Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

In Uncertain Times, Students Need to Be Able to Adapt

By Andrew Martin — January 19, 2022 2 min read
How do I help students be more adaptable?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How do I help students deal with uncertainty?

Navigating change is hard for kids, especially when even adults don’t know what will come next. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

When I was 14, I switched to a new school across town.

From the moment I opened my front door, I was overwhelmed. Instead of walking to school, I now took two buses and a train. Instead of having lunch with kids I’d grown up with, I ate alone. And multitudes of students were ahead of me academically, a situation made worse by what seemed like an entirely different curriculum.

I was lonely, out of my depth, and miserable

Over the course of a few semesters, I settled in. But for years, I chalked up my difficulties to a lack of resilience. I blamed myself for not being able to navigate adversity.

But I now realize resilience wasn’t the whole story. Not everything I faced was a failure, setback, or threat. In 8th grade, my issue was more about navigating change, novelty, and uncertainty. In other words, I struggled with adaptability.

There are three key components of adaptability: acting, thinking, and feeling. All three can be practiced and improved. For a new student, this might mean sitting with other kids at lunch, being intrigued by the possibility of joining clubs, or shifting their focus from the fear of unfamiliar teachers to the excitement of learning new subjects.

Recently, my colleagues and I surveyed high school students learning math online during the pandemic. We asked them about barriers to learning, like unreliable internet access, and the resources they used, like asking parents for help. We also asked them to rate their own adaptability (e.g., “In mathematics, to assist me in a new situation, I am able to change the way I do things”). And we found that adaptable high school students were more confident online learners and achieved more than their less-adaptable classmates.

In uncertain times, adaptability can be the difference between treading water and swimming.

Don’t tell young people that resilience is everything. Sure, hanging in when the going gets tough is sometimes what you need to do, but it’s also important to learn to adjust when circumstances change.

Do help young people recognize when a situation is new or uncertain and discuss how to adapt. For example, you might talk about how online learning during the pandemic offered unexpected opportunities and skills important for the future. Resilience is a virtue—and so is adaptability.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now 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.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion What Does the Dangerous Political Climate Mean for Schools?
Educators and researchers offer advice for navigating political polarization in the classroom.
5 min read
Grunge Collage styled urban graphic of US election
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Well-Being Q&A Why Educators Need to Better Understand What Drives Kids' Cellphone Addictions
As more school and day-to-day tasks are completed on smartphones and computers, teens struggle to manage their screen time.
3 min read
Young man and woman without energy on giant phone screen with speech and heart icons above them. Addiction. Contemporary art collage. Concept of social media, influence, online communication
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock
Student Well-Being Q&A When Social Media and Cellphones Are Lifelines to Kids Who Feel Different
Like it or not, social media is an important venue for teens to find community and hone their identities.
4 min read
Young girl looking on mobile phone screen with multicolored social media icons. Finding community, belonging. Contemporary art collage. Concept of social media, influence, online communication and connection.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock
Student Well-Being Q&A ‘It’s OK to Not Be on Your Phone’: An 18-Year-Old on Teaching Cellphone Etiquette
Whether it's asking permission to take a photo of someone or dimming a screen in a movie theater, kids need lessons in cellphone etiquette.
3 min read
Photo collage of hands holding phones with communication symbols superimposed. Learning phone etiquette.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock/Getty Images