Resilience: Are we getting it right?

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With the understanding that we need to help students and staff improve their resilience, Samantha Garner cautions against thinking about it as being within the student and within us as a mindset. It’s about more than that.

Summary

  • Resilience is not an innate feature of personalities.
  • Those who face the most adversity are least likely to have the resources necessary to build resilience.
  • Support networks, including financial resources, improve our resilience.
  • There are internal factors that we can help boost to improve a student’s resilience. The number one is linked to their self-esteem.
  • Teaching students problem-solving skills is crucial for resilience.

All descriptions of resilience I’ve read about talk of being able to cope with setbacks, dealing with failure, not giving up, having a problem-solving approach and similar. And resilience is good! In ‘Local action on health inequalities: Building children and young people’s resilience in schools’, Public Health England states, ‘Evidence shows that resilience could contribute to healthy behaviours, higher qualifications and skills, better employment, better mental wellbeing, and a quicker or more successful recovery from illness.’

Resilience is not an innate feature

Unfortunately, resilience is not an innate feature of personalities, nor is it distributed equally across the population.

Poverty

Those who face the most adversity are least likely to have the resources necessary to build resilience. In ‘Mental health, resilience and inequalities’, the Mental Health Foundation states that, ‘Among poor children, those with higher levels of emotional wellbeing have better educational outcomes. However, richer children generally do better still, regardless of emotional or cognitive capability.’

Here is a major clue as to why we shouldn’t just talk about resilience being within the person. It is also about who and what is around the person. Support networks, including financial resources, improve our resilience.

Support networks

Again, in ‘Local action on health inequalities: Building children and young people’s resilience in schools’, Public Health England states that older people with resilient outcomes have resources that provide stability. These resilient people experience continuity, including close ongoing relationships, that function as a protective factor.

The report continues, ‘Research using longitudinal data that examined “bouncing back” after adversity among older adults found that the only variable that was consistently related to resilience was social support (having people who are trusted and can help in a crisis)’.

Many studies have shown that friendship groups are the biggest influence on an adolescents’ resilience. So, when we are discussing and improving resilience in students, we need to recognise it is not just about what is within the student, it is also about what’s around the student – their support network.

Temporary factors

I am a resilient person and that is not just because I am strong; it is because I have an amazing support network. Also, having me in their support network improves the resilience of my friends and family because I am a problem solver and go-getter.

We also have to acknowledge that resilience can be affected by many temporary factors. I am less resilient at the end of the day than in the morning. Also, when I am ill my resilience is much lower. Resilience also varies over time; my resilience has improved as I have gained confidence and wisdom with age.

Bearing all that in mind, when we are working on improving student resilience we have to look outside the student as well.

Internal factors

There are internal factors that we can help boost to improve a student’s resilience. Number one is linked to their self-esteem. A person with good self-esteem is more resilient as they believe they will be OK. We have to support the positive self-esteem of all students by providing regular opportunities to achieve, not just academically. The academic system can be a deficit model, especially when reporting and marking. We have to be aware of this and try to work in a positive ‘can do’ model, one which many schools are currently embracing.

We should also help students talk about and manage their emotions. So many studies show that talking about how we are feeling is so important to our mental health. If we have positive mental wellbeing, we are more resilient. Discussion of emotions, talking about and understanding how we think will all improve resilience. Developing strategies for coping with failure is crucial for resilience. We will all fail. How we deal with it is key. Similar to dealing with failure, also teaching students problem-solving skills is crucial for resilience. Being able to think for yourself is great.

External factors

We have to help students build positive support networks. We have to support friendships, sometimes that will involve teaching/modelling friendship and what makes a good friend. Teach them how to resolve disagreements and understand other points of view. We should also ensure that we support these friendship groups as much as possible throughout their education. Disrupting friendship groups with class changes can have a major impact.

We can also help students who don’t know how to do basic life things, such as shopping, making a medical appointment or calling the emergency services. Knowing how to access legal advice and being aware of your basic legal rights are vital for resilience. Also important is knowing how to find out information from the internet, which is a great resource that can empower so many more people. We should help students develop a support plan of key people they can contact in an emergency, whether that is personal or organisational. Think what is in your support network and bag of life tools. How much can we help students get the same?

I quoted Public Health England at the beginning: ‘Those who face the most adversity are least likely to have the resources necessary to build resilience’. When supporting students to build resilience we have to recognise that it’s not just internal. Many students need our help building a support network of their own as life hasn’t given them one.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Sam Garner

Sam Garner is an education consultant with specialist expertise in access arrangements and mental health in schools. She is a freelance trainer, and regularly speaks in schools to parents, staff and students (www.garnereducation.co.uk). She has also written a series of brief targeted CBT programmes designed to be run by school staff with students, including Exam Anxiety and Self Harming (www.rebalanceprogramme.com).

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