Beyond Wellness: Building Resilience in Your Independent School Students

If someone asked you if you were resilient, how would you respond? I believe most of adults would like to answer yes. We’re able to recover quickly from difficult conditions, withstand adversity, and approach the world with optimism and hope. But what if I told you that resilience isn’t something humans possess but rather something we must constantly work to maintain?
 
Resilience requires continuous upkeep, just like health and wellness. It’s a component of life that can be strengthened and improved over time, but it requires the attention to do so. We often don’t emphasize resilience on its own—and it can have a significant impact on a student’s success in school and over time.
 
When students are resilient, they are better at dealing with challenges, being flexible, and growing into strong people despite difficulties. Being resilient doesn’t mean these students won’t face hardships; these hardships will not lead to significant setbacks. Resilient students may still feel distraught in stressful situations, yet they know how to withstand those experiences.
 
At The Quaker School at Horsham (TQS), which serves K–12 children with complex challenges, including autism, ADHD, and learning differences, our students’ resilience is critical. These students need personal, social, and academic support, and they need to build the skills to succeed beyond our walls. Understanding the best ways to serve their varied needs requires continuous research and learning.
 
That’s why we’re making resilience a key component in our whole-child approach. After the tumultuous 2020–2021 school year, we realized that building student resilience cannot be an afterthought—it must be a focus. After studying the research from Robert Brooks, Larry Ward and Martin Seligman and gathering an internal team of social workers, yoga instructors, teachers, and behaviors specialists, we launched the TQS Roadmap to Resilience, a comprehensive initiative to improve wellness and resilience in our school community.
 
Through peer support, intersectionality, empowerment, trust, transparency, collaboration, and safety, the Roadmap to Resilience allows us to take ongoing, intentional action to strengthen our community’s health and support our school’s core values.
 
While our school has a unique population, I believe any independent school would benefit from increasing its emphasis on student resilience. As renowned child therapist and author Robert Brooks says in Race to Nowhere Stress and Our Youth:
 
Strengthening a student’s self-worth is not an ‘extra’ curriculum that siphons time from teaching academics; if anything, a student’s sense of belonging, security, and self-confidence in a classroom provides the scaffolding that bolsters the foundation for enhanced learning, motivation, self-discipline, and caring.

Prioritizing Wellness and Resilience

How can an independent school begin building student resilience? While the needs of every student population are unique, we are focusing on four core areas:
 
Physical health. The effects of physical health on resilience is one reason schools have included physical education in curriculums for so long. However, are there ways schools can expand on what we’re offering to better support student physical health?
 
At TQS, we looked for ways to provide staff and students with additional opportunities for movement, health education, and caring for their bodies. As part of the TQS Roadmap to Resilience, we’re adding more sensory equipment such as fidgets, sit-to-stand desks, exercise bands, and sandboxes to the classrooms and hallways. There are more opportunities for indoor movement, such as hopping on the sensory trail painted on the hallway floor between classes or a swing that any student is invited to use in the Occupational Therapy room. We’re providing one-on-one yoga and mindfulness interventions for students and weekly yoga for faculty and staff. We’re encouraging students to get at least 60 minutes of movement per day, and our students benefit from the Playworks recess program, which helps schools create inclusive recess and play environments. Playworks is an evidenced-based program where teachers become active participants with students rather than monitors and passive observers of recess. Deepening the breadth and depth of physical health programs is one way to address resilience—while allowing students to have a little fun.
 
Mental health. If students don’t have a mental health support they need, other health and wellness factors suffer. Mental health has always been a core component of our work at TQS; however, we are expanding our focus in this area to include suicide prevention, additional counseling, partnerships with professionals and service providers, and more opportunities for self-exploration and empowerment. We are also collaborating with our faculty to ensure they understand each of their students' history, needs, and diagnoses. When addressing resilience through mental health, the goal is to provide each member of faculty, staff, and the student body with the individual support they require.
 
Social-emotional learning (SEL). We now know how critical it is to support the development of a student’s identity, emotions, and relationships. But are there ways for schools to bring resilience-building into SEL?
 
Our goal is to integrate more SEL language and practices throughout our school day. For example, we start the day with an “emotions check-in” and help students use vocabulary to share their feelings and experiences. We are focusing on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship building, and making sure we’re using shared and consistent language throughout the school. 
 
SEL also is an area where our school’s core values support our roadmap. As a Quaker school, we value simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship, and we aim to live these values in our classrooms each day. Incorporating your own school’s values into your SEL and resilience work is a great way to make these efforts your own.
 
Community health. By improving community health, you can create an environment where resilience thrives. At TQS, we’re working to increase collaboration, promote a sense of safety, and examine how we apply our values within the school community. This will include ongoing celebrations, affirmations, and setting expectations. Each month includes activities that engage the students in gratitude and enjoyment. Students wrote thank-you notes to their teachers in September, are leaving positive post-it notes on their classmates’ desks in October and will celebrate a socially distanced outdoor fall festival in November. In addition, we are building a student government, opportunities for student mentorship, and more project-based learning.
 
Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts also play an important role in community health. By fostering an environment where all feel welcomed, known, and accepted, we can create a safe place for students to build their resilience, health, and wellness.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

We asked ourselves, if we want to focus on improving resilience at our school this year, how can we ensure we’re making progress? Here at TQS, we’re using a yearlong roadmap to track specific initiatives month by month. It’s a detailed matrix that includes what is to be done each month, who is responsible, and what resources are necessary. As head of school, I meet with the resilience team monthly to check how the previous month’s efforts were accomplished and what is needed to be successful in the month ahead. This will allow these four key areas of wellness and resilience to evolve and improve continuously. This is a new program, and we still have a lot to work out.
 
Our goal is to create a community where each student is empowered to achieve meaningful personal, social, and academic success—and isn’t that what we all want as independent school leaders? If we can all incorporate more ways to build our students’ resilience, we will ensure that our next generation of leaders and innovators shine, no matter the circumstances.
 
For a copy of the TQS roadmap, email me at [email protected].
Author
Alex Brosowsky
Alex Brosowsky

Alex Brosowsky is head of school of The Quaker School at Horsham (PA).

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