Resilience: A Lost Skill?

Resilience: A Lost Skill?


Michaela didn’t receive the grade she wanted on an exam in her history class, so she decided to study harder. She made an appointment with her teacher to make sure she understood what she needed to study. After a respectful conversation with her instructor, she made herself a new study schedule and decided to do her schoolwork in the library, since she recognized that she was easily distracted in the apartment she shared with friends. With these decisions made, Michaela felt happy and prepared to move on, confident that she’d do better next time.

Not really.

This used to be the norm, but it isn’t any longer. Now, many Michaelas would complain to the department that their teachers hadn’t prepared them well enough for the test, leave the teacher a bad review on Grade My Professor, have a fight with their roommates about the distractions, and see a counselor about how the grade affected their self-esteem.

Across the nation, colleges are reporting new problems with students:

  • They want do-overs for classwork they’re not happy with.
  • They ask for help with small issues in daily life.
  • They seek counseling for small issues.
  • They see poor grades as crushing failure.
  • They blame poor grades on their teachers.

It’s a lack of resilience. Students don’t pick themselves up and dust themselves off and try again, studies show. They are crushed by perceived failures and problems. They don’t feel able to cope with difficulties — break ups, crises with laundry or cooking, meeting people with different ideas —  that earlier generations would have seen as part of daily life.

Some observers suggest that the current generation of students have not had the chance to explore on their own and to deal with problems on their own. Having been carefully watched over all their lives by adults trying to make their lives easier and safer, they haven’t had a chance to develop the resilience they need for adult life.

There may be some truth to this. Supervised sports with coaches and competitions where everyone wins are not the same as unsupervised imaginative play. Classroom lessons designed to get the highest possible test scores for the benefit of the teachers and schools are not the same as challenging schoolwork requiring problem solving.

At the same time, there are good reasons, from school shootings to increasing awareness of bullying, that the adults in these kids’ lives are so focused on keeping them safe. This is a situation that might not change soon.

If this is the reason that students are less resilient than they used to be, though, it’s too late to go back and change it. Fragility gets in the way of striving for excellence, and the current response — often, just to give higher grades and try not to trigger emotional crises — isn’t leading to a real solution.

Here are some suggestions that could make a difference:

  • Give students opportunities to make meaningful choices in the classroom.
  • Foster a sense of community and belonging in school or organizational settings.
  • Give your kids chances to explore and enjoy imaginative play.
  • Make sure kids have the chance to be useful and competent by doing chores, helping others, and making respected contributions to discussions.
  • Provide logical consequences for kids’ actions, at school and at home.
  • Don’t solve your kids’ problems for them; help them learn from their problems.

Of course, kids always learn from what they see in the adults in their lives, too. Seeing brave responses to challenges, reasonable risk-taking, and an optimistic yet realistic approach to problems in the adults they care about can also make a difference.

Model resilience in your own life.

Photo credit: DanielJames / / CC BY-NC-SA