[Updated on 27 November 2018]
Are your students tough enough?
How to build resilient learners
Every year the same questions in education appear again and again. One question I’ve been wrestling with recently is about resilience. Specifically, “Are our students resilient enough?” or “How can we make our students more resilient?” I suppose the answer differs, depending on the expectations we have, the age or maturity of the students, or perhaps even our own subjective perceptions of what it means to be ‘resilient’. But however you look at it, more and more is being expected by exam boards, universities and employers. Just to keep pace with previous cohorts, students need to achieve ever-increasing exam scores. To do this, they must study in more depth and in greater breadth. But how can they manage such a monumental task? The answer: resilience.
Let’s take a look…
- the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
Why do our students need to build resilience?
Students need to know why resilience is important. They need to see the relevance of it, to achieve good grades in their exams, but more importantly, that they need to leave school as resilient people. Our students will encounter challenges in their jobs, relationships, day-to-day decisions and long-term plans. They need to know that they WILL be able to find the answer if they look in the right places. They also need to know where those places are! Once you’ve given some lucid examples (from your own life if you are feeling brave!), they will see the benefit of practising resilience at school.
How can we tell if students are resilient enough?
This one is easy. Ask all students to do something challenging. Read their faces as they work through the problem. Listen to how many of them say “this is impossible”, or “there’s no way I can do this”. Watch to see how many of them put their pens down before writing anything, or start looking out of the window. These are our target students. Building resilience is important to all of our students, but some are already more resilient than others. Focus your attention on where you can make the greatest difference.
Five ways to build resilient learners
Live-model the creation of the answer
Students who appear to lack the resilience to “have a go” at a challenging task sometimes just need to know where to start. In cases like these, showing a live demonstration of how to construct a good answer is a no-brainer. I used to show model answers on my whiteboard so that students could see what a good answer looked like. However, this only served to put the less resilient students off even more. They had no clue how to go about creating such an answer. What they really needed was to see, step-by-step, how to create the answer, rather than just seeing the final product. You can read more about how and why I now use live-modelling here.
2. Give feedback using SMART targets
As a student myself, when I was stuck on a task or struggled to come up with an idea, I often heard my teachers come out with comments like “You need to try harder”, or “Just put a little bit more effort in”. This made no sense to me (and made me pretty annoyed too!) because I felt like I was putting maximum effort in, with no results to show for it. A better comment from my teachers might have included something specific that I could research. Or they could have scaffolded the steps I should follow. They didn’t have to give me the answer, but they could at least have pointed me in the right direction! This would have helped me progress further, in subjects where I essentially became disengaged.
I use the SMART method to help my students overcome their challenges. Feedback should always aim to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. By using SMART targets, students will be much more able to find solutions for themselves and will be much less likely to just give up and become disinterested.
3. Give praise for the right things
Giving praise is one of the best ways to develop resilience in your students. After all, who doesn’t get a boost when someone notices that we’ve done a great job and makes a point of saying so? Be careful though. Sometimes we can praise the wrong things, such as high attainment, as opposed to a high level of effort. Whilst high attainment is creditworthy, students can be demotivated when they fail to achieve high marks, or can feel pressured to only try at things where they are certain they can achieve the end result. I don’t know about you, but I want my students to take risks. By focusing on praising the effort instead of the outcome, students will build their confidence and keep trying new things without as much fear of failure. You can read more on this in an article by Judy Willis, M.D. (@judywillis) here.
4. Develop independent learners
I’ve blogged in the past about the necessity of developing Independent Learning as a strategy to raise attainment. As students move up through GCSEs and A Levels it becomes crucial that they are able to direct their own learning beyond the classroom. However, if they haven’t learnt how to do it beforehand, then they may see this as yet another hurdle. Therefore, developing independent learners lower down the school is the long-term solution. Give students
Give students long-term, open-ended projects, rather than heavily prescribed and weekly homework tasks. Then make sure that you give SMART feedback at some point during the process, before they submit their final piece of work. But most crucially, make sure that students take full control of what the end-product looks like, so that when they submit it, they can feel as though they have challenged themselves and can fully appreciate that they have earned their marks by overcoming their challenges. Students seeing their hard-won success is key to building resilience.
By the way, are you an independent learner too? You might want to check out my post on 19 Books That Make You A Better Teacher Today.
5. Use motivational quotes
Another thing I’ll be doing this year is to have some motivational quotes and pictures displayed around my classroom to refer to from time to time, whenever students begin to find challenges mounting up. An excellent quote I’ve used in the past, particularly in the run-up to final exams is by William G.T. Shedd: “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for”. For me, this sums up what resilience is all about – moving away from what is comfortable and towards what helps us grow and show our true potential. It’s short, visual and inspirational. Students can relate to it and in my experience, it works.
6. Know your students!!!
There is one thing that has made the greatest difference in my ability to build resilient students. I get to know them. Regular conversations with the students as they go about their work in the classroom, or when I see them on the corridor at break time helps to build a trusting relationship. Not only does it help with reducing challenging behaviour in lessons, it also gives me an insight into what makes them tick. Being able to see, as a student walks through my classroom door what mood they are in, or knowing that they have exams coming up in other subjects, or that they may have challenges outside of school, enables me to tailor my delivery to their current mindset as well as to their level of knowledge. The key here is playing the long game. There is no silver bullet. But building that positive relationship over time, showing that you can be trusted, pays real dividends.
An excellent book about how to work with students lacking in resilience is Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom by Kristen Souers (Amazon affiliate link). This book explores a range of strategies that you can use to help develop your relationships with students, particularly those who have undergone ‘trauma’, leading to them lacking in resilience. Reading this book has made a huge difference to how I manage the behaviour and expectations of a number of my students and I recommend it to anyone seeking to find evidence-informed ways to engage students who struggle with resilience.
Now, over to you…
I would love to hear some ways you have built resilience into your students.
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