4 ways to build student resilience

Students of all abilities can better cope with coronavirus-related uncertainties when educators help them with resilience—and teaching related skills can be done in-person or through virtual learning.
By: | August 11, 2020
Photo by Annie Spratt on UnsplashPhoto by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The skills that enable individuals to adapt to hardships and challenges are what make up resilience, says Mary Karapetian Alvord of Alvord, Baker & Associates LLC in Maryland. Resilience includes responding and adapting to tragedies and severe adversities as well as daily challenges. “It’s not just big traumas,” Alvord notes. “By broadening it, I think we then are able to help kids across multiple areas of difficulty.”

Alvord developed the Resilience Builder Program in 1992, which was then published as a curriculum. Currently, the nonprofit Resilience Across Borders Inc., along with Alvord’s colleagues at her practice and at the Catholic University of America, are delivering the evidence-based program to students in schools around the Washington metro area.

Here are four ideas from the program to consider using in a school district to help build the resilience of students of all abilities to better cope with the uncertainty they may be feeling due to the coronavirus. These can be accomplished in person and remotely.

1. Set the tone.

Acknowledge that mental health is important, Alvord says. “Everyone faces difficulties at varying times in their lives. The first steps [are] acknowledgment and destigmatization.”

Principals and administrators can set the tone in their districts that learning resilience is as important as learning math skills. “It starts with administration making sure that mental wellness and teaching resilience are integrated,” she says. “Emotional and psychological health are as important as physical and academic health.” Weave these skills in at any or all times, she advises. “It doesn’t have to be in the form of an hour-long lesson.”

2. Help students see strengths beyond academics.

Being able to identify one’s own strengths and special talents helps build resilience. “For some kids, it’s not school,” Alvord says. “It’s art or maybe building things.”

Help the student see his strengths beyond the confines of the academic world. Ask him what he’s good at or if he has a talent he feels good about. This helps build authentic self-esteem and a “can do” feeling of, “I can do this well, so I can also handle whatever else life throws at me,” she says.

3. Promote leadership skills.

Work with students on their leadership skills. This includes traits such as being a good team player and learning to work well in groups. For example, teach the student to compliment others. “Good leaders notice the accomplishments of other people, even if they’re small or [simply] signs of effort,” Alvord says. Coach the student to notice a peer’s hard work and then compliment it. He might say, “This was a really hard project, but you came up with some great ideas.”

Encourage the student to be a role model for others in what he says and does. The skills that make good leaders help students get along better with others and provide them with a sense of self-mastery and the ability to take initiative and problem-solve—all of which help bolster resilience.

4. Teach stress management.

Start by talking with students about how they feel physically when they are stressed. Discuss how you can feel it in your neck, shoulder, hands, stomach or other parts of the body, Alvord suggests. Then talk about unhelpful ways of coping with stress, such as over- or undereating, using drugs, or running away.

Next, examine some helpful coping thoughts students might tell themselves and positive coping actions that they can take. Helpful coping thoughts might be, “I can break this task into smaller parts so I am not so overwhelmed,” or “I have managed this before, and I can figure this out or ask for help,” she says.

Positive coping actions might include taking a walk or a break, listening to music, imagining oneself somewhere that is calming, or tensing one’s muscles and then slowly releasing them, noticing the stress flow out.

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.