Building Resilience

How Are You Coping Right Now?

Flowers growing

Studies in positive psychology have shown that resilience rates high among attitude-based protective factors that help learners achieve success in environments where, statistically speaking, the odds are against them.

In 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan's Center for Human Growth and Development showed that pre-schoolers facing eight or more environmental risk factors such as maternal mental illness or single parenthood, minority status or stressful life events, scored more than 30 points below children with no risk factors on tests of IQ. Yet, the researchers consistently found that groups of high resilient children in high-risk environments still outperformed their peers.

But how do we develop high resilience in our kids and in ourselves?


The astonishing thing, the great surprise of resilience research, is the ordinariness of strategies needed for success.

Firm guidance, structured rituals and a focus on each learner’s strengths, while simultaneously challenging and supporting them, are among the developmental supports in grouping of high expectations. For those who learn resilience on their own, protective factors may include independence, social skills, relationships, self esteem, temperament and a sense of purpose and competence seem to run parallel to positive psychology constructs such as effort, optimism and hope.

Always high on the list of strategies is the importance of social competence among peers, supportive relationships with other people, opportunities for meaningful participation and high expectations. Others list a similar set of developmental supports including caring relationships, meaningful participation and high expectations.

While good study habits are important to promote cognitive development, studies show the promotion of positive relationships with peers can contribute not only to a learner's social development but to their emotional and cognitive development well-being too. It is equally important that the teachers and trainers themselves have a highly developed sense of optimism, plus understand and exhibit social and emotional competence. Learners are not born with resilience; it is something they learn, and if they are not learning it adequately at home, then schools and organisations have to teach. They cannot attain their academic or career success without it.

Teachers and trainers can play a key role by creating positive learning environments for learners.

Teachers and trainers can model their belief that life is doable and that mistakes are opportunities to learn. They should realize that when learners use self-defeating behaviors such as acting out, bullying, clowning or giving up, they (learners) may be masking feelings of hopelessness, vulnerability and low self-esteem. Use of rituals or respectful routines and a safe environment will help reduce behaviors that detract from the caring environment in the classroom or office.

When combined, meaningful opportunities and high expectations give learners the opportunity to develop a sense of mastery by meeting goals in a step-wise succession. Laying down a track record of personal gains and accomplishments can work into proud memories and big hopes. The self-confidence built upon these experiences means that new challenges can be tackled and the bar can be raised on academic or career achievement.

In fact, one study found that those who were in more challenging learning programs showed significantly lower levels of depression and, as a bidirectional study, left open the interesting question of which was the causative agent — did the more rigorous curriculum protect learners from depression or were happier learners more successful?

One of the largest predictors of achievement was the learners' perceptions of their own abilities. Another was higher educational or career aspirations which may serve as a goal and a motivator forlearners, providing them with a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, as well as promoting a sense of hope. Meaning and purpose, it appears then, are important to academic or career achievement, and hope can be leveraged as a catalyst for achievement by nurturing meaningful participation.

Transfer Time

Now, you've read about all of the things that apply to learners. Your next action step is translation. How can you take what you already do, that matches with the steps above, and expand or strengthen it?

This is no idle activity: it is about just one thing. This is about the quality of your life. This is not rocket science. Notice what the research says, and apply it. If your learners are worth your "best effort", shouldn't the learner that gives the best effort also be worthy of your "best effort"? Of course, notice what you do well, and keep doing it.

Take one thing and do just a bit more of it. Can you start today?