Building Resilience and Responding to Defeat

In the second article in her series on mental health and tutoring, Master of Social Work candidate at UW, Gina Nepa talks about how to respond to setbacks in education. 


Maintaining the role of student for twelve years brings with it numerous opportunities for feelings of self-defeat, discomfort, and failure to thrive. Many of us have witnessed our peers or our children wither in response to unforeseen circumstances, whether those circumstances look like an unanticipated low grade on a test or a change within the family. Facing hardship is an inevitable, uncomfortable part of the life span; however, building up a “toolbox” of skills to strengthen resolve in times of distress can aid in promoting academic and socioemotional health. Starting this process of socioemotional tool accumulation at a young age can indubitably generate stronger long-term outcomes for success and well-being. So, which elements separate the students who are able to adapt and, in fact, grow when faced with discomfiting circumstances from the students who sink into self-loathing?

Wolpow et al. (2011) recommend utilizing “high expectations, reasonable limits, and consistent routines” (p. 16) as markers to build resilience, recommending that regardless of a student’s trajectory, conceptions of expectations should never be changed. Lowering markers for achievement was demonstrated to negatively impact student psyche, as students were inadvertently indoctrinated with familiar notions that they were not “good enough.”

Additionally, public schools tend to incorporate a substantial amount of group work into instruction, as reinforced by state Common Core standards. Although many students balk in response to having to work alongside strangers of varying work ethics and communication styles, the qualities that mark the students that thrive in group instruction are worth noting. A 30-year longitudinal study of resiliency[1] concluded that the children who fostered connections with “pro-social person[s]” (positive peer influences) had greater health outcomes decades later than children who were not able to build those strong connections. Werner’s (1989) study coincides with Wolpow et al.’s research in that both teams emphasize the ability of students to help other students as integral to building resilience.

Being amenable to the group process as an opportunity to build skills of teaching and explanation will help students generate their own feelings of competency and autonomy, in turn providing them with better academic outcomes.

1 Werner, E. (1989). High-Risk Children in Young Adulthood: A Longitudinal Study from Birth to 32 Years. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59(1), 72. Wolpow, R., Johnson, Mona M, Hertel, Ron, Kincaid, Susan, & Washington. Superintendent of Public Instruction. (2009). The heart of learning and teaching: Compassion, resiliency, and academic success. Olympia, WA: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) Compassionate Schools.

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Gina Nepa