Developing Resilience for the Challenges of School – and Life

We teachers have seen it all. Pre-schoolers who cry and refuse to try again when an activity is challenging. Primary schoolers who need constant reassurance that they are “doing it right”, as they look up at you with big, worried eyes. Middle schoolers who pretend they don’t care anymore by saying “I hate Math anyway.” High schoolers who use all their creativity imagining new ways to disrupt your lesson, then reveal in private that they are so behind they don’t even know where to start. Enjoy this article about “Developing Resilience for the Challenges of School – and Life”.

And then of course, there are the adults: colleagues who are worn out, parents who become over-protective when they fear their child isn’t “successful”, administration that hesitates to try something new.

“We teachers have seen it all…”

We all could use a good dose of Resilience.

Then we see children who seem to bounce back easily after they stumble. The kids who keep trying until they get it right. The ones who have lived through difficult times at home, yet seem emotionally balanced, with good friendships and a positive attitude. We have some colleagues who never seem to lose their sense of humor, even on the craziest days. Parents who face challenges yet provide steady guidance to their children. What’s their secret? It’s something called Resilience.

Resilience is the superpower that we develop when we can look at life’s challenges, at our mistakes and even traumas, accept them and see them as steps towards our growth. We are resilient every time we fall and get back up on our feet. We express resilience when we view our challenges as temporary, as a teaching moment, as a guide to discovering another way. We demonstrate resilience when we experience trauma and accept our pain – yet not let it define who we are.

The South Lakes Federation research on Emotional Resilience defines this ability as a combination of

  1. a sense of self-esteem and confidence;
  2. a belief in one’s own self-efficacy and ability to deal with change and adaptation;
  3. a repertoire of social problem-solving approaches.

In contrast, a lack of resilience can lead to what Martin Seligman (co-founder of Positive Psychology) calls “Learned Helplessness”, the belief that nothing can be done to change one’s reality. In contrast, the University of Pennsylvania has identified 6 major competencies we can all develop for greater cognitive and emotional resilience, character strength, and strong relationships. While some are innate, many such skills can be learned. Educators can start by thinking about their own resilience, by having an honest conversation with themselves about the following:

  • What am I good at? What are my values? What are my natural talents, and what have I worked hard to develop?
  • What do I truly have control over? What do I not have control over? How much do I let that affect me?
  • How comfortable am I with adapting my way of thinking and doing? Do I tend to think only about problems, or do I also look for alternative solutions?
  • Do I have emotional reactions that are confusing, even for me? What triggers them? Can Mindfulness help me to understand?

As you can imagine, these questions provide a starting point for what we can then develop in our school community. Some concrete examples?

  1. With little ones, read books, watch film clips, use puppets that experience obstacles or frustrations (hint: the kinds that your kids face). Stop reading or watching before the end, allowing time for the children to think of all the possible actions that could help in overcoming the problem. Have them draw pictures or role play it. Ask them if they have ever experienced something similar. Then read the end. They will be curious to hear how the character faced it AND they will have benefited from using their own creativity and critical thinking!
  • With those middle ones, with their physical and emotional ups and downs, use their favorite songs to discuss the challenges of friendship, love, family and self-worth. Have them lead activities that they are naturally good at, and then try those that challenge them – and ask them what strategies helped them carry out the task. Let them research important people who failed miserably and then went on to achieve their goals, thanks to their “mistakes”. This gives them an opportunity to think about other people’s mistakes and challenges, at a time when it is probably too embarrassing or even painful to talk about their own.
  • Have your high schoolers write themselves a letter to their future self at the beginning of the term. Reflecting upon the past year and the present moment, they can express fears, goals, desires for the future, and how they might face them. Months later, when they open the letter again, they can reflect upon how far they’ve traveled, what they’ve overcome, what did not go as planned. They can even write back to themselves, this time with the voice of experience. Such an activity increases their self-awareness, self-confidence, and ability to strategize.
“… Months later, when they open the letter again, they can reflect upon how far they’ve traveled, what they’ve overcome, what did not go as planned.”

Why not try mixing parents and school staff for some Speed Dating for Solutions?

  • Get families involved in improving your school community by organizing activities among staff and families, identifying problems through “Speed Dating” to understand their impact and start imagining solutions. Then have a potluck dinner where everyone brings something to eat and drink!
  • Administration can be lonely. Jennifer Gonzalez talks the importance of staff feedback in her Cult of Pedagogy blog, encouraging school directors to demonstrate their own Growth Mindset by using anonymous surveys asking about staff well-being – and here’s the hitch – encouraging the teachers to offer ideas and skills that could help improve the situation. And then, directors, show that you are listening by thanking them, compiling results, deciding together what the first step will be and then doing it.

Empowerment is knowing we can take real steps towards achieving our goals, and resilience helps us get there. Although sometimes we get stuck thinking “nothing will ever change”, useful, everyday activities can be readily found here and here, anytime we need to be reminded.

Have an idea? Let us know what works for you and help the entire Europass community develop the kinds of schools we need – and deserve.


About the Author

Susan Gagliano, Teacher Trainer at Europass for Arts and Wellbeing courses

Professional counselor and instructor from the USA, Susan is passionate about the various forms of self-expression, self-care and effective communication.  After many years of ESL teaching and counseling,  she joined our Teacher Training staff  at Europass Teacher Academy in 2015 for Erasmus+ courses, an EU platform which involves educators from EU countries. Her courses deal with teacher and student well- being, burnout prevention, emotional and social intelligence, conflict management, motivation and creativity. Her lessons aim to develop greater self-awareness and understanding of the resources teachers possess to become the kind of professionals they want to be.  In her free time, Susan is a semi-professional vocalist in the Florence circuit with groups like the Musìa Trio and the Gianfry Bogart Band.


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