Resilience education

Written by: Rose Threlfall | Published:
Photo: International Community School, London

The role of schools in fostering resilience in their pupils is being increasingly discussed by politicians and educators. Headteacher Rose Threlfall offers her view

With the volume of published research on resilience, it is surprising that there is not more of a consensus on how to teach it or even whether it can be taught at all.

Yet, against this uncertainty, one of the clearest things I and many of my colleagues have learned through our classroom experience is that there is no doubt at all that resilience is something worth having as a young student and, indeed, as a young person. Moreover, everything tells me it is something that can be taught.

The argument from experience

Anyone who has taught children will know, from time to time, every student needs to demonstrate resilience. The problem is that some seem to have it naturally, while others have to be helped to develop it. After many years of experience, it is clear that no matter how resilient a child is when they join our school, everyone (teachers included) can always get better.

Teachers have a special responsibility for helping young students to develop resilience. We are role models in all we do and say. Therefore we also need support through leadership, management and mentoring to help us develop our skills. Students and teachers alike benefit from support and guidance related to resilience.

At my school, the International Community School in London, we train teachers and students in skills related to developing resilience from their first years in the school.

These are the focus of a sustained personal health and safety curriculum covering every age group, but beginning with the primary years. The skills we believe are vital among teachers and students include the following.

Resilient thinking skills

When life provides challenges, your response alone can nudge it towards being a learning opportunity or a hindrance. We have to provide opportunities for students and teachers to learn and train their resilient thinking skills by developing a process of bouncing back from failure with a positive attitude, reframing the problem, practising and developing new approaches – and all the while still retaining a handle on reality.

Students have to be able to consider, expect and plan for the positives in any situation or possible future while preserving strategies to deal with the difficulties; they have to accept set-backs as opportunities to understand issues more deeply; and they have to recognise this is the well-worn path to become better at something.

Positive relationships

Resilience considered in the context of an isolated individual is only a fraction of the story. Students and staff have to be able to empathise as well as manage their own feelings, if they are to communicate effectively, respectfully, compassionately and caringly with friends, colleagues and "bosses" in the workplace – and with parents and other stakeholders in the wider community.

Managing our emotions

The key is to understand our feelings without being led by them. We have all hopefully experienced the magical and motivational energy that feelings can inspire – what American teacher Angela Lee Duckworth might refer to as "zeal" in her research into "grit". The challenge is to harness these feelings, to turn them to good that will help us to move forward in many areas of life.

Making a contribution

Being able to contribute to a better world through understanding and respecting ourselves, while developing each individual's strengths is an important component of resilience. Knowing what you are doing has a social dimension has been shown to be a significant motivational force and at school, we owe it to ourselves and our students to reveal this hidden component. For some people, some of the time, this could be a deciding factor.

Practical application

The concepts surrounding resilience come to life in a variety of places, but perhaps few as visibly as in the sports coaching movement Train Ugly. The physical equivalent of the entrepreneur's claim that we must risk failure if we are to succeed, Train Ugly recognises that "we learn best when we're operating at the edge of our abilities, outside our comfort zones, and making lots of mistakes". Learning, so the movement says, is ugly.

The concern, pointed out by the sports coaches of the Train Ugly movement, is there is a "gap between what science says about learning and development and the way that most of us approach coaching". Substitute "teaching" for "coaching" and intuitively, you know there's something profoundly true in that statement.

This is not to do science a disservice, but to say that in the absence of scientific certainty, professional experience and how much better (not to say happier, in most cases) we become over time are all the evidence we need that there is value in resilience.

Learning from inside and outside

We have chosen to focus our pastoral care programme on resilience, focusing on developing modules to provide opportunities for students to develop their knowledge, understanding and skills in a range of areas of life that are not covered in the academic curriculum.

This is not to concede to the false choice of test scores versus quality teaching – it is rather a recognition that by providing some essential strengths for engaging successfully in the changing world of the 21st century, we will develop young students who are also more capable of handling the challenges and the workload required of them throughout their school career.

But we can't learn everything through personal experience. We have also turned to outside specialists, such as Emma Judge from the organisation How to Thrive, to develop our work.
Whether or not the scientific consensus catches up with us, I invite as many teachers as feel inspired to explore the positive contributions made by some highly respected academics over the course of more than 50 years.

Debate there may be, but there is also a sound body of research to back up the principles we have found to be so effective in our classrooms. Yes, resilience exists. Yes, it is a useful thing for every child to have. Yes, teachers can help them to learn it.

  • Rose Threlfall is headteacher of the International Community School, which is a primary school in London.

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