Practicing Resilience in the Elementary Classroom

Toni S. Bickart
Sybil Wolin

Principal Magazine - November 1997

How did you manage to overcome the difficulties of your childhood: the poverty, the constant disruptions in your family life, and the death of your younger brother? Alicia, a poised and confident young woman in her 30s, is explaining to an interviewer how she became successful rather than helpless or self-destructive.

"At home, I could never tell what would happen next, so I involved myself in activities I could rely on, like school and Girl Scouts and taking care of the little ones in the family. They were always around and always needed me. I saw proof that I was OK in my pile of finished work, the A's on my papers, the badges on my Scout sash, and the babies, all fed and asleep for the night."

Throughout her life, Alicia has relied on the survival strategies she established as a child. When negative forces gather, she calls upon experiences where she can see herself as competent, effective, and "whole," rather than threatened, damaged, or incapable. For Alicia, school was a major source of these experiences. The positive lessons she learned about herself in elementary school classrooms fortified her for the struggles of her life and account for a significant part of her success.

In many of our nation's classrooms today, teachers are providing the type of support that Alicia found in school, but without fully appreciating how much they are accomplishing. Research on resilience has only begun to shed light on some little-understood benefits of their efforts.

What Research Shows

Research on resilience focuses on children who have done well in stressful situations, such as war, the death of a parent, family disruption, and extreme poverty. One such study, recently conducted by Project Resilience in Washington, D.C., posed a simple question to 25 young men and women who, like Alicia, had known hardship as children: How did you do it?

Their answers revealed that none had escaped harm completely. All had suffered or been scarred by their experiences. Nevertheless, they were also strong and healthy in many ways.

In analyzing their responses, the Project Resilience researchers found seven common resiliency themes which they categorized as insight, independence, relationships, initiative, creativity, humor, and morality. All represent behaviors that children can learn and practice in school, and which can help achieve success beyond the classroom.

Resilience In the Classroom

Fostering resilience in the elementary classroom doesn't require teachers to add another piece to an already overflowing curriculum. Judging from the Project Resilience interviews, the school experiences that fostered resiliency did not take place in a special "resiliency corner," "resiliency time," or as the result of specially designed "resiliency activities." They occurred when teachers provided children ample opportunities to develop and practice behaviors associated with resilience during daily instruction. Let's examine a few relevant strategies.

- Children are involved in assessing their own work and in setting goals for themselves. By giving children feedback rather than merely grading their papers, teachers foster insight, the habit of asking thoughtful questions. Constructive feedback helps children to honestly consider the quality of their work, think about what has been learned, and understand how they performed in relation to expectations. As their insight develops, children can begin to evaluate their own work, guided by teachers who ask, "What was easy (or difficult) for you?" or, "What might you do differently next time?"

- Children participate in developing standards for their work. Working hard and mastering something new is often frustrating for children. Success requires independence, the ability to distance oneself from difficult feelings. How often we hear children say, "But I didn't know that neatness (or handwriting or length) counted!" Teachers can prevent such excuse-making by discussing the characteristics of a good project from the outset. When children see models of excellent work and are given the chance to participate in establishing standards, they know how their efforts will be evaluated and are more easily able to overcome frustration.

- Children have many opportunities to work collaboratively. In classrooms where collaborative learning is encouraged, children practice making and sustaining fulfilling relationships with others. These relationships develop as children learn from each other, while working with a partner or in small groups. Teachers provide guidance by introducing a task or concept, or helping children plan their work. In formal collaborative learning, teachers assign children to work with one or more classmates on a project or task with specific goals in mind. Informal collaborative learning occurs throughout the day, when children turn to their peers for help in solving a problem, share ideas, or want to explore a new discovery. As children collaborate, they learn to take turns, share, give and get help, and listen to others.

- Children participate in meetings to solve classroom problems. Difficulties arise in every classroom over such issues as being first at something, violating another child's "space," or taking someone else's belongings. When teachers use classroom meetings to solve these problems rather than rely on their own authority, they build initiative in children. Calling a meeting conveys the message, "In this classroom, we don't regard problems as stumbling blocks or as evidence that something bad is happening. We have the power to solve our problems." Classroom meetings give children opportunities to practice the skills of exchanging ideas and listening to one another.

- Children have opportunities to make choices. Giving children choices encourages creativity. Sometimes choices may involve simply selecting a book to read or topic to write about. But choices can also allow children to decide how they can express themselves through their work. After reading a book or studying a topic, for example, they might make charts or graphs, draw pictures, paint a mural, create a computer design or game, build a model, put on a skit or puppet show, or write a report. Often these artistic expressions mingle personal aspects of a child's self along with the newly learned material.

- Children feel connected in a classroom structured as a community. When classrooms are organized as communities rather than as authority-based hierarchies, a group spirit emerges. In such an environment, children can practice the resiliency of humor by learning to laugh at themselves and help others see fun in everyday happenings. Humor can be a daily part of life in a classroom community, where children greet each other, share family stories and events, and make jokes about themselves. Being able to laugh about mistakes together cuts tension and lessens competitiveness.

- Children play an active role in setting rules for classroom life. Rule-making is a way for children to practice morality. Discussing rules invites them to weigh consequences and reflect on concepts like fairness, the reasons for rules, and the instances when they apply. Creating their own rules helps children develop responsibility for their own behavior, for one another, and for the group.

Many of these practices are used by experienced teachers to promote social and academic competence, to encourage children to be active rather than passive learners. What the research on resiliency tells us is that these practices also serve another important purpose - encouraging children to practice behaviors that can apply to their lives, enabling them to rise above hardships and succeed.

Classroom practice can make a real difference in the lives of children. We don't have to throw up our hands and say we can't help kids who face more of life's hardships than we would wish. We can help them with a repertoire of instructional approaches that promote insight, independence, initiative, relationships, creativity, humor, and morality in the classroom every day.

... For more info on teaching strategies, visit the TSI web site.

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