Education Opinion

Resilience and Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 17, 2013 5 min read
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I believe adaptive capacity or resilience is the single most important quality in a leader, or in anyone else for that matter, who hopes to lead a healthy, meaningful life.” So wrote Warren Bennis, our favorite leadership guru, in the American Psychologist (p.5). It is our experience that his wisdom is almost always valuable.

We cannot develop resilience without encountering some adversity. We cannot develop a capacity to rebound if we have not been challenged by misfortune. How we meet adversity depends upon our lives as children. In her interview with Educational Leadership’s Amy M. Azzam, Maya Angelou said resilience is not only a bouncing back. “But it’s also a bouncing forward, going beyond what the naysayers said, saying, “No it’s not true that I’m nobody. I know that not only is that not true, but I’m more than you can imagine!” (p.13). There are those who recover and then there are some who grow beyond where they were when adversity struck. How do we arrive at that place of courage and confidence at our most vulnerable moments and when does that begin to happen?

We have seen a growing number of parents who believe that it is important to help their children avoid difficulties, protect them from being hurt, or treated unfairly. They do this because they love their child and do not want them to be hurt or suffer pain. But it may not be serving a good purpose. If children are not faced with adversity and ushered through the process with confidence building, encouragement and love from adults, how can they develop resilience? As our communities have seen a growing number of families living in poverty, another dynamic occurs. In those communities, with a focus on survival, most often there can be little time or attention given to supporting the emotional development of the children. So if "...resilience is the product of a rich interplay between risk factors and protective factors” (Noltemeyer & Bush p. 447) we may have a generation of children, affluent or poor, who are not offered the environments in which they can develop resilience.

It certainly is not a bad thing to try to protect children from exposure to risk factors. We are not suggesting we should allow bad things to happen to children. But when faced with a challenge, our responses are key. Noltemeyer and Bush, in their study on adversity and resilience found:

Although preventing or minimizing risk factors should always be a goal, protective factors can foster resilience and mitigate some of the potentially negative influence of the risk factors when they are unavoidably present (p.447)

So how, as educators, can we help our schools be places in which we can help children develop the emotional skills necessary to meet adversity and grow beyond it with strength, confidence, courage, and tenacity, or grit? The best place to begin such inquiry is with the leaders. Are we resilient? And if we are, what are the factors that come into play? What happens to us when faced with a challenge or tragedy? We:

  • reach out to friends and family for encouragement and support.
  • need others to believe in us.
  • need to feel valued.
  • need to access those relationships in which mutual respect and personal autonomy are valued.
  • need to reach deep inside to engage our persistence, no matter how bad things feel to us.
  • turn to faith and prayer.

Some of us have grown up surrounded by people who believed in, valued, respected, and encouraged us. There are those among us may have developed a super-resilient ability to get through difficult times. Others of us may not have grown up having had these experiences and have to reach out further in order to obtain the support necessary to go through difficult times. Either way, we are equipped to help the children...if we remember that this is an essential skill that not only supports learning but also supports a healthy life.

Throughout every day in school, some students belong to clubs and teams and inner circles while others do not. Some students find learning difficult while others do not. Some students can complete their homework and others cannot. Some students feel liked by their teachers and others do not. These are just a few of the possible challenges students face in our schools. What they bring to school with them only compounds the challenge. Our students come from families where with parents (or parent if single parent) spend long hours at work or are simply absent. Often meals are not spent together, and information sharing is done on the fly. These are not uncaring households, they are the households in which everyone is doing what they can to live in these times. Children have come to rely on each other to get through problems. Social media is one channel that is used but has the potential to inflame through over sharing.

In her article in Education Leadership, Nan Henderson talks about six key environmental protective factors that are revealed in the body of resilience literature. They are:

1) increase prosocial bonding,
2) set clear consistent boundaries,
3) teach life skills,
4) provide caring and support,
5) set and communicate high expectations and
6) provide opportunities for meaningful participation (p.24)

We do much, and in some districts, we do all of this work but it is huge work to be sure every child reaps the benefit of these factors at school. This needs to be a systemic set of values. We can no longer allow it to exist in only some classrooms with only some teachers.

Our schools and districts need to become focused on helping students to develop the social/emotional skills required to be resilient and healthy. The research done in urban schools found an improvement in school climate “led to higher student achievement, higher morale among students and teachers, more reflective practice among teachers, fewer dropouts, reduced violence, better community relations, and increased institutional pride (Bryant & Kelly 2006 as cited by Nan Henderson p.26). Aren’t those the results we want? It begins, as one would expect, with relationships. “By claiming their roles as agents of protective factors, educators (and all caring adults in schools) can create schools that are havens in which resilience can flourish” (p. 26). And along the way, maybe we become more resilient as well. In these times, that’s a valuable thing.


Noltemeyer, A. L., & Bush, K. R. (2013). Adversity and resilience: A synthesis of international research. School Psychology International, 34(5), 474-487. doi:10.1177/0143034312472758

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.