by Vicki Collet
Do your students see challenges and confusion as stepping stones to success? Do they recognize that taking risks and making mistakes are important parts of learning? Students who have the resilience to deal with problems are better prepared for the unknown future that lies ahead in our rapidly-changing world.
Imagine this scene in Mrs. Durkin’s kindergarten classroom: At the writing table, Christopher is making a birthday card for his classmate, Zander. He checks Zander’s nametag to get the spelling right and stretches out sounds as he composes his message. Santos is at the SmartBoard in the front of the room; when the audio is not working, he reaches over and turns the volume knob; still no sound. Then Santos unplugs and reinserts the audio cord and smiles as music begins playing. At the kidney table, Mrs. Durkin takes a Running Record, noting that Gracie stops, rereads, and corrects her miscue when she gets confused. All of these students are exhibiting resilience; they respond actively when confronted with problems during learning.
Resilient classrooms are those where students are not afraid to make mistakes. There is a strong culture for inquiry and the atmosphere reflects a willingness to take risks because learning is seen as worthwhile. Students understand that trials and errors bring learning! Because literacy learning requires experimenting and facing unknowns, knowing how to deal well with challenges is an important literacy skill. Classrooms with an environment of flexibility enhance students’ learning and foster resilience.
As students develop resilience, they recognize that effort develops knowledge and skill. Rather than believing that success depends solely on talent, they recognize that success is tied to effort (Dweck, 2002). Rather than focusing on difficulties, they focus on what they can do. Resilient people take an optimistic view. They interpret setbacks as temporary, situational, and changeable. Students who are less resilient describe failure as permanent, pervasive, and out of their control (Seligman, 2011).
All students are motivated—but some, because of past experiences, are dominated by avoidance motivation as a way to protect themselves from situations that they feel may lead to humiliation or disappointment (Goldstein & Brooks, 2013). Students who are not resilient are worried about making mistakes because they fear failure. Because of this fear, they choose what to do based on how successful they think they will be. When these students don’t feel certain of their ability to succeed, they procrastinate or do not attempt assignments. During class, they may not participate because they worry about what others will think if they give an incorrect answer. They view their performance as a measure of their value. They will avoid mistakes to avoid the risk of being embarrassed. Making mistakes can leave non-resilient students feeling distressed and overwhelmed.
Learning Experiences That Increase Resilience
Teachers can take action to overcome students’ fears, reduce avoidance motivation, and increase resilience. Literacy learning experiences that build resilience include opportunities for students to correct errors and build understanding.
For example, encouraging readers to “take a running start and try that again,” when faced with an unknown word will increase reading tenacity. Students who struggle are often conditioned to look to the teacher whenever they come to an unknown word. Teachers build resilience when, instead of supplying the word, they encourage application of a strategy or use of a resource. A quick cue can urge students to re-read, apply context clues, consider background experience, use sound/symbol association, or use classroom resources to figure out the unknown word. If teachers mindfully take this approach, they build their students’ capacity for independence and resilience. In the classroom described above, Mrs. Durkin quickly responded to a student’s upward glance for assistance by pointing back to the book, redirecting the child’s attention to cues that she had and skills she could use to figure out an unknown word.
Teaching comprehension fix-up strategies helps students to develop persistence in meaning-making as they read. Mrs. Durkin taught her students fix-up strategies during small-group guided reading instruction. An object was used to introduce each strategy: a stop sign (stop-and-think), a paper clip (make connections), and a parrot figure (reread). Then, when students got stuck, they decided which strategy would work best; they grabbed the corresponding object as a visual reminder.
Encouraging students to use classroom resources such as process charts, word walls, and letter-sound cards engenders a problem-solving attitude. For example, an anchor chart created by Mrs. Durkin’s class entitled, “Help for Writing,” includes a list (with accompanying visuals) of resources for writing: Ask a friend, word wall, letter cards, my word bank (each child’s file box of words), posters, and finally, Mrs. Durkin. Although Mrs. Durkin’s name had originally appeared at the top of the list, after the class brainstormed so many other resources, they decided together that they could move her to the bottom of the list!
