommon for students to come to your class with past experiences that have left them feeling like they can’t move forward when a task is overwhelming. You can help them overcome that mindset by building their confidence through experiences that develop their competence.
One activity involves showing students that some things, which seem impossible or too confusing at first, can be broken down into easy-to-understand parts. Give groups of students broken (not repairable) clocks, watches, or safe (ie not sharp and unplugged) appliances or mechanical toys (eg a jack-in-the-box).
When each group has an item, first ask them to discuss how it might work. With objects of age-appropriate complexity, it is unlikely they will be confident in their initial ideas. Then invite them to take their object apart, without any requirement other than they must discover how it works. The object is to build their resilience to feeling overwhelmed by letting them discover, on their own, how complex things can be broken into parts.
The following questions and instructions might be useful (and you can modify them for your students’ age, ability and task):
1 Look at your object and discuss how it might work.
2 Now take it apart and look at what makes it work. Write down what you recognise, such as springs, screws, coils, gears, batteries or wiring.
3 When finished, write down any ideas about how the parts might work together.
When they’ve completed the task explain that children have just experienced their ability to break something down into more understandable parts.
The experience will build their competence awareness. Dividing big assignments or jobs into small tasks will give them the confidence to get started and the resilience to persevere. Invite groups to put their new awareness into mottos or posters for the classroom, for example: “By achieving one task after another, you’ll get the whole job done.”
Learning from failure
When you incorporate opportunities for students to experience mistakes as an expected part of learning, you build their resilience to setbacks. Through class discussions, your own mistakes, and building pupils’ knowledge of their brain’s programming, your students will gain the competence, optimism and understanding to persevere – and even make progress – through failure.
When students make mistakes, explain that these are not failures: they are opportunities for the brain to build a bridge that will bring them success in future. They need to understand that their brains have evolved to be survival tools: the brains of mammals in the wild adapted to make rapid decisions and choices in response to change or threat. Our human brains still have that primitive quick-response reaction to new situations – even to questions in a test. But because we are not out in the wild or in danger, instead of jumping to conclusions, we can take few seconds to be sure our brain’s first choice is the best.
More importantly, when you correct an error, your brain builds new wiring to guide you to make a better choice next time. So doing something wrong can actually be beneficial in the long-term, replacing misinformation with firm experience. The strongest understandings we have do not come from what we’ve memorised but rather from what we’ve learned from failure.
Other ways to help students see mistakes in a new light include:
• Discussing common errors made by previous students.
• Pointing out your own mistakes and acknowledging how you felt at the time.
• Inviting your class to share their past mistakes and recognising they lived through them and can see them with the perspective of time and even humour now.
Personal meaning builds persistence
Students will engage more if they have to use the facts or procedures as tools for participating in personally relevant tasks.
One way to ensure this is by including appealing activities throughout the study unit. For example, invite students to select a recipe from a cookbook that uses standard and not metric measurements. They will want to know how to convert metric and standard measurements to make what they have chosen. The personally desirable goal of making delicious cookies or play dough will motivate them to do their sums.
Elsewhere, if units are particularly challenging, use examples or comparisons of historical conflicts to present day issues that are of interest to your students. Adapt word problems in maths so that they include the names of students, sports heroes, or other people of high interest to your students.
A final thought
By building students’ resilience in this way you can help them realise that when they engage confidently with a challenge, anything is possible and failure is not something to fear. This is vitally important. After all, it’s not what students know, but what they can do with what they know, that is the goal of education.
Dr Judy Willis MD is a neurologist and trainer of educators worldwide, formerly a teacher for 10 years. She writes at her blog Radteach.com.