Strategies to grow emotional resilience

Developing social skills and building confidence in your abilities help make you emotionally strong. Nicola Harvey offers four ways teachers can help pupils increase their emotional resilience to access learning

Author details

Nicola Harvey is a former senior teacher and pastoral lead with a specialism in special educational needs and mental health. She is also a published author, with over 15 years experience, and has worked with many teachers, parents and students to...

In a survey conducted by Team Teach, almost 70% of education professionals reported the pandemic had negatively impacted student behaviour. Most notably, research found this was caused by anxiety driven behaviour, isolation and loss of social skills, lack of engagement, and poor mental health. Understandably, students have experienced heightened emotions when faced with difficult tasks, problems in developing friendships or being around other students.

During these uncertain times, you may have noticed your students experiencing intense emotions and heightened states, which can at times be difficult for them to process, regulate, and access their learning. So, how can teachers help students grow the emotional resilience they need to be effective learners? Here are four helpful activities.

1. Emotional literacy

Emotional literacy can help students improve their self-awareness, build resilience, support their sensory needs, and provide a foundation for emotional regulation. A great way to encompass this is through The Zones of Regulation. 

Leah Kuypers, a speech and language therapist, created colour-coded Zones to visually represent different emotions for social-emotional learning. This can be adapted for primary and secondary settings, and for neurodivergent and neurotypical students.

The Zones of Regulation follow Dr Dan Sielgel’s principle ‘Name it to tame it!’ Evidence suggests, when students label (or name) their emotions and notice how they are experiencing them (without judging them), it can reduce the intensity, and pave way for self-regulation.

  • Red Zone: used to label heightened states of emotions, like feeling elated or experiencing anger, rage, devastation, or terror.
  • Yellow Zone: also used to describe a heightened state of emotions, but with less intensity than the red zone.  A person may experience anxiety, excitement, stress, or nervousness if they’re in the Yellow Zone. 
  • Green Zone: used to identify a calm state, where a student is relaxed and ready to learn. They may feel happy, focused, or simply content.  There is no right or wrong, but this is the optimal state students need to be in to access their learning.
  • Blue Zone: used to describe low states, particularly if a student is feeling down. They may feel sad, bored, tired, or ill.

The feelings experienced in each of the Zones are just as valid as each other. It’s important to note that it’s okay not to be okay, because by doing this, it gradually empowers students to focus on what can be done to help regulate this emotion. Self-regulation may include breathing techniques, physical movement, talking to a trusted friend or adult or taking part in the Chatterbox Wellbeing Game (below).

2. The Chatterbox Wellbeing Game

Chatterbox is a fun and simple tool, created by the YoungMinds charity, to improve students’ social skills and wellbeing. With prompts to motivate, inspire and encourage students to share their feelings in a purposeful way, and take steps to look after their wellbeing, it can be adapted for both primary and secondary settings.

YoungMinds have created some free resources to share with your students.

3. Recognising achievements

Another great way to equip students with the tools they need to build emotional resilience is by encouraging your learners to recognise their achievements, no matter how small. Getting through the pandemic alone has been tough, particularly online learning from home. Then we’ve had returning to school, exams season, lateral flow tests and many other factors.

Now, as students navigate their way through post-pandemic times, it’s important to remind them just have far they have come. Try the ideas below.

  • Create a ‘What Went Well’ book (or similar) and note their specific achievements within a given timeframe e.g., this week, month or year. Reflecting upon this regularly is important, particularly when students are going through challenging times.
  • Daily verbal or written check-ins to boost self-esteem with prompts like ‘I am proud of myself because…’ ‘I am grateful for…’ ‘I have improved in this area because…’
  • Practising the Superhero Pose while verbalising achievements has been clinically proven to increase confidence and improve wellbeing. This is a high-power pose, which consists of standing tall with the feet apart, the chin up, and hands on the hips with elbows bent.

4. Lego-Based Therapy

LEGO-Based Therapy uses a range of activities to develop the social skills of children within group settings.

Developed by neuropsychologist, Dr Daniel LeGoff, LEGO-Based Therapy can be used to support a range of social development and communication issues to help students access their learning. This includes turn-taking skills, problem-solving, learning new concepts and social interaction.

In a LEGO-Based therapy session, three or more young people, each with a specific role, collaborate on a shared building project. These roles are engineer, supplier, and builder. In many cases, if there are more children, additional roles like director and building manager can be introduced.

  • The engineer is given an image of what the group will be building e.g., a house or boat made from LEGO. The engineer is then responsible for looking at the instructions for the building project, and telling the supplier (who cannot see the image) which LEGO bricks will be needed.
  • The supplier listens to the engineer describe the LEGO pieces, and finds the pieces. They may also check with the engineer if the LEGO pieces they’ve selected are correct. Each piece of LEGO is then passed to the builder.
  • The builder then builds the object while checking with the engineer that they are putting everything in the right place and constructing the project correctly. Throughout the building phase, there is a lot of listening and checking in which are all great for building social communication skills.

By assigning individual roles, and working together as a team, the young people are collaborating towards one common goal, and relying on each other to build the LEGO construction. This joint attention, problem-solving and shared thinking, is a key part of improving their social communication, and ability to access their learning.

Every student will be experiencing the aftermath of the pandemic in their own unique way, so it’s important for school staff to provide a safe and inclusive space for their students to develop during these changing times.

To help learners process their emotions and become more self-aware, the tools above can be modified and used on a one-to-one basis, or in whole class settings. This will in time, build emotional resilience and enable students to access to their learning in a more informed way.

Last Updated: 
20 Jun 2022