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Building resilience in classrooms and schools

October 01, 2013

Guest blog post by Kevin Dwyer, MA, NCSP ~

Most adults have memories of a favorite teacher and for most of us that teacher got our best behavior and responses to instruction. If you examine what that teacher emulated it was caring, connectedness and the expectation of our high academic learning. Those favorite teachers supported and encouraged our resilience.

What is resilience? What are proactive, resilient social skills and how can we support them in school?

When children quickly adapt to new environments that may require them to learn new skills, to be patient, to cope effectively with some challenges, frustrations and maybe even anxiety we say they are responsible and resilient. Researchers have discovered that these positive coping skills are learned and dependent upon the child having a bond with a caring adult who models, teaches and reinforces these positive skills. Resilience is dependent upon experience and is necessary for learning. Many children entering school have different degrees of resilience just as they have different degrees of experience in reading and numeration. Expecting these skills to be innate and hard wired in the brains of children is a foolish premise.

Just as we teach and establish the classroom structures for learning to read we can do the same for building and supporting resilience, a proactive skill in all our students. When teachers and schools establish resilient classrooms they support memorable experiences for children and higher academic achievement. According to the Institute of Medicine (2004) caring schools that foster high expectations and self autonomy have higher academic achievement.

Researchers have developed many “best-practices” that can be integrated into classrooms to enhance resilience. Several good guides for teachers and schools to use are available and no school should be without one since there are powerful connection between resilience and academic learning. One simple guide for this process has been authored by Dr. Beth Doll (Resilient Classrooms: Doll, Zucker & Brehm 2007. Guilford Press). The value of focusing on resilient classrooms enables teachers to connect with the constructs of positive education and the powerful influence of the learning environment on life-long brain functioning. Yes, it’s the environment – what we do – that actually changes brains. Students will persist in problem solving if we support that persistence. Students become more confident in their skills when we convey to them that they are capable and up to the challenge.

That great teacher you remember who you worked hard to please and gave your best was building your resilience.

But today, more than ever, children are entering school with adverse experiences that make them vulnerable to the challenges of learning. Poverty overwhelms almost one-in-five children and poverty can foster giving up when facing frustration. Today, building resilience in the classroom as a component of instruction is vital. Can we plan to do this? If we have an innate drive to build resilience can we do it better? Doll and others say, “Yes” and furthermore they give us the guidance to build resilient classrooms and resilient school communities.

Getting started or building on existing efforts can begin with reading materials on resilient classrooms. In a previous blog we talked about using class meetings and teaching social skills. Resilience advocates support and integrate these interventions in their classroom models but suggest even more. There is universal agreement that classroom management relies upon known routines known to increase children’s comfort and these kinds of structures are almost automatically in-place. Most teachers use problem solving steps and data to improve resilience in their classrooms. Some call this “data-based decision making.” What does the pre-intervention data in our classrooms look like and what positive data are we hoping will result from our greater efforts, what we change and our added interventions to build resilience? What do we need to look for?

Here are some constructs what resilience experts focus upon:

