Teaching Our Students Resilience: How Schools Can Help
At Curriculum Night last fall, I urged parents to refrain from rescuing their children. “Try to resist feeling compelled to respond to the panicked text about forgotten sneakers or homework left on the kitchen counter,” I exhorted. “I’m a hypocrite if I tell you this is easy—for any of us. When they spill their panic onto us, it’s natural to want to save them, but try to remember that if we want them to take responsibility, we have to let them stumble and accept the consequences of a mistake.”
When children are little, we are accustomed to kissing boo-boos and making everything better. As children grow, it’s easy to confuse being good parents with smoothing all the wrinkles, but the two are not the same. I flush at my own memories of urgent late-night runs I’ve made for an essential item for a project due the next day, or the times my husband went back to fetch the forgotten gym uniform. I have three children—two grown daughters and one son in eighth grade. I’ve been a teacher since the early ‘80s, the head of Laurel School since 2004—and I am much better with other people’s children than I am with my own.
As a teacher, I’ve seen the wide continuum of behaviors that constitute a “normal” child and adolescent development. I sometimes forget that most parents have only a few children to practice on; the array of children in any teacher’s class is larger than the first-hand experience of most parents. The adults in schools know a lot—their expertise grows annually. Ideally, parents and teachers share the hope that, together, we will raise resilient children. School is often where kids can practice managing through difficult moments, and parents need to take a deep breath and trust that the adults in the school community love the children in their care—and are willing to hold them accountable.
Small Struggles Have Value
Educators agree that resilience is a good thing. Resilience is a synonym for pluck, grit, stick-to-itiveness, the ability to rebound, to get up, dust off one’s knees and get back on the horse or whatever it is that threw you. Resilience suggests a positive adaptation, coming through a tough time, coping. There are communities we point to as being particularly resilient—Parkland or Sandy Hook, for example, in the wake of tragic school shootings—and there’s the rub. To be resilient in our culture often means that a child or community has endured something horrific or, at least, challenging.
Resilient kids bounce back, weather the storm, build character. They are the children we all want to parent and the ones we hope our kids are friends with because they are, somehow, old souls, polite, focused, determined, made of stern stuff, steady, reliable, grown-up. We all know kids we identify as resilient. But how can schools and parents partner in helping all children become more resilient—especially when it’s so hard for parents to stand back, to resist the impulse to save the day? Perhaps, parents, too, need practice in cultivating resilience.
Theoretically, parents value failure for the lessons it can teach, but it’s a struggle for parents to resist saving students when their child’s calm or GPA is on the line. Our impulse is to mow obstacles from our children’s paths, but resilience can be cultivated in every child when we permit them to stumble. My teacher self is often in conflict with my parent self in these struggles. At Laurel, we often say, “There’s stumbling, and there are stitches.” Stitches require immediate intervention. But the small struggles have value. We can allow hurt feelings, bad days, a low grade, or a rough patch with friends. When we can endure their frustration, we teach our girls that they can endure as well. When we don’t meet a panicked text with our own panic, we let a child know that she can cope—for a few hours, certainly.
If we race in to smooth every bump, we send a message to our children that we don’t think very much of their ability to manage, and we set up a dynamic where they expect us to fix it, to make it right. A wise mentor of mine in the college guidance business counseled a very powerful family who intended to use their influence to get their not-so-stellar child into a high-power university. “You can do that,” she said gently, “but when your daughter is refused, she will feel doubly bad—not only did she not get in because she is not admissible, but she also didn’t get in despite all the influence you tried to bring on her behalf.” Sometimes doing too much hurts more than it helps.
In the pursuit of resilience, it’s useful for independent school leaders to empathetically and continuously remind parents that we don’t need to react instantly. A deep breath, allowing a little time to pass, and not doing anything can be useful strategies to help you and a child manage—we can practice those strategies both at home and at school.
At Laurel, we have made a subspecialty of teaching resilience over the past seven years through our Lifeskills classes in middle and upper school, advisory, professional development with faculty and work with parents, and the papers we have published. Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls has designed many ways to reinforce the five components of resilience we’ve identified: growth mindset, purpose, creativity, relationship, and self-care.
Recently, we’ve adopted new language. We are talking more specifically and deliberately about inoculating for resilience at Laurel. Our hope is not only to vaccinate the girls but also their parents with repeated doses of resilience-building—we take small opportunities to practice managing disappointment and unhappiness and to point out that the sky doesn’t fall when things go awry.
We coach parents to cultivate an interested but noncommittal expression if a girl fusses about what happened in school on a particular day, reminding parents that when they are too interested or eager to solve problems for their daughters, they diminish their girls’ ability to problem-solve. We are teaching the vocabulary of resilience and are explicit about what’s required by parents, because we are all on the same side—the child’s side.
I often worry how a child will manage when she eventually hits a rough patch if she has never had to rebound and keep moving. Sometimes, a child isn’t with her best friend when the class lists are posted. Sometimes, when a girl begins a new school in sixth grade, she doesn’t make friends right away. Sometimes, children are unkind to other children—momentarily. When parents can withstand our child’s frustration or unhappiness, we give her time to collect herself, and we have time to assess the gravity of the situation. Teachers know many storms resolve without adult intervention—they always have—when we let them. Stumbles or stitches? It’s worth asking ourselves before reacting.