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Teaching Opinion

Response: Supporting Students’ Capacity to ‘Bounce Back’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 05, 2019 16 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. See Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is resilience and how can teachers promote it in the classroom?

Adeyemi Stembridge, Becky Corr, Julie Hasson, Cindy Terebush, Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, and Kelly Wickham Hurst shared their suggestions in Part One.

Today, Debbie Silver, Gary Armida, Tamara Fyke, Douglas Reeves, and Michael D. Toth offer their thoughts.

Though I’m not hosting radio shows this summer to accompany blog posts, you can still listen to past BAM! Radio Shows. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Debbie Silver

Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and an internationally known presenter. She is the author of the best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. She co-wrote Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success. She can be reached at www.debbiesilver.com:

As a science teacher, I explained to my students that, “Resiliency (elasticity) is the property of matter that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed.” Later I was able to draw on that phenomena as I worked to help students overcome adversity, trauma, tragedy, and other significant forms of stress.

Teachers can bring the topic of resilience into all aspects of the classroom. It has application to sports, plots in literature, major historical events, great artistic accomplishments, and other examples grounded in every discipline we teach. It should be introduced into all aspects of education so that students are constantly building the skills they need to respond to the unexpected in strategic ways.

As with other social-emotional skills, one of the best ways to promote them is to model them. Open communication with students allows teachers to tell students about times we were overwhelmed and felt like quitting but we persevered. Students watching how we deal with disappointment and frustration can learn effective ways to handle loss, disenchantment, and all manner of negative experiences. For some students, their teachers are their primary sources for learning appropriate behavior choices.

Classroom procedures can support or negate resiliency. A “no zero” policy encourages students to keep trying, whereas a “no do-overs” policy readily extinguishes the desire to keep going. Peer editing and rewrites demonstrate the value of persistence, but standardized “check the box” assessments do not. Emphasis on competition can extinguish flexibility, while collaboration and personal accountability encourage students to keep trying.

Teachers who create chances for students to build relationships, share common experiences, and work together toward mutual goals help create networks of encouragement for kids who feel like quitting. Teachers need to thoughtfully plan ways to build and sustain a sense of community among all members of the class.

Ironically, sympathy is not always helpful in building resiliency. Social researcher Dr. Brené Brown points out that merely feeling sympathetic can sometimes suggest a defeatist attitude (e.g., “Oh my goodness, that is horrible! I don’t know how you are going to get through this.”) Compassion is a good thing, but it needs to be tempered with empathy—seeing the problem from the other person’s perspective (e.g., “I don’t know how to respond to that, but I’m so glad you told me. I remember a time when I, too, felt extremely lost. Just know that I’m here for you, and I will help you work through this.”)

Learning to work through unpleasant feelings is an important part of being educated. In order for students to “bounce back” from difficult experiences, they need to have hope. Teachers can help reinforce the students’ connections between what they are currently doing and what they hope to be doing in the future. An emphasis on building self-efficacy helps students learn what they can control and what they can’t. Empowering them with a growth mindset and teaching them how to reframe their thinking on overwhelming adversity builds the resiliency all students need to proceed in this uncertain world.

In our book, Teaching Kids to Thrive—Essential Skills for Success, Dedra Stafford and I offer ways to integrate resilience competency in any classroom. We explore tradebooks, stories, demonstration, videos, role play, games, journal writing, and small-group discussion topics in our book as well as on our free website: www.teachingkidstothive.com and via Twitter at @tchkids2thrive.

Response From Gary Armida

First and foremost, Gary Armida is the father of the best kid in the world. After that, he has been a teacher for 20 years, getting to share a classroom with some amazing kids throughout that time. He is also the co-founder of the Teacher and The Admin website:

Perhaps one of the most overused words in education circles is “grit.” The concept behind the buzzword is quite solid. We want to raise a generation that won’t give up, no matter the obstacle. We want kids to take on challenges, smash through roadblocks, and develop a work ethic that will carry through the rest of their lives. Grit or resilience is important.

The problem is that we, as an industry, have tried to cultivate it in the exact wrong way. In a misguided attempt to “toughen” kids up, we, the educators, have subscribed to the concept of “more.” Schools are giving more homework. We have set a tone that makes a grade that starts with an 8 as unacceptable. Students’ schedules must be packed with Advanced Placement classes, even if a student does not have a passion for the subject or the schedule causes them to cast their passions aside.

