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Professional Development Articles

Resilience - A Sustaining Gift for Students

May 18, 2017 jjamison

Resilience in learning, as in life, is the capacity to persevere through setbacks, take on challenges, and even risk making mistakes to reach a goal. Helping your students build their resilience promotes their academic success, character, positive approach to life, and optimistic approach to new challenges. When students are guided to build their resilience, they are more motivated to be effortful, optimistic about sticking with tasks when they are stuck, willing to ask for help without feeling shame, and to positively responsive to constructive feedback. 

Competence Builds Resilience

It is not uncommon for students to respond to repeated failures by developing low self-expectations for success. You'll help release them from that restricting expectation of failure by building their confidence through experiences that build their competence, self-efficacy, and mistake tolerance.

An activity can help you guide students to avoid feeling overwhelmed by challenges they perceive as beyond their capabilities or when they feel they have fallen too far behind to get back on track. This activity can show them that some things that seem impossible or too confusing at first can be broken down into things they can understand and do.

You'll need an unrepairable clock, watch, safe (not sharp and unplugged) appliance, or broken mechanical toy (e.g. talking stuffed animal, jack-in-the-box) from your home or from a thrift store. Using an age-appropriate object, ask your students how they think it might work. Don't give hints, but support all and multiple guesses/

predictions with a positive response. After small groups of students share their theories, invite them to take it apart. Make it a discovery experience without their having any expectation that they must come up with an answer about how it works. Let them know it is already broken and they won't need to put it back together.

The object is to build their resilience to feeling overwhelmed by letting them discover, their own abilities to evaluate complex problems or tasks by "breaking them down" into recognizable "doable" parts.

If your students needs encouragement to recognize parts familiar to her, you can prompt them with questions. Ask if they recognize any familiar internal workings such as, springs, screws, coils, wheels with teeth, gears, batteries, or wire. Invite them to share how the parts might work together to help make the device work.

On completion, explain, "You've just experienced your ability to break down something that you didn't understand into parts you did understand."

When students experience how taking apart an object reveals parts they recognized, they can remember this when future tasks seem overwhelming (and you can remind them of the activity as needed). The experience will build their competence awareness that they can break down complicated tasks into doable parts to keep from feeling overwhelmed.

Help students do the same with planning events such as class parties, parent nights, or celebrations. They will build awareness that big tasks and school assignments can be broken into small tasks. This will build their confidence to get started and their resilience will persevere. Invite your students to put their insights into a motto or posters for the classroom room such as, "By achieving one task after another, I can get the whole job done."

Failing Forward

When you provide opportunities for students to experience mistakes as an expected part of the process of learning or trying something new, you build their resilience to setbacks and mistakes. You can share your own mistakes, encourage open discussions of their past "whoppers" and guide them to recognize that mistakes are really part of learning. For example, "If you don't make mistakes, it means you already knew it, so you aren't building your knowledge or skill." The goal is for your students to develop the competence, optimism, and understanding to persevere and progress from mistakes to goal-achievement.

Here are some topics to prompt discussions and build mistake resilience.

  • When students make mistakes, explain that these are not failures. They are opportunities for brain building that will bridge them to future successes. 
  • Regarding mistakes, help them understand that their brains have evolved to be survival tools. In this programming, the brains of mammals in the wild, are adapted to make rapid decisions and choices in response to change or threat. Our human brains still have that primitive reaction of making quick responses to new situations and even to questions on a test.
  • Your brain is doing its survival job when it jumps to quick conclusions. But because you are not out in the wild in danger of attack or stalking wildebeests, you can use your human ability to think before acting. Knowing your brain might jump to first responses, take few seconds to be sure your brain's first choice is the best.
  • When your students make errors, encourage them to correct them with revisions. Explain that: "When you correct an error you make, your brain builds new wiring to guide you to make a better choice the next time and the next."

Other opportunities to build mistake tolerance so students see mistakes as "failing forward."

  • Discuss/demonstrate common mistakes previous made as your students prepare for a new unit or assignment 
  • Point out your own mistakes and acknowledge how you feel (or felt) at the time
  • Invite them to share their past "whopper" mistakes and recognize they lived through them and can see them with the perspective of time and even humor now

Personal Meaning Builds Persistence

Relevance is a powerful tool to ignite and sustain resilience through engagement and effort. Guiding your students to find personal relevance in challenging school topics increases their interest and effort. How could they use of the skill or knowledge to do something or understand something now or in the future that they are interested in.

For example, if your students are learning the metric system at school, boost relevance and perseverance by inviting them to select a recipe from a cookbook that is published in England or other country that uses the metric system. They will want to know how to make the "translations" between metric and standard measurements to make that cookie dough or play dough clay, so they will be motivated to use tools of metric conversions to achieve the personally desirable goal.

Increase personal relevance to motivate perseverance of study of history by using examples or comparisons of a conflict to current day issues that are of interest to your students in sports, school policy, or community conflicts of interests regarding city planning. Adapt their word problems in math to include your student's name, sports heroes, or names of other people of high interest.


It's not what they know, but what they can do with what they know, that is the most powerful wisdom for your students. By building your students' resilience through experiences they will be able to engage with the confidence that success is possible, recognize mistakes as part of learning, and build knowledge through personally relevant tasks. Students are more likely to remember, understand, and be able to apply what they learn to future applications when they connect with personal relevance, discovery, and build skill and understanding with perseverance.


Keep igniting,


Judy Willis, MD, 



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