September 8, 2022

2 Simple Things Any Teacher Can Do to Help Build Student Resilience

Tracy Clements
Photo of Tracy Clements

In a world where things seem to continue to get more complicated, working in a school can, at times, become overwhelming. It can feel like educators are taking on more responsibilities with already limited resources. Our plates seem to be overflowing with new and unfamiliar tasks. All we want is for our students to learn and be healthy, which can seem like a unicorns and rainbows ideal. I have some amazing news for you…it’s not! 

What is resilience?

In simple terms, resilience means kids are ok, even when bad things happen. I like to think of it as putting bubble wrap or a teflon coating around my students. We can’t protect them from every bad thing, but we can help them respond in positive ways to the bad things that happen. Research from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child1 identifies a “stable and committed relationship with at least one adult” as the most common factor in children who demonstrate resilience. 

There is an abundance of research and information related to resilience and the impact of trauma on learning. In short, when a brain is experiencing trauma, it is unable to learn and process information to the best of its ability. When your students’ brains are dysregulated due to stress or trauma, even the best instruction will not help them learn. If you look at it in terms of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, they are toward the bottom of the pyramid — dealing with safety and security and are unable to focus efforts on learning. Building relationships helps satisfy safety needs and allows students to move toward self-actualization. Essentially, before they can begin to learn effectively, they need to feel safe.

Two ways to make students feel safer

So, how do we build stable and committed connections? There are a multitude of ways, but two of the most effective and simple are to use the student’s first name and smile at them. The impact will be multifaceted. First, the child will feel seen and cared for, which aids in building relationships. Also, when you smile, your brain releases chemicals that help fight off stress. Not only will you be helping students build resilience, you will also be helping yourself relieve stress which in turn increases your capacity to learn new skills and adjust to the ever-changing world of being a teacher. 

According to Polyvagal Theory2, there is an area of your brain that lights up when someone uses your first name. This theory asserts that damage created by trauma begins to heal when this area lights up. If this theory is correct, the impact of using first names and a smile can be even more impactful. Even if it is not correct, you will still be building connections with your students to increase their potential for resilience. 

Taking a few moments at the beginning of class to help yourself and your students regulate your brains can make a big difference in learning. Dysregulation can come from everyday stressors, or from major traumatic events. Any amount of regulation is going to help increase the ability to learn. Some examples I have seen include teachers standing at the classroom door greeting students as they enter, taking a moment of silence or a few deep breaths before beginning a lesson, and utilizing feelings rating scales at the beginning of a lesson. The list is only limited by your creativity. 

Making a connection that lasts

My 8th grade math teacher Mr. Richards started every class period with, “Questions, comments, or concerns?” As an adult, I asked him why he did that. He said after teaching for many years, he realized if his students were thinking about other things, they could not learn the material he was teaching. He decided to embrace quality over quantity. Almost 40 years later, I still remember his classes. I remember how I felt heard and respected even though I rarely had a question, comment, or concern. 

Rita Pierson states it perfectly in her TED Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion”3 when she says, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” If we want to engage our students and really help them learn to the best of their individual abilities, we have to build connections with them. They need to feel seen, heard, and respected.

There are literally thousands of programs, platforms, books, and strategies that can help you build relationships and improve your classroom climate. I would like to suggest you start by taking a deep breath and returning to the simple things. Smile at your students and use their names. When you and your students are in a place where you are regulated and ready to learn, only then can you make meaningful progress.

This may sound overly simplistic, but our world is complex and stress has become overwhelming for many students and teachers alike. Taking a few moments to connect can have healing effects on us as educators and our students. When we take the steps necessary to relieve some of this stress, we can then start to explore some of the exciting new tools available to help take students to the next level.