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Resiliency in Students

By Didi Dunin, CEI Intern

Unfortunately, not all children grow up in a healthy environment with nurturing caregivers and positive role models. Many children endure social, cultural, racial, physical, and/or economic hardships that influence their opportunities, experiences, behavior patterns, and worldviews. If caregivers and educators do not intervene, these adversities can lead to social and psychological problems such as drug abuse, unwanted pregnancies, dropping out of school, or suicide.

Thankfully, there are also many children that thrive despite these challenges. This is commonly referred to as resiliency – the ability to withstand, adapt and rebound from adversity.

Resiliency Factors

Researchers Cahill, Beadle, Farrelly, Forster, and Smith (2014) have found that there are many factors within resiliency. These include:

  1. Social competence and pro-social values

  2. Optimism

  3. Purpose

  4. An attachment to family and school

  5. Problem-solving skills

  6. An effective coping style

  7. A positive self-image

Mirza and Arif (2018) offer a similar list of protective factors that buffer against the negative impacts of childhood adversity. These include:

  1. Creativity

  2. Internal locus of control

  3. Self-esteem

  4. Self-efficacy

  5. Autonomy

  6. Sense of purpose in life

  7. Optimism

  8. A good sense of humor

  9. Positive teacher-student relationships

Resiliency is a multifaceted concept that includes factors such as having positive mindset, a sense of purpose, and self-esteem. One important overlapping factor in both lists is positive relationships with educators. In fact, the presence of a single caring adult can be a significant buffering factor for the effects of trauma.

The ABC Model

Psychologist and researcher Dr. Albert Ellis created the ABC model to explain that it is not the adversities that people encounter that determine their success or failure, but the way in which they think about and respond to such adversities.

  1. A is the adversity—the situation or event

  2. B is our belief—our explanation about why the situation happened

  3. C is the consequence—the feelings and behaviors that our belief causes

Framing the adversity as a learning experience, without resorting to negative beliefs such as blame or judgment, will lead to more adaptive consequences.

Research has shown that resilience is something that can be cultivated and changed, rather than being a fixed trait (Yates & Mansen, 2004; Rutter, 2012). Thus, developing resiliency factors should be a primary focus for intervention in schools, especially for at-risk youth.

Positive Psychology for Resilience

Taking a positive psychology approach, one avenue for intervention is teaching students how to cultivate positive emotions, a positive thinking style, and positive character strengths. For example, teachers can use Dr. Rick Hanson’s (2016) four-step strategy to help train students’ brains “to take in the good.” These four steps (HEAL) are:

  1. Have a positive experience.

  2. Enrich it.

  3. Absorb it.

  4. Link positive and negative material.

In the classroom, teachers can begin the day with the first three steps of “taking in the good” to encourage children to think of the positive things in their life.

The first time teachers introduce this activity, they might wish to give examples (i.e., the feeling of the warm sunshine, a smile from a crush, a yummy breakfast, a funny joke a friend made, a favorite book). Teachers should then guide students to take a minute to be mindful and conscious of this positive experience, and to really “enrich and absorb” it.

Teachers may also use time at the end of the day for students to feel and take in a sense of accomplishment. Students can also be taught to remind themselves of these things in times of stress or hard times. Taking this a step further (step #4), students can be taught to match an “anecdotal” positive experience to their negative one.

For example:

  1. If feeling lonely or rejected — students should think of a time they felt loved or valued.

  2. If feeling stress or pain — students should bring to mind a time or place they’ve felt calm or a place in their body that they do not have pain.

By training the brain to activate the positive, negative thought patterns can be overwritten and depressive symptoms can be prevented. Students can learn to change their thinking from:

  1. I am not smart. — I am not good at this YET, but I will learn.

  2. This is too hard. — This will require effort and finding the right strategy.

  3. I give up. — I will get through this.

  4. I am not worthy. — I deserve love, happiness, and health.

  5. I am scared to make a mistake. — When I make a mistake, I will learn and get better.

  6. The other kids are laughing at me because I am stupid. — They are laughing with me because I am funny.

  7. I am ugly. — I am grateful for my healthy beautiful body.

Eventually, these positive thoughts become automatic as students train their brains in positive and resilient thinking.

