The Power of Academic Resilience

We are all born resilient. Our bodies and brains are wired for resilience. From the time we’re tiny, trying to stand up and walk (and falling on our butts), or attempting to fling mushed-up sweet potatoes into our little baby mouths (which instead land on our heads), we are demonstrating our capacity for resilience. We are learning and changing in response to our failed efforts. As we move through life, with every incorrectly answered math problem, grammar-challenged essay, failed exam, broken heart and job rejection – failing and falling down in every way possible – our capacity for resilience is at work.

Resilience is defined as the "ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity." It’s commonly characterized as being flexible and adaptable – skills that have certainly been tested and proven critical during the coronavirus pandemic. It suggests that in the face of adversity, we should bend and not break. But in an academic context, we want to do more than not break, we want to grow. Academic resilience, then, is about the growth that comes from learning from setbacks. When your child gets a bad grade on their essay or fails an exam, what comes after that (following the tears, the disappointment, maybe even some despair and shame) is growth.

Being in school is the time children are challenged to cultivate their resilience more consciously. Those misfired potatoes of infancy are replaced by grades and tests, compare-and-despair with peers, and the awareness that academic achievement makes the grown-ups happy. And instead of learning how to get the spoon lined up with their lips, they are learning math and languages, history, music and so much more. And so as students, the skill that helps them cultivate resilience is learning how to learn.

When you’re lifting weights, "feeling the burn" means you’re pushing yourself beyond your previous weight-lifting capacity. That burn is literally the breaking down of muscle tissue, which stimulates the body to produce more muscle. Intellectual burn recruits our brain cells to stimulate growth. The burn shows up as feeling bad, frustrated or disappointed. So when you see your child feeling down about their academic achievement, know that learning is on the horizon.

WHAT HELPS

Different Approaches to Learning

Only some of what our children learn in school shows up as academic achievement. A lot of what they learn gets hidden behind performance anxiety, perfectionism and imperfect ways of measuring learning. Digging a little deeper into a bad grade can help tease out whether they’re not learning or not performing well. 

For example, if your child can tell you all about why the Bill of Rights is important and can even detail different parts of the amendments, but they can’t remember which one is about free speech and which one is about jury trials, they’re learning a lot that may not have been revealed when the test asked them to describe each amendment in order. Helping them remember the numbers is a separate task from learning about their meaning. 

Encourage them to organize what they know into a "mind map" so they can start to sort out what they have learned and begin to see the patterns and connections. Check out The ABC’s of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work and When to Use Them (Norton Professional Books, 2016) for more excellent strategies and tips.

Authenticity

Boomers like me remember the deodorant commercial that espoused "Never let ’em see you sweat." I disagree. Sweating is human and we all do it, so let’s allow our kids see it once in a while. While I’m not a fan of oversharing, it is enormously helpful for kids to know that we parents fail, we fall, we get frustrated and, especially, we learn from it. 

I recommend talking about real life stuff right now that you are working through. With younger children, tell them about the time you left the restaurant and forgot to pay. Or tell your teenager about your own not-so-perfect grades, or all the mistakes you made your first week on the job. But mostly, tell them how awful it felt, how you got through it by getting support, and how you learned from it.

Narrative

An important process for building resilience is telling our stories of failure. Either by casually letting your child know about your own stories of failure and resilience, or by formally inviting them to write a story about theirs, the process of developing a narrative around failure is powerful. It helps them step back and find perspective, and it helps them contextualize the experience and the facts of failure and academic setbacks as part of the greater narrative of who they are. In other words, telling the story helps them remember that they are more than their failures.

Perspective

When kids are struggling academically and think their failures define them, parents need to remind them that they are whole people and not just students. Remind them that even though they don’t feel like they read fast enough or understand everything they’re reading, they didn’t used to be able to get spoon into mouth, but they learned how. Or just because their PSAT scores are disappointing, their patience in teaching their little brother how to tie his shoes is real and it matters. In other words, while one part of a child may feel off or broken, there are other parts that are soaring high and in great shape. Your perspective is a mile marker for them.

WHAT DOESN’T HELP

Skipping the Feelings

Learning is hard. Things that are hard are frustrating. Frustration feels bad. When our kids feel bad, we feel helpless and sometimes our own anxieties creep in. It takes enormous courage and patience for us to simply sit with their feelings. Whether we realize it or not, they read our anxiety loud and clear and might bury their bad feelings so as not to make us feel worse. It’s vital that they have space to feel and share. Find room for your worries about your kids and talk to someone about what's hard for you. This will make more room for your kids to talk to you about their worries about school. The more supported they feel, the more open they will be to trying new strategies for learning.

Taking the Reins

As parents, it’s tough to watch our kids struggle. But struggle is how they learn, and fixing the problem undermines their learning. It also tacitly tells them we don’t believe they can do it. If and when your student asks for help, show up with curiosity and love, and be the person holding a flashlight while they navigate the thicket. This means asking questions that help them reflect on themselves and learn about their own thinking and problem-solving process.

Saying "Try Harder"

Most children do their best whenever they can. If they are already trying hard, doing more of the same may not help and in fact may make them feel even more beaten down. There are many strategies and approaches to learning that students can attempt, and finding the right one(s) will be liberating. While many people like to discover what their "learning style" is so that they can adjust their approaches, it turns out that what’s actually useful is using multiple approaches for learning. So, for example, if your child connects with pictures more than words, invite them to turn their history chapter into a visual timeline or use colored pencils to craft the most gorgeous algebra homework ever. Or if they like moving around more than sitting still, try pairing physical and verbal learning such as having them review their multiplication tables out loud while tossing a ball with you.

Helping your child cultivate their academic resilience by learning how to learn will go a long way toward helping them stay motivated and engaged. And reminding them (and yourself!) that failing, getting it wrong and being disappointed or frustrated are all necessary parts of learning that everyone experiences. Remind them of learning to walk or feed themselves. And remind them that you were not always the stellar parent you are today!

Adina Glickman is an academic, life and career coach, former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and co-founder of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students who are dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at adinaglickman.com.