  • Academic efficacy: Programing academic instruction that is challenging and consciously supporting student efficacy to master those challenges. This requires both reinforcement and instructional supports to magnify that learner’s academic efficacy. This requires classroom prompts and timely feedback about efficacy so that students are supporting each other’s skills. Teachers can graph progress of individuals to help each see his/her progress. Students can be encouraged to share mastery techniques and strategies with their peers. 
  • Behavioral self-control: Individual student’s self-control as a learner is critical to effective teaching, peer learning and classroom management. Resilient students are attentive, active learners who thrive in classrooms that enable them to know what’s coming, know what’s expected of them in the present activity and know if their behavior is working well for them and the class. Classroom climate fosters this process of student’s thinking ahead, evaluating their present behavior and knowing how to evaluate their participation in the learning. So focusing on routines increases prediction; immediate feedback increases active learning and; connecting behaviors to learning stresses the positive in the evaluation of behaviors. Self-control can be improved for both individuals and groups by using functional analysis of, say distracting talking-out, so that student(s) can see a viable alternative, practice it (role playing) and even self reward their progress in reducing that disruptive talking out. Again, graphing progress helps students see their progress and the progress of their classmates.
  • Academic self-determination: Resilience advocates stress the importance of students developing autonomy as learners. Autonomy is a process that progressively develops and emerges through the grades. An autonomous learner has her own goals and can figure out what facilitates those learning goals and what may need to be addressed as a barrier to those goals. Doll reports that autonomous learners work hard “because they want to not because they have to.” Teachers can support autonomy by making sure that the focus is upon mastery for each student rather than on comparing that student to others in a competitive way. Curriculum standards may seem antagonistic to the concept of self-determination but the benchmarks for those system standards, when understood by the students can become each learners own goal.
  • Effective teacher-student relationships: Activities that enhance teacher-student connectedness are very likely to improve learning and mastery of academic and social skills needed throughout life. Frequent specific praise for learning challenging materials directed to individual students, student teams and the class has been shown to be a good measure of teacher effectiveness. Conversely, a lack of caring and reinforcement as well as support for struggling students results in poor academic and behavioral student outcomes. Methods for building this effective student relationship in today’s classroom may be difficult but some simple self-regulation of teachers to use positives and connect those specific functional comments to desired learning and behaviors (i.e. persistence, problem solving and attention) can improve this relationship. We all know about “catching students being good.” Doing it is another issue in a classroom of 25 or more students. One recommendation is to encourage students to “sign-up” for a short conversation with the teacher. Another is to provide individual positive constructive feedback regarding a modification that will improve learning or behavior.  Valuing the student’s feedback (“…how are my suggestions working?). Students do best when they feel supported, respected (trust and fairness) and valued, taken seriously for their ideas and learning. Teachers can get a general tone of connectedness by using prompts for students to write in their journals and then using that feedback with them in a valued manner.        
  • Effective peer relationships: When students are encouraged to work together as teams and when they are familiar with problem solving and conflict resolution they are more likely to develop positive peer relationships and friendships. Providing time to discuss classroom issues in class meetings (discussed in a previous article) helps students recognize each others strengths and common feelings and concerns, thus enhancing effective peer relationships. Teachers can “monitor” peer relationships to best insure an inclusive resilient approach to peer relationships. 
  • Effective home-school relationships: It is nearly universal that the closer the home-school relationships the better each student functions. The home is the foundation for supporting resilience. I have never met a parent that did not want their child to succeed both academically and socially in school. Just as students thrive on respect and caring so do families. Equally they want their ideas to be valued. And they want positive ongoing feedback about their child and guidance as to what they can do to support learning. Keeping that connection strong has been shown to improve academics, social skills and attendance. Mechanisms to increase these connections might include periodic positive personal notes, short fact sheets about the resilient classroom/school efforts and ideas for supporting resilience. In one school where the PATHS social skills program is used parents are given an overview of what the students are being taught. Parents can then use praise when the skills are demonstrated at home. Seeking partnerships with parents, seeking and valuing their ideas can build that partnership. Tips for parents on homework (Homework Helper, see: nasponline.org) that include a feedback-loop can be effective. 

Centering on these foundational constructs we can establish goals and plans to improve the resiliency of classrooms. Authors have provided planning and worksheets to build upon and improve resiliency activities with simple but concrete measurable processes and outcomes. Surveys are commonly included that help students share their perceptions about their school, class, teacher(s) and peers. In one school system that used a yearly survey instrument on the conditions for learning staff found it more useful for to survey every 9 weeks so the information could be connected to goals related to the above constructs. One goal might be to improve student-teacher relationships so that cluster of items on the survey would be examined pre and post a set of teacher supported classroom activities (such as twice-a-week class meetings).

Strategies to ensure that classrooms are resilient learning environments can be implemented and are found to improve learning and behavior as well as teacher satisfaction measures. 


dwyerKevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant.  He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children.  He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family focused collaborative child service systems.  During his 30 years as a public school psychologist he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment.  He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children.  In 2007 the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly.  He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award.  In 2000 he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.

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