Creating a resilient environment for learners

Learners who can bounce back from adversity, manage pressure and overcome setbacks are likely to achieve more. How can we promote resilience in school?

Author details

Bradley Busch is a psychologist and the director of InnerDrive. InnerDrive run workshops that helps students develop a successful mindset and perform under pressure. This is based on...

'Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.'

Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the USA

While Coolidge might have been slightly over-egging the importance of resilience, the desire to help students improve these skills is probably more popular now than ever.

What is resilience, and why do we need it?

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) defines resilience as a ‘positive adaptation despite the presence of risk’. In their report on the impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people, they note that resilience and coping skills have high malleability (meaning that they can be improved and developed).

Research has also demonstrated that setbacks are not always a bad thing, with those who have experienced some adversity going on to perform better under pressure than those who have been wrapped in cotton wool. Experiencing failure has also been associated with higher levels of empathy, motivation and determination.

Juggling the ever-pressing need for good exam results and short term wins with long-term gains that might require setbacks along the way is difficult. So what can we do to create an environment that helps develop long-term, resilient learners, as well as helping students thrive in the present?

How learners feel they develop resilience

The 2017 study … Not drowning, waving. Resilience and university: a student perspective interviewed students to explore how they felt they develop resilience and what they think academic institutions can do to help. They found three consistent attributes that help make resilient learners:

  • keeping a sense of perspective
  • staying healthy
  • social support.

A sense of perspective

A sense of perspective was defined as the ability to manage one's emotions, concentrate on the things that you can control and that matter, and choosing the correct strategy for any given situation. Central to maintaining a sense of perspective was the importance of self-reflection, which allowed students to manage new or uncomfortable situations.

Other skills that helped keep a sense of perspective included a mixture of both short-term and long term goals, as this helped maintain focus and motivation after a setback.

Staying healthy

Being physically and mentally healthy helped students respond well under pressure and during adversity. Ways to do this included doing physical activity as well as taking part in team sports, which allowed for social interactions and self-reflection.

Identifying and celebrating successes and adopting helpful and constructive self-talk helped improve mental wellbeing and resilience.

Social support

The more we isolate ourselves, the more we brood over bad decisions which increases our stress and frustration. As well as making ourselves feel better, research suggests that social support can be a powerful predictor of resilience to stress.

Social support and maintaining good relationships with friends, family and teachers helped students either feel better about their setbacks or provide suggestions on how to overcome them.

Finally, the study found that academic institutions could help students develop resilience by:

  • helping them experience and learn from failures in a safe environment
  • providing high quality feedback that focuses on strategies and next steps
  • providing access to extra-curricular activities.

How schools can help pupils develop resilience

Balance challenge and support

A study on mental fortitude training by leading resilience researchers highlights that for an environment to facilitate resilience, it needs to be both high in challenge and support. Too much challenge and no support results in excessive stress, burnout and isolation. Too much support but not enough challenge can lead to complacency and boredom.

When pupils are struggling, the temptation is to reduce the level of challenge in the task. However, low expectations often leads to low results. To help develop resilience, instead of reducing the difficulty, considering increasing the individual support.

Fail better

'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.'

Samuel Beckett, playwright and poet

Research by psychologists over the past two decades has supported Beckett's assertion, finding that the way you explain your failures can have a profound impact on your future behaviour. 

We do not necessarily want our pupils to fail more. The whole point of education is to better the lives of each individual and the society they live in. However, some failure along the way is inevitable and is a key part to learning. Therefore, we want students to fail better.

How can they do this? Viewing setbacks as opportunities for learning is a good start and is central to develop a resilient and growth mindset. Other techniques to help learners fail better include asking themselves ‘what would I do differently?’ and ‘what have I learnt from this experience?’.

These sorts of questions will not only help improve resilience, but will also help improve metacognitive skills, which research has found to help increase pupil grades in maths, science and English.

Provide high quality feedback

'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.'

Al Gore, Nobel Peace Prize winner

All too often, and especially so for teenagers, we think that asking for help is a sign of weaknesses. In fact, the opposite is true. Asking for, and actually using feedback is the hallmark of a persistent learner. 

So what does high quality feedback look like? Suggestions from research include:

  • avoid delaying feedback, as people often forget the nuances of the event if they wait too long
  • avoid lavish praise
  • provide concrete, actionable steps. 

This last point was a prominent feature in the Sutton Trust ‘What Makes Great Teaching' report. For feedback to be effective, learners have to know what they would do differently next time.

Develop Olympic resilience

Educators can also learn a lot about resilience from the world of sport. Resilience in Olympic gold medalists has been extensively researched, and psychologists have found that the techniques athletes use can be applied to other settings. These techniques include:

  • being open to new experience
  • being optimistic
  • viewing decisions as active choices not as sacrifices
  • taking personal responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and behaviours
  • focusing on developing skills instead of comparing themselves to others.

This may look different depending on the student, context and their environment, but offers a good starting point and guidelines on how to help students flourish during a setback.

Final thoughts

Resilience is a difficult thing to quantify and measure. It is important that pupils can bounce back from adversity, manage pressure and overcome setbacks. This is true both when they are in school and for later on in life. Developing resilience is something that can be done by both the learner and their school.

By viewing decisions as active choices, learning from mistakes, having a healthier relationship with feedback and keeping things in perspective, we are helping to give students the tools they need to deliver their best when it matters most. It means they won't just survive their school experience, they will thrive in it.

Last Updated: 
05 May 2021