Enhancing student resilience is a natural outcome of a high-quality education--and positive patterns and behaviors are a result

Building student resilience yields positive mental health behaviors

Enhancing student resilience is a natural outcome of a high-quality education--and positive patterns and behaviors are a result

There is an oft-cited parable in children’s mental health about two individuals fishing on the banks of a river. In the midst of their outing, they notice a child in the middle of the river, struggling to stay afloat and in obvious danger. One of the anglers drops their fishing pole, swims out and brings the child to safety on the shore.  No sooner does the angler resume fishing then another child comes floating down the river, struggling to keep their head above water. Again, the angler swims out and rescues the child.  When the situation occurs a third time, the angler throws down their fishing rod and starts to walk away leading the second angler to ask, “Aren’t you going to save that child too?” The first angler responds, “No, I am going upstream to stop whatever is throwing these children into the river.”

This allegory may well represent the situation that many educators may find themselves in as students return to school this fall.

With limited resources–a big one being time–and so many students in need, teachers could be faced with the dilemma of either focusing on students who are in crisis or “going upstream” to provide supports to all of their students to forestall the development of mental health concerns. This is, of course, a false dichotomy; educators, student support personnel, and administrators do their best to support all children. Nevertheless, students in crisis can exhaust schools’ resources leading to a lack of focused attention on prevention, or promotion of positive mental health behaviors.

The promotion of student resilience, the ability to cope successfully with adversity, is a useful approach for addressing: 1) supporting students in crisis, 2) helping to prevent additional students from developing emotional and behavioral problems, and 3) promoting the well-being of all students.

Central to understanding resilience is the “risk and protective factor framework” (e.g., SAMHSA, 2019). Risk factors are conceptualized as events (e.g., school shootings, natural disasters), circumstances (e.g., poverty, low quality schools) or student characteristics (e.g., health concerns, developmental disabilities) that jeopardize students’ development and academic success. In contrast, protective factors are assets or resources found in the community (e.g., high quality schools, out-of-school time programs), the family (e.g., loving parents, kith and kin networks) or characteristics of the student themself (e.g., strong social and emotional skills) that offset or reduce the impact of the risk factors.

Often depicted as a balance, the goal of resilience-promoting efforts is to maximize a student’s protective factors while minimizing risk factors. Of particular importance for educators is the recognition that the development of protective factors is within their span of control and is often consistent with a whole-child education approach.

Rather than thinking about the promotion of student resilience as yet another demand or expectation added to a teacher’s already burgeoning list of duties, two key insights from leading researchers in the resilience field emphasize that enhancing the resilience of students is a natural outcome of high-quality education. 

First, Jennifer DiCorcia and Ed Tronick (2011) asserted that resilience develops over time as individuals cope successfully with typical, everyday stressors. Helping students learn simple skills that enable them to succeed in overcoming common challenges in the classroom will go a long way in preparing students to overcome more extreme and challenging situations. This, combined with lots of opportunities for students to practice these skills, experience success, and build their confidence, is a key strategy to promoting lifelong resilience.

The second key insight comes from Ann Masten, a leading resilience researcher from the University of Minnesota. Twenty years ago, Dr. Masten published a landmark article in the American Psychologist in which she made the case that resilience is “Ordinary Magic.” Rather than being an exceptional quality that only some individuals attain, Dr. Masten concluded that resilience is a common attribute that develops through normal, typical interactions. Rather than something that we need to give or teach to students, Dr. Masten maintains that most children are, by nature, resilient individuals and what we need to do is support their natural resilience. The challenge for society is that risk factors like poverty, poor health care, inequity, and abuse deprive students of developing their natural resilience. Importantly, Dr. Masten identifies schools as a key system for maintaining and promoting the resilience of children.

So, as our students return to school, let’s make sure that in concert with our colleagues in the schools and the communities we are a part of, we do “swim out” and support our students with current mental health needs. But let’s also realize that as educators we have a very real and attainable opportunity to promote the “Ordinary Magic” of student resilience through our everyday interactions with our students.

Going “upstream” does not necessarily require extraordinary efforts or new initiatives; it does, however, require awareness of our ability to promote student well-being, and an intentionality to make the most of our everyday interactions with students.

Some great resources for strategies to promote student resilience in everyday interactions include:


DiCorcia, J. & Tronick, E. (2011). Quotidian resilience: Exploring mechanisms that drive resilience from a perspective of everyday stress and coping. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 35, (7),  pp1593-1602.

Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary Magic: Resilience processes in Development. American Psychologist. 56 (3), 227-238.

SAMHSA (2019). Risk and Protective Factors. Downloaded from: https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/20190718-samhsa-risk-protective-factors.pdf

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