Letter to the Editor: The Secret Ingredient to Building Resilience in Children
The following is a response to the excellent articles in a recent issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine. I am a Montessori school principal living and working in Sydney, Australia, over the past 17 years. I am a long-term ASCD member and have worked as a teacher in schools with primarily non-English speaking migrant families, as a counsellor and principal in an international school where kidnapping and terrorism directly affected a number of families, and headed a highly academic school where the majority of students continued studies outside of school every day of the week. My current position has brought me to a place of understanding of education I had never been able to reach before, despite the diverse environments in which I served earlier. While no school is free of difficulties, I write this response after finding the "secret ingredient" in building resilience in children.
I applaud the recent Educational Leadership focus on resilience and learning in your September issue. When we consider the importance of conditions for learning, few would argue against the fact that a child's readiness to learn depends largely on her beliefs and self-confidence. Many of the articles in this issue portrayed examples of efforts and programs that have been put into place to tackle the problems students face in their negative beliefs about themselves—or as many contributors cited: a student's "fixed mindset," as defined by Carol Dweck.
Have we considered, however, what creates these problems in the first place? External forces such as family hardships aside, are we unnecessarily creating learning environments that put insurmountable challenges onto students? Are we expecting a child to develop, or in most cases, hold onto a growth mindset that will provide the tools needed for resilience amidst a bombardment of challenges? I would like to share a perspective on this topic that brings into question our somewhat active role as educators in creating students with poor resilience skills.
Imagine the eager young 5-year-old entering school for the first time, ready to learn with the enthusiasm we would find in our pet dog about to be taken on a walk. The classroom is welcoming, decorated with encouraging pictures, and in almost every case the teacher will be friendly and smiling. Then the lessons are taught, the assignments are given, and the child learns quickly that to survive in this new world of school you simply have to do what the teacher wants you to do. It is reinforced every single day with more pages to fill with "correct" answers, more books to read that have been chosen for you by the teacher, more writing to be done that is marked by the teacher. And if the teacher feels you did a good job, you get a sticker on your work. If you didn't do a good job, your work is marked with a pen (usually red) and the unacceptable parts are brought to your attention and perhaps your classmates' attention. School in itself is a place requiring heroic levels of resilience skills and the "survivors" work hard to hold on to an attitude or mindset centered around growth and learning. The rest succumb to the pressures of performing for the teacher and fix their mindset on a belief that they are dumb, described perfectly in Mark Jacobson's article, "Afraid of Looking Dumb" (pg 40–43). I would challenge any adult to remain positive and enthusiastic in their work day in and day out if they were consistently told what to do by their boss, had little choice in how they did it, had every piece they produce judged with a red pen, and workmates aware of their level of performance. I know there are plenty of jobs out there that may do just that, but they usually do not produce happy resilient workers!
Now imagine a school where the child enters the classroom environment where opportunities for learning abound. Rather than being told every day by the teacher what to do, and when to do it, the student instead makes choices to work on what he chooses and for how long—guided by the teacher who assists in accordance with the child's abilities. What happens? Quite simply, the child suddenly becomes the author of her own learning, where that initial enthusiasm to learn is nurtured, not squelched, and where the learner knows herself as a unique individual. It may sound very simplistic or too idealistic, but it works. The classroom becomes a true workshop for learning, choices, and discovery, where each child engages according to her individual interests. But most importantly, and to prevent the scenario described by Jacobson where the child feels all her classmates are superior and she is utterly inadequate as a learner, we must avoid academic competition that so easily occurs in the classroom where the teacher assigns work, everyone completes the same thing, and assessments divide the good from the bad. Competition does not belong in an academic learning environment for children due to the high risk of creating beliefs that stifle one's motivation to learn. Competition in games, sports, and within an individual's own learning goals is better suited as a platform for developing the life skills that will assist a child to be resilient—not on the classroom or school academic playing field. Maddie Witter in "I Can Climb the Mountain" (pg. 61–64) brings to the forefront the need for students to set their own goals and evaluate their own progress as a means to build hope and strength when their pathway of learning gets tough. Wouldn't it be exciting to witness students managing the curves, bends, and obstacles with ease?
A classroom that is defined differently will build resilient learners who do not have to face the constant battle of overcoming a feeling of inadequacy, where their learning is instead connected to self knowledge, confidence, and a true love of learning. I discovered this classroom where the child is in charge of her learning, where students are motivated to come to school each day, and where there is virtually an absence of fixed mindset beliefs. Having worked in schools around the world as a teacher, counsellor, and principal for 25 years, I finally discovered the system I was always dreaming of but thought could never exist—where children were thriving academically as well as socially and emotionally. Serving as a head of school in a Montessori school these past 7 years has opened my eyes to what learning is all about, and I can now show any visitor that comes into my school a working model of resilient students forging ahead to become the person they are meant to be, rather than trying to mold them into a compliant follower.
In our rapidly changing world and increasing pressures on students, it is not surprising we need more focus and emphasis on teaching resilience. If we see resilience as a way of "bouncing back from adversity" (Deborah Perkins-Gough, pg 14), then a preventative approach to avoid adversity in the first place makes a lot of sense to me. We will always, however, have those children who suffer from the most horrible challenges and failures that will require programs and gallant work to bring them to a position of strength. Thank you for inspiring us with examples of these outstanding programs and the amazing stories of survivors such as Maya Angelou.
Bondi, New South Wales 2026 Australia