Teachers play a crucial role alongside parents in helping students develop a successful approach to life.
Contributed By Ng Yeow Ling
For more than a decade, public and educational discourse has focused on “children and families at risk.” Even though this approach sometimes succeeds in getting the needed aid to children and families, it can lead to stereotyping, and possibly lower expectations for these students in schools and families. Looking at children through a deficit lens obscures a recognition of their capacities and strengths, as well their individuality and uniqueness.
Common sense cautions against this deficit approach, and new rigorous research on resilience is disproving it scientifically. Studies have demonstrated that there is a low correlation between an individual’s risk factors and his or her future success.
Furthermore, they articulate the practices and attitudes that promote healthy development and successful learning in students. Their findings are corroborated by research into the characteristics of teachers and schools, families, organizations, and communities that successfully motivate and engage youth from high-risk environments.
Here’s how educators and parents can foster resilience in all youth.
1. Develop Positive Beliefs About All Children
The starting point for building on students’ capacities is the belief by all adults in their lives, particularly in their school, that every youth has innate resilience. To develop this belief, educators and parents need to recognize the source of their own resilience.
2. All Individuals Have the Power To Transform And Change
Resilience has been defined as the human capacity to transform and change, no matter what their risks; it is an innate “self-righting mechanism.” Resilience skills include the ability to form relationships (social competence), to solve problems (meta-cognition), to develop a sense of identity (autonomy), and to plan and hope (a sense of purpose and future).
While many social and life skills programs have been developed to teach these skills, the strong message in resilience research is that these attitudes and competencies are outcomes—not causes—of resilience.
Long-term developmental studies have followed children born into extremely high-risk environments, such as poverty-stricken or war-torn communities; and families with alcoholism, drug abuse, physical and sexual abuse, and mental illness. Researchers have found, remarkably, that at least 50 percent and usually closer to 70 percent of these children grow up to be not only successful by societal indicators but “confident, competent, and caring” persons.
3. Teachers And Schools Have The Power To Transform Lives
A common finding in resilience research is the power of teachers, often unbeknownst to them, to tip the scale from risk to resilience. Turnaround teachers and mentors provide and model three protective factors that buffer risk and enable positive development by meeting youth’s basic needs for safety, love and belonging, respect, power, accomplishment and learning, and, ultimately, for meaning. The factors are these:
• Caring Relationships
Teachers can convey loving support to students by listening to students and validating their feelings, and by demonstrating kindness, compassion, and respect. They refrain from judging, and do not take students’ behavior personally, understanding that youth are doing the best they can, based on the way they perceive the world.
• Positive and High Expectations
Teachers’ high expectations can structure and guide behavior, and challenge students beyond what they believe they can do. Turnaround teachers recognize students’ strengths, mirror them, and help students see where their strengths lie. They especially assist overwhelmed youth, who have been labeled or oppressed by their families, schools, and/or communities, in using their personal power to grow from damaged victim to resilient survivor by helping them to: one, not take personally the adversity in their lives; two, not see adversity as permanent; and three, not see setbacks as pervasive. These teachers are student-centered: they use the students’ own strengths, interests, goals, and dreams as the beginning point for learning, and they tap students’ intrinsic motivation for learning.
• Opportunities to Participate
and Contribute. As an outgrowth of a strengths-based perspective, turnaround teachers let students express their opinions and imagination, make choices, solve problems, work with and help others, and give their gifts back to the community in a physically- and psychologically-safe and structured environment. They treat students as responsible individuals, allowing them to participate in all aspects of the school’s functioning.
Rethinking The Teacher’s Role
A key finding from resilience research is that successful development and transformative power exist not in programmatic approaches per se, but at the deeper level of relationships, beliefs, and expectations, as well as willingness to share power.
Schools need to develop not only caring educator-student relationships but also student-student, educator-educator, and educator-parent relationships. Certain programmatic approaches can provide the structure for developing these relationships, offer opportunities for active student involvement: small group process, cooperative learning, peer helping, cross-age mentoring, and community service.
Working from their own innate resilience and well-being, teachers engage those qualities in their students. If they can let go of their tight control, be patient, and trust the process, teaching will become more effortless and enjoyable. It is important that teachers realize they are making a difference. When teachers care, believe in, and embrace their charges, they are not only enabling healthy development and successful learning, but creating inside-out social change; they are building a creative and compassionate citizenry.
This article is adapted from a Singapore Teachers’ Union talk on “Fostering Resilience for Optimal Student Success” by Ng Yeow Ling, principal of North View Primary School.
Teacher Strategies for Building Resilience
1. Teach To Students’ Strengths. Starting with students’ strengths, instead of their deficiencies, enlist their intrinsic motivation and positive momentum. It also keeps them in a hopeful frame of mind to learn and work on problems.
2. Teach Students That They Have Innate Resilience. Show students that they have the power to construct the meaning they give to everything that happens to them. Help them recognize how their own conditioned thinking or internalized environmental messages, such as “I am not good enough or smart enough,” block access to their innate resilience.
3. Provide Growth Opportunities For Students. This includes asking questions that encourage self-reflection, critical thinking and consciousness, and dialog (especially around salient social and personal issues); making learning more experiential, as in service learning; providing opportunities for creative expression in art, music, writing, theater, video production, and for helping others (community service, peer helping, cooperative learning); involving students in curriculum planning and choosing learning experiences; using participatory evaluation strategies; and involving students in creating the governing rules of the classroom.
4. Use the Resilience Approach In An Experiment. Choose one of the most challenging students. Identify all personal strengths, and mirror them to him. Teach that the student has innate resilience and the power to create a personal reality. Create opportunities for the student to participate and contribute personal strengths. Be patient. Focus on small victories because they often grow into major transformations.