In order to develop that resilience skill that all successful people need, teachers must cultivate it by setting the right environment in the classroom. First, a teacher must create a classroom where numbers do not define a student. Instead, the process must be valued. If students know that the process is important and truly work a process, they will develop resilience.

Whether it is the process of writing, the process of research, the process of a science lab, or solving a complex problem, students will experience setbacks and even failure. These are the opportunities for teachers to develop that resilience. We must not penalize students for failing during the process. Instead, we must celebrate those failures.

Yes, celebrate.

We must take the opportunity for the big life lesson of not letting failure be the end, not letting a roadblock, a miscalculation, or a mistake to be the end. In life, we rarely get things right the first time. The successful people meet failure, learn from it, and continue on until they are successful. They analyze, innovate, reinvent, and find new paths to success. It is our obligation to provide those same opportunities for students. That’s why we must teach the process. We must allow students to redo mistakes, rewrite their pieces, and persevere until they are successful.

The problem is that most classrooms don’t reward that. If a student doesn’t quite hit the standards on an essay, he/she receives a bad grade. If a student doesn’t perform well on an assessment, he/she receives a bad grade and moves on to the next unit. If a student hits a roadblock with research, a lab, or during the writing process, the grade becomes the story, not the “how do I overcome.”

If we want to build resilience, we must reframe our classrooms and our grading practices. We must value failure and teach students that it is not the end. Failure must be part of the process. We must not chastise students for failure or roadblocks. Instead, we must show them how to overcome. We must give them the opportunity to overcome.

That means we allow redos for tests and quizzes. That means writing pieces are taught as a process and that teachers of writing conference with students during each phase. It means that homework is assigned to develop process and inquiry skills rather than being rote tasks.

If we can shift the culture of education away from the number, we can truly develop resiliency. We must push students to persevere through their work, rather than assign a grade and simply move on to the next unit.

Response From Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love In A Big World, which equips K-8 educators, schools, and districts with a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that is both research-based and practical. It also provides the supporting resources necessary to empower students to be socially competent, emotionally healthy problem-solvers who discover and maintain a sense of purpose and make a positive difference in the world. Tamara is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter @tamara_fyke:

In order to help kids become resilient, we first must acknowledge that our students are at risk. For many years, being a student “at risk” was determined by socioeconomic background. However, with the integration of trauma-informed practice, our definition of risk has broadened.

Even though the first study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente from 1995-1997, ACEs did not gain widespread attention until 2012. Perhaps, it’s because the questions related to ACEs can make people uncomfortable. They uncover the hidden problems in families, such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, feeling unloved by family members, abuse suffered by mother, alcoholism, mental illness, lack of necessities, divorce, and neglect. These problems transcend race and socioeconomic status, just as the issues of mass violence, racial prejudice, and catastrophic events do. Maybe, as a society, we were not ready to have the necessary conversations until now.

Over the past two years, ACEs and mental health have become hot topics in education. How do we as consistent, caring adults in a child’s life respond to the pain and anxiety they face? We now recognize that the incidents that occur in childhood set a trajectory for life. The path can change with compassionate intervention.

Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back despite adversity. In order to help our students develop resilience, we have to be honest and authentic with them about their situation. I tell kids all the time, “Life isn’t fair, but you have a choice.” Stating the reality lets them know that their feelings of injustice are valid. The next step is to empower them for positive action: “Life isn’t fair. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to feel sorry for yourself or are you going to let the tough stuff make you stronger and wiser?”

Based on Hawkins and Catalano’s Risk to Resiliency research (1992, 1995), here are three ideas for empowering your students:

  1. High expectations ― Establish standards for behavior and academics within the zone of proximal development and scaffold as necessary. Be willing to let your students feel uncomfortable with what is expected of them.
  2. Voice and choice ― Provide a menu of options for projects. Let students choose their assignments based on their interests and skills.
  3. Meaningful engagement ― Gone are the days of worksheets. Utilize project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service learning in order to provide learning experiences that connect to real life.

