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Crisis Response

Resilience and Academic Success

What can schools do to help create resilient students?

Recently a student named Michael returned from his freshman year at college to visit the principal at his former high school. He is majoring in engineering and is president of the student council at his college. During the summer, he plans to enroll as a mentor for children at a local Boys and Girls Club. By all accounts, Michael is a shining example of academic success and of positive student leadership. To his former principal, Michael's success is particularly meaningful.

Throughout his eighteen years, Michael has been homeless five times and has suffered emotional and physical abuse from his mentally ill mother. Michael's ability to succeed despite such adversity stems from resilience, the ability to deal with life's challenges in a positive manner. When asked how he managed to beat the odds of his impoverished and abusive family background, Michael responded, "My high school principal always believed in me and encouraged me."

One of the most consistent findings in resilience research is that children who successfully overcome adversity have been found to have established a close bond with at least one competent, caring and emotionally stable adult early on in life who was sensitive to their needs. In fact, several studies summarized in the Resiliency Project from the American Psychological Association have shown that the effects of an unstable environment can be reversed by involvement in a more positive environment, and the effects of early relational deficits can be reduced by later positive relationships with a stable adult. Resilience has been associated with better academic success, lower risk for depression, reduced internalizing and externalizing behaviors in children and adolescents, and greater psychological well-being.

What Can Schools Do?

Because schools are places where young people spend such a significant portion of their time, they serve as an ideal place to implement programs that can support students in overcoming a myriad of life stressors and to assist them in developing the skills to cope with challenges.

Schools can help foster resilience by taking these steps:

  1. Promoting positive relationships among students and adults. Because many students from adverse backgrounds have an extended history of negative interactions with adults, and often expect similar interactions with adults in the future, it is important that teachers and school personnel deliberately and repeatedly communicate positively with students. Praise should be communicated to students more frequently than criticism.
  2. Promoting positive peer relationships. Prosocial behaviors—such as helping, sharing, cooperating and collaborative problem solving—encourage positive peer relationships and can be supported by emphasizing overall student learning, rather than competition. Allowing students to participate in cooperative group learning projects can provide them with the opportunity to express their opinions and to work with and help their peers.
  3. Setting positive and high expectations. Recognize and mirror students' strengths and interests. High expectations can enable students to achieve beyond what they may believe they are capable of, thus contributing to a sense of their own competency. When students learn to believe in themselves, they begin to develop key resilience traits, such as self-esteem and having an optimistic outlook.
  4. Fostering positive student attitudes. An optimistic outlook on life is a critical feature of resilient individuals. Help students believe that they can succeed if they are willing to try, by deliberately and repeatedly providing them with situations in which they are able to master material or succeed by achieving a goal. Failure should be framed within the context of a learning opportunity, and students can be taught to adjust strategies that may not be working effectively.
  5. Teaching peace-building skills. Resilience is fostered when students are taught how to be assertive without being aggressive. Schools can teach conflict resolution, peer-mediation, and violence prevention strategies to students and can provide them with ongoing opportunities to practice these skills.

When parents, school administrators and teachers all work together to ensure a climate of caring and respect and to promote the factors associated with resilience, students are given the opportunity to develop the necessary resilience not only to overcome adversity, but to flourish as Michael did.

Scott Poland is an associate professor at Nova Southeastern University and is the coordinator for the university's Suicide and Violence Prevention Office. Catherine Samuel Barrett, a psychology graduate student, provided assistance with this article.