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Thoughts on Teaching Resilience

Thoughts on Teaching Resilience
Andrew Webster

For several years now, we have used the Mission Skills Assessment in the Middle School as a tool to measure a range of skills and habits of mind that are often referred to as non-cognitive skills, though that is a bit of a misnomer.  One of those skills is resilience, a quality so many have been asked to exercise these days.

People with high levels of resilience are able to thrive amidst difficult challenges and to bounce back quickly when they meet adversity.  It is a quality that can be learned, practiced, and strengthened, yet also can wane.  Colleges and employers seek applicants who demonstrate resilience because people who possess this quality are more likely to meet the demands of their work or studies successfully and also to take action to address challenges.  Resilient people tend to be independent thinkers who create positive relationships with others, building teams that can succeed together.  They also tend to have a durable sense of purpose, a mission that they have chosen to pursue even when obstacles are difficult to overcome.

Parents, of course, want their children to grow into resilient individuals.  One valuable means to that end is to model behaviors that build resilience.  I suggest several areas for focus in this regard.  One important step can be to help your children see the value of social engagement.  Find ways to connect with others in informal social activities and in more formal organizations, and speak with your children about why you do it.  Emphasize kindness and demonstrate respect for others.  Start conversations, ask broad, interesting questions, and be an active listener.  In recent years, many older students have shared with me that they see their service learning work as the most rewarding and important thing they have done in school.  This is work that goes beyond the laudable goal of generosity and involves connecting directly with the people one is helping, like when our students tutor refugee students through our connection with Interfaith RISE.  They witness resilience in lives very different from their own and are inspired to lend a helping hand.

Take good care of yourself, and discuss with your children how you address this goal – maybe you can help each other achieve it.  Get exercise, eat well, and try to get enough sleep.  Demonstrate how you manage stress, and talk about that with your children.  Involve them with it, whether that is in deep breathing, hikes in the woods, practicing gratitude or other ways.  Name it and define it as important, but also be playful, and have fun.  Unplug at regular intervals, and try to slow the pace of your life.  Do things with your children where they see you are focusing only on that one valued activity, whether it is a game, a walk, or even just watching a movie together.  

Share with your children how you make sense of the world and how you use your strengths and talents to find ways to improve it.  As your children mature, speak of your purpose and your values.  Let them see how you respond when you fall short of your goals, and ask them for thoughts about their own sense of purpose and values. 

Finally, praise the quality of their efforts to learn and achieve, focusing on the process and not on some inherent talent they have.  Show that you value how they use their abilities, not just the grade or honor they may have received, and not just the sheer amount of work they have put in.  Ask them what they would change in their efforts if they could do it over again, even if the outcome has been excellent.  When you are proud of them, tell them they should be proud of themselves, and tell them why.

Sometimes as parents we struggle with conflicting goals.  We want our children to learn that they have powerful inner resources that will allow them to thrive amidst challenges and bounce back from failures.  But we also often wish to step in to help them out of challenges and prevent them from falling too hard. Sometimes we act too quickly to solve for them problems that they need to learn to solve for themselves.  In doing so, we weaken their resilience. There is no guidebook that can tell us when to step back and when to step in, but I encourage you in those moments of parental decision-making to ask whether it is something you want your child to learn to handle or whether the challenge is too large and important to allow them to struggle through.  When you think about the important moments in your life, how many of them relate to learning that indeed you can triumph through your own efforts over a challenge that is daunting?  Wherever possible, don’t let your best intentions as a parent lessen the opportunities contained in times of struggle.  Remember the words of Confucius, who said “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”