In the 21st century, students can Google facts and figures. Our job is to help them assimilate information to solve problems and create solutions. This means our role is as facilitator or coach. We are there to talk them through their struggles and frustrations, reminding them that life isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReees and can be reached at DReeves@ChangeLeaders.com:

In understanding resilience, it is useful to consider the original metallurgical context—the “modulus of resilience” is the point at which an object can bend and then return to its original shape. If it is too rigid, it will break apart under stress (think of the steel beams at the base of a skyscraper in an earthquake-prone area). If it is too flexible, it will remain bent and threaten the stability of the structure. Therefore, resilience does not mean that students (or teachers) should simply ‘“go with the flow” and submit to the prevailing winds of popularity, nor should they be so rigid that any change of plans is devastating.

If we want students to be resilient, we must, above all, consider classroom practices that encourage resilience (tolerance for errors, learning from mistakes, and praise for hard work and resubmitting flawed work). We must also consider classroom practices that destroy resilience (averaging early failures into the end of semester grade, including practice or irrelevant compliance activities into the final grade, or any use of grading as punishment).

Response From Michael D. Toth

Michael D. Toth is the author of the award-winning book Who Moved My Standards, the co-author with David Sousa of The Power of Student Teams (forthcoming, 2019), and the co-author with Dr. Robert J. Marzano of The Essentials of a Standards-Based Classroom, School Leadership for Results, and Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference. Toth founded Learning Sciences International, where he serves as the CEO and leads LSI’s Applied Research Center. Toth addresses teachers, school leaders, and superintendents at national conferences, policy forums, and workshops, including past addresses to the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

What is Resilience?

Resilience is grit—it’s the persistence and adaptability that students will need to thrive as the thinkers, entrepreneurs, collaborators, and lifelong learners of tomorrow. Studies have shown that productive struggle helps promote resilience. We share this research in The Power of Student Academic Teaming: Using Neuroscience and Engagement to Boost Achievement (Sousa & Toth, in press).

What is Productive Struggle?

Productive struggle happens when students are working with knowledge and skills slightly above their current level of competency. During productive struggle, students grapple with complex tasks while the teacher steps back, giving students the autonomy they need to test their theories, examine their reasoning, and self-correct.

The Differences Between Nonstruggle, Productive Struggle, and Unproductive Struggle

Nonstruggle occurs when students recall and repeat answers from memory to confirm their comprehension. Signs of nonstruggle are students who feel bored, unmotivated, and overdependent on their teacher.

Productive struggle occurs when students must work to reach an answer through analysis, debating, and generating hypotheses. Signs of productive struggle are students who feel challenged, empowered, and engaged.

Unproductive struggle occurs when the solution is too far out of reach despite high student effort. Signs of unproductive struggle are student frustration, interpersonal conflict, and disengagement.

The teacher should step in if productive struggle becomes unproductive and must consider possible root causes: Was learning properly scaffolded through foundational knowledge and skills? Was the task unclear? Were the resources insufficient?

A Classroom Example of Productive Struggle

We observed a classroom where students were learning about number combinations. The teacher first modeled how to get 8 from different number combinations, then released students to work in their teams and find four combinations to get 5.

The teacher noticed one team was struggling because their first combination was incorrect, so each following answer was also incorrect. The team divided, with two students arguing against the other two students. The teacher let the team talk it out until she noticed the students getting upset and off track (unproductive struggle). She quietly reminded them of their resources, which included counting chips, dry erase markers to write on the desk, and t-charts to help organize their thinking in terms of parts to a whole. Once the team started using their resources, they discovered their error.

The teacher stepped in when it was appropriate, but she never micromanaged the learning. Through productive struggle, the students owned their learning, gained confidence as a team, and resolved their interpersonal conflict.

Here is the kicker—this was a kindergarten classroom!

Cultivating Productive Struggle Through Team-Centered Instruction

The students in the above example were not in a traditional classroom, where they would likely have worked independently after the teacher modeled an example problem and would have received direct guidance on an individual basis.

The students in the example were in a student-led, team-centered classroom, a type of core instruction. The students in this classroom learned to rely on their academic teams rather than constantly relying on their teacher or struggling alone. When engaged in productive struggle, the students used their critical-thinking skills and collaborated respectively with their peers, elevating not only the academic rigor, but also developing their social-emotional skills.

It can be difficult to break habits. Students are accustomed to depending on their teachers to clear up misconceptions, and teachers are accustomed to jumping in to support students. But once the roles of teachers and students transform, students can develop resilience every day in the classroom.

Thanks to Debbie, Gary, Tamara, Doug, and Michael for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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