Fostering Resiliency at School

By Katherine Godfrey


Schools can play an important role in fostering resiliency in children with learning challenges • Among the key ingredients are supportive teachers that set high expectations and genuinely believe in a child’s ability to succeed

Resiliency is the capacity to rebound successfully, adapt in the face of adversity, and develop social and academic competence despite exposure to stress. Resilient children possess important life skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and the ability to take the initiative. They have a sense of purpose and foresee a positive future for themselves.

Unfortunately, not all children are born resilient. Research suggests, however, that when teachers provide a caring environment, have high expectations, and offer opportunities for meaningful participation, resiliency can be fostered.

A Supportive Environment

A truly caring school environment is one in which students feel a sense of belonging and where all successes, large or small, are celebrated. Teachers must ensure that their classrooms are such environments. They do this by

  • Recognizing all students and treating them with dignity
  • Knowing the names of all students
  • Noticing those who do not readily participate, and helping them to engage
  • Identifying different learning styles
  • Being accessible for one-on-one time
  • Intervening when students appear to be struggling academically or socially

Psychologist and resiliency researcher Dr. Robert Brooks calls on teachers and parents to be “charismatic adults”—people children can identify with and gather strength from.

Effective parents and educators can have a profound and lasting impact on a child. “While this influence relates to all students,” says Brooks, “it has special relevance for students with learning disabilities who are often weighed down by feelings of vulnerability and hopelessness.”

Charismatic teachers possess expertise in their subject areas, but they also appreciate that if students are to learn from them, they must touch their hearts and minds.

High Expectations

Teachers show that they care by maintaining high expectations for all their students, while communicating a genuine belief in each child’s ability to succeed.

Parents and educators should not lower their expectations for children with LD. Expectations need to be both high and realistic to be effective. The ultimate goal is to provide students with opportunities to feel competent. A child’s self-esteem is built by recognizing his or her strengths, and all students must experience success for academic growth.

In order to experience success, Brooks emphasizes the importance of finding “islands of competence” (areas of strength). One way to do that for a child with LD is to determine his learning style and modify instruction accordingly. Other examples include having older students with LD read to younger children, or asking a hyperactive child to assume the position of attendance monitor. Providing students with the opportunity to help others promotes a sense of ownership and pride.

One of the best ways to help students feel competent is to lessen their fear of failure, which tends to be magnified in students with LD. Says Brooks, “We can teach students with learning disabilities and attentional problems that not comprehending certain material is to be expected and that the teacher’s role is to help them learn.”

Meaningful Participation

All students, especially students with LD, feel better about themselves when they have a voice that can be heard and some control over the events in their lives.

This strategy involves giving students the opportunity and responsibility to actively participate in their learning by solving problems, making decisions, setting goals and helping others. In order for this to happen, educators must view students as valuable resources. “At the core of most theories of self-motivation and self-worth,” says Brooks, “are the concepts of ownership and self-determination…To practice self-determination requires solid problem solving, decision making and organizational skills.”

Students with LD often need to improve in these areas, and therefore, are particularly vulnerable to feeling as if others are directing their lives. Students can enhance those skills by participating in the development of classroom rules, taking part in school governance committees, creating student leadership groups, as well as engaging with their peers as peer helpers, conflict resolution mediators and tutors.

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