Teachers’ approach toward spelling can foster resilience. Encouraging invented spelling in emergent writing helps children take risks and develop confidence as writers. Mrs. Durkin had letter-sound cards posted in her classroom to encourage invented spelling. Although she had these cards available from the beginning of the year, Mrs. Durkin also taught mini-lessons that highlighted the features of the cards (picture, letter, other possible spellings) to draw students’ attention to how they might be used during reading and writing. Importantly, if students asked her how to spell a word, Mrs. Durkin directed their attention to the cards when she felt they would be helpful. For older writers, spelling strategies like Have-A-Go recognize the value of making an educated guess. With Have-a-Go, students lift words from their writing that need correcting, use what they know to make attempts at spelling the word, then check it against a resource for correct spelling. Invented spelling and Have-A-Go both encourage students to use their background skills and knowledge, make an educated guess, and take risks in their writing. My favorite example of this came from a kindergarten student, Savannah, who unabashedly included the word “nomony” (pneumonia) in her writing!
Providing students with opportunities for drafting and revision cultivates a realistic and helpful view of the writing process and supports resilience. Mrs. Durkin’s writing workshop time provided students with opportunities to revisit their favorite pieces. They gloried in learning about the caret, and a look through students’ writing folders showed that they were taking advantage of the ability it offered to add to their thinking. Correction tape was another favorite tool in Mrs. Durkin’s classroom. As students prepared their final drafts, they knew they could turn to this resource rather than recopying the entirety of their precious published piece. Tools like these reduce the consequences of making a mistake. By offering learning experiences that encourage risk-taking over perfection, teachers create a classroom climate that builds resilience.
Offering Praise to Increase Resilience
Another way teachers can create a resilient classroom is through offering specific praise that is focused on students’ efforts. When teachers look for opportunities to praise effort rather than critique outcomes, they are utilizing a strengths-based approach. According to Mueller and Dweck (1998), praising children for hard work leads them to value learning opportunities and persist in their efforts. When praise is tied to the process of students’ work, rather than their perceived ability, students rise to challenges in ways that enhance their skills and their resilience.
Mrs. Durkin offered her students praise that had these motivating characteristics. When Ryan read his zoo book to Mrs. Durkin, she responded, “Good job, Ryan. I love it—I love all your detail. I love how you told me the giraffe was yellow and the lizard was green. I like that you used the word finally.” Similarly, when Zach read Mrs. Durkin his book draft, she said, “Good, Zach – very nice! I love how you talked about the zoo train. I wouldn’t expect that that would escape from your writing.” In those few short words she: 1) expressed her high expectations for him, 2) praised his use of detail, and 3) made a personal connection, showing that she knew and remembered something he was passionate about (trains). Praise such as Mrs. Durkin’s, which is specific and focused on effort, increases students’ resilience.
When tied to student efforts, praise encourages students to learn new things, persist after difficulty, use better strategies for correcting mistakes, and improve performance (Zentall & Morris, 2010). Students whose efforts are praised want to “immerse themselves in information that could teach them more” (Dweck, 2002, p. 49). Praising children for hard work leads them to value learning opportunities and continue in their efforts.
Resilient students recognize mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn. They know that discovery requires testing and trying the unfamiliar. As you use the approaches described above, you are not only strengthening students’ literacy skills, you are building the important personal attribute of resilience.
Dweck, C. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J.Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp.37-59). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Goldstein, S. & Brooks, R. (2013). Handbook of resilience in children. New York: Springer.
Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Building resilience. Harvard Business Review, 89, 100-106.
Zentall, S. R., & Morris, B. J. (2010). “Good job, you’re so smart”: The effects of inconsistency of praise on young children’s motivation. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 107(2), 155-163.
Vicki Collet is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and past president of CCIRA. Her research focuses on literacy, instructional coaching, and teacher preparation and mentorship. Follow her blog at mycoachescouch.blogspot.com , on Facebook at facebook.com/mycoachescouch, and Twitter @vscollet.