Teachers can help students learn how to deal with problems they encounter outside the classroom. Use these three teaching strategies to help your students build resilience.

Several years ago when I was a brand-new teacher, a 10th-grade student — let’s call her Nala — shocked me one day by giving me a sheaf of forms to sign. She was leaving to give birth and start raising her own child in about a week. She had hidden this detail from almost everyone at school; as we stumbled through our busy lives, we all missed it. I fumbled my way through creating an individual assignment for her so that she could receive credit during her absence; I asked her to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on her own while the class read it and keep a journal. There may have been other tasks, but those stand out to me. Why? The journal I got back was so well-written and extensive, so honest and eye-opening for a suburban girl from Virginia (me), that I still have it in an envelope in a box somewhere. I could not and cannot bear to throw it away.

Through the magic of Facebook, I have managed to stay in touch with this student, and I even tried to mail the journal back to her once, but it came back to me. It still sits folded quietly inside its legal-size envelope. When I glance at that envelope, I wonder about that student’s resilience. She is happy, engaged, positive, and successful. She came from some harrowing circumstances and went on to live an amazing life. Are there ways that we can lead more students down a similar path, regardless of the roadblocks that life may throw in front of them? As teachers, how can we build windows for students to see positive possibilities for their future, rather than walls that block their healthy development?

Research on resilience and academic success

Research shows that personal connections and interests are vital to the resilience of at-risk children (Polakow, 1993). We know that attachments in early childhood, especially between birth and age three, matter a great deal. Even in the face of incredible hardship, parents or other mentors can successfully ease these troubles for the children they live or work with in the accumulation of simple, everyday interactions; Masten (2009) calls this “ordinary magic.” What can we do for older children who didn’t have the benefit of these key attachments? Teachers can have an important impact on students who are at key points in their development — ages 4-7 and the transition to adulthood — by helping them to develop resilience and break out of negative patterns of interaction (Masten, 2009).

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