Booker T. Washington, a great African American educator, spoke 100 years ago about building resilience.

Since then, research has established resilience as a key ingredient in a human thriving and an essential ability for the development of healthy, adaptable young adults.

What is resilience?

A person’s ability to adapt positively to adversity is called resilience. While most of the protective factors are for children, resilience can be developed at any age.

Individuals and social systems alike, including families, schools, and organizations, need to build resilience. Research has shown that children are more resilient if they are part of adaptable groups and classrooms.

Resilience comes from how children think and behave when confronted with challenges large and small. Children’s relationships with teachers, parents, and other caring adults are key to their resilience. When children are faced with difficult emotions and stressful situations, these relationships can be a source of strength. Teachers can help children develop resilience by helping them to see obstacles as an essential part of their lives.

How can you recognize resilience in children?

Recognizing resilience indicators is key to building resilience within the K-12 classroom. Research has shown that children who are resilient feel optimistic, hopeful, and confident about their future; they also express positive emotions and value social connections.

The Compass Advantage is a framework to engage families, schools and communities in the principles and practices of positive youth development. It is important that children have the ability to overcome adversity and rebuild their brains. Research has shown that resilience is linked to happiness and other attributes of the compass.

Students learn how to overcome and meet challenges in a way that promotes well-being and academic success. Young people who are resilient feel they have control over their lives. They are able to reach out to others when they need it and take responsibility for solving problems. Teachers who help students build resilience by encouraging them to think about different paths through adversity, and teaching habits that promote adaptability are a great way to ensure a child’s wellbeing for the rest of their lives.

5 ways to build resilience in your classroom

Encourage self-reflection with literary essays and small-group discussions

For younger students, short essays and small-group discussions that are focused on heroes in literature can be a great way to reflect on resilience. Encourage children to think about their reading or listening to a story featuring a hero character. For additional resources, see the Heroic Imagination Project.

  • Who was the hero of this story? Why?
  • Which problem or dilemma did the hero conquer?
  • What were the personal strengths of the hero? What were his or her choices?
  • What did others do to support the hero building resilience?
  • What did the hero discover?
  • How can we all use our personal strengths to overcome challenges in our lives? Could you give some examples?

2. Encourage reflection through personal essays

Writing exercises that emphasize personal strength can be helpful for middle- and high school students. Students can gain insight into their strengths and identify what they are looking for in support relationships by asking the following questions.

  • Write about someone who helped you through a difficult or traumatic time. What did they do to help you overcome the challenge? What did they teach you about yourself?
  • Write about a friend you helped through stressful times. What was the most helpful thing you did for your friend? What have you learned about yourself?
  • Write about a time when you had to deal with a difficult situation in your life. What were your strengths and weaknesses as you faced this challenge? What lessons did you learn that will be of benefit to you in the future

3. Children and their parents can learn from student failures

Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher, wrote an insightful article Why Parents Should Let Their Children Fail. It was published in The Atlantic. She addressed a topic that is dear to all teachers: How can I help students learn from failures and setbacks when parents want them to be a shining star? Learning from failure is key to building resilience in young adults. Teachers are there to help you:

  • Install a culture in the classroom that failure, setbacks and disappointment are a part of learning.
  • Create and maintain an environment where students are celebrated for their perseverance, hard work, and grit. This is not only for grades or easy success.
  • Students should be held accountable for creating their own work. This will give them a sense of ownership and reward.
  • Parents should be able to assure their children that failure can be overcome. This is one of the most important developmental outcomes they can offer.

4. Inspire students to talk about resilience

There are many opportunities to link resilience with personal success, achievement and positive social change. Extend discussions on political leaders, literary figures and inventors to include their personal strengths and how they overcame hardships to achieve their goals. These success stories can help students see their strengths and learn how to recognize them.

5. Establish supportive relationships with your students

Students feel understood and valued by their teachers when they have good student-teacher relationships. Teachers are able to see the needs of students and provide emotional support. These relationships are crucial to building resilience. Adults often remember the teachers who helped them through tough times and they cherish these memories.

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