One noteworthy intervention is the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), which offers workshop and training courses to teachers and parents. The program teaches children the skills of “assertiveness, negotiation, decision-making and coping with difficult situations and emotions and social problem-solving and relaxation” (Namka, 2014).

Teachers should also provide positive feedback and encouragement when students do things right, instead of focusing on punishment when children perform or behave poorly. This helps to develop a supportive student-teacher relationship, a primary factor of resilience. Similarly, other interventions might include peer mentorship programs or positive community building activities that foster feelings of social support. For example, Psychosocial Structured Activities (PSSA) program for affected elementary school students in conflict-afflicted Northern Uganda showed greater resilience in the intervention group than children in the control group (Ager, Akeesson, McCollister, and Boothby, 2011). The intervention comprised a series of 15 class sessions designed to progressively increase children’s resilience through structured activities involving drama, movement, music, and art, as well as components addressing parental support and community involvement.

Grit for Resilience

Another way that resilience can be cultivated is by incorporating lessons on grit into the curriculum. Angela Duckworth defines grit as a distinct combination of passion, resilience, determination, and focus that allows a person to maintain the discipline and optimism to persevere in their goals even in the face of discomfort, rejection, and a lack of visible progress for years, or even decades.

According to Duckworth (2007), gritty individuals demonstrate:

  1. Sustained effort

  2. Perseverance despite failure

  3. Dedication to one’s goals

  4. Deliberate practice of desired skills

Using the concept of grit, teachers should:

  1. Find and help children cultivate their passions.

  2. Teach kids to commit to something and work hard.

  3. Teach children that hard work is part of the process and that failure is not a permanent condition.

  4. Show children that even experts struggle to learn their craft.

  5. Teach children to take appropriate risks in the pursuit of success.

Students who develop grit often feel a greater sense of purpose, a primary factor of resilience, given that what they are working towards is something they feel passionate about.

Research shows that interventions in schools that incorporate grit are predictive of higher academic performance compared to controls (Cosgrove, Chen, & Costelli, 2018). Specifically, Alan, Boneva, and Ertac (2016) found that treated students were more likely to choose a more challenging and more rewarding task compared to an easier but less rewarding alternative, less likely to give up after failure, and more likely to succeed and collect higher payoffs than controls.

As Lee David Daniels, author of Grit for Kids, states, “If passion, practice, and purpose are the foundations of grit, optimism is the glue that keeps them together” (2017). Ultimately, when resiliency is embedded into the classroom culture through positive psychology techniques, supportive environments and relationships, and the cultivation of grit, teachers can transform the lives of students for the better.


Ager, A., Akesson, B., Stark, L., Flouri, E.,Okot, B., Mccollister, F., & Boothby, N. (2011). The impact of the school-based Psychosocial Structured Activities (PSSA) program on conflict-affected children in northern Uganda. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(11), 1124-1133.

Cahill, H., Beadle, S., Farrelly, A., Forster, R., & Smith, K. (2014). Building resilience in children and young people: A literature review for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD). Parkville Vic: University of Melbourne. Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

Cosgrove, J. M., Chen, Y. T., & Castelli, D. M. (2018). Physical fitness, grit, school attendance, and academic performance among adolescents. BioMed Research International, 2018, 1-7.

Duckworth, A. (2017). Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success. London: Vermilion.

Mirza, M. S., & Arif, M. I. (2018). Fostering academic resilience of students at risk of failure at secondary school level.Journal of Behavioural Sciences, 28(1).

Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and Psychopathology, 24(2), 335-344.

Yates, T. M., & Masten, A. S. (2004). Fostering the future: Resilience theory and the practice of positive psychology. In P. A. Linley, & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 521-539). John Wiley & Sons Inc, Hoboken, NJ.


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