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Students can become more independent when they are empowered—here’s how to help students build resilience in the classroom

4 simple steps to help students build resilience and confidence


Students can become more independent when they are empowered—here’s how to help students build resilience in the classroom

We’ve all heard the expression “we’re in the same boat”–however, I heartily agree with those who are brave enough to argue no–we are all in different boats in the same storm. I’d extend that metaphor for the gradual return to in-person instruction.

During each school day, students and teachers are in the same boat. It is up to teachers to build the best boat for all their student passengers, while remaining aware that every individual brings different baggage when they come aboard.

The 2021-22 school year started with children who come with a whole gamut of effects from a variety of stressors, including the pandemic, social unrest, and polarization. To provide support, school leaders are prioritizing social-emotional learning (SEL) and trauma-informed education–with a particular focus on student well-being, as evidenced by myriad articles, webinars, and resources centered around mindfulness and stress management.

These efforts certainly have value, but we must also consider the baggage each child is carrying, and not only help them put it down for the school day, but also help students build resilience so they can take it up more quickly when they have to.

SEL isn’t just stress management–it includes the foundational skills of self-confidence and tenacity, which can easily be incorporated into every building and classroom, especially in the first weeks of school when culture and processes are introduced and practiced. Teaching academics is a given, but giving students opportunities to be independent can combat stress and anxiety better than yoga and meditation.

Here are some simple (yet effective) ways educators can help students build resilience:

1. Avoid generalizations. Just as every child is in a different place academically, they each have had a unique emotional journey, and not every child has had the same level of trauma or loss. Some children have thrived during the last year, whose families have managed to avoid the brutal consequences of Covid and other tragedies. Other children have lost family and homes and desperately need school to be an escape.

TIP: Solicit information and feelings from students in a non-threatening way. Ask them to do an art project or write a letter to the virus that expresses how they’ve been affected.

2. Balance the negatives and positives. Children hear what adults say and internalize the messages, whether they are intentional or not. Mindfulness and stress reduction can help—but be aware that the underlying message some students may take away is “you have been traumatized, and you are not okay,” which could result in kids who are okay feeling guilty for it.

TIP: Celebrate resilience and growth outside of academics. Create opportunities for students to share things they have learned on their own; new interests, chores and responsibilities, independent activities. Create a school culture with a Let Grow attitude.

TIP: Eliminate language about learning loss and the need for students to catch up and help parents do the same. Kids hear this as “I haven’t had any growth,” “I’m not as smart as I should be,” and feel increased pressure to perform. They need a school environment that helps them recognize and reinforce their capabilities and accomplishments.

3. Empower with responsibilities. Doing things independently and being responsible for tasks and processes naturally builds self-confidence and provides a sense of control that we all need during these uncertain times. And teachers can’t go from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” without independent students.

TIP: I put my students in charge of everything I could, including attendance and lunch count, labeled trays, and class lists for students to turn in work and cross off their names. I told them it was because I was lazy, but they stepped up, and later in the year, they were able to handle small group novel studies and weekly learning contracts with minimal supervision.

TIP: Rotate class responsibilities frequently and utilize group roles for the most significant number of opportunities. As you get to know your students and observe class dynamics, you can be more strategic about assignments to strengthen your classroom team.

4. Embrace unstructured time and free play. Over the past 60 years in the United States there has been a gradual–but dramatic–decline in children’s freedom to play with other children without adult direction. Play is critical for development–it’s critical that we provide consistent opportunities for students to connect and socialize.

TIP: Regular recess is most beneficial when adults act as lifeguards, rather than organizing games, enforcing rules, and intervening in every disagreement. Kids need to create their activities, have and solve conflicts and learn to negotiate with others to keep the fun happening.

TIP: Use before and after school time and parent events for a Play Club. Before school, play can not only help students connect with others outside their class and grade level, it can help them get out some energy and socializing so they can better focus in class.

Resilience and self-confidence aren’t lessons that are taught just once. Students need frequent and varying opportunities to feel capable, survive discomfort, and build independence.

While educators may not be able to control the baggage students bring on board, they can give students a chance to check it in at the door, lighten the load, and build their strength to make it easier to carry.

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