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The Effects of Resilience Building Strategies On Children’s Academic Performance

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    Resilience, the ability to adapt to difficult or challenging situations, has been demonstrated to increase academic skills such as problem solving and social emotional competence. Importantly, students can develop or increase their resiliency through modeling and practice. This study will analyze how resilience can affect overall academic performance. Its goal is to increase student resilience through deliberate interventions that include building competence, belonging, usefulness, and optimism in children at school.


    The critically acclaimed documentary Paper Tigers was one of my earliest exposures to trauma and resilience. As I watched the movie I was fascinated, saddened and then dedicated to exploring environmental impacts on a student’s education. I was engrossed by some students who suffered trauma (physical, sexual, or emotional abuse) were not able to overcome their circumstances and yet we know that others demonstrate a remarkable ability to bounce back from their traumas and succeed. It is now understood that our early experiences alter gene expression and lead to long lasting changes in behavior including increased risk of certain diseases, behavioral issues, learning problems, substance abuse, and early death (Nicoll, W. G. 2013). Yet, some of us are able to overcome the impact of trauma and stressors to succeed. As I continued to explore trauma and resilience I wondered if this ability could be trained. Could I intervene, embedding resilience training in class, and produce improvements? In my fourth grade classroom, I have seen children stressed by a particular skill, like division, completely shut down and vacate the classroom at the mention of working on division skills. Why can some students productively struggle in the classroom and be ready to keep working while others flee and act out at the thought of attempting a skill they failed at previously? This study will further advance my understanding of students’ resilience and mindset at the beginning, middle, and end of my action research and lead to greater social emotional competence and sense of belonging for students involved in the research in my fourth grade classroom.

    Review of Literature

    What is Resilience?

    Resilience can have varying definitions with some similar components but it has been difficult to reach complete agreement on the definition of resilience even after thirty years of research. Simply stated resilience refers to the ability to adapt to stress and adversity and bounce back. The American Psychological Association (2016) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress- such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, workplace concerns, or financial distress . However, as noted by Ann Masten (2014), the most widely used and accepted definition of resilience is “the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging circumstances.”(p.). Masten (2014) also makes the argument that if these human adaptive systems are working then children can develop normally while facing adversity (p.). This “ordinary magic” as she calls it, is based on the appearance of its commonality as a basic human operating system. Yet, there still exists some disagreement to the nature of resilience with some researchers suggesting it is a personality trait while others think of it as an interpersonal or a social skill (Weir, 2017).

    With recent data indicating that 35 million U.S. children have experienced one or more types of childhood trauma, with almost half the nation’s children having experienced at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma, there is a greater need now more than ever to understand resilience and ask who are resilient children and how does resilience show itself? (National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH 2016) Within this framework, Masten et al (1990) have identified three kinds of resilience among groups of children. These are: Children who do not succumb to adversities, despite their high-risk status, for example babies of low birth-weight. Children who develop coping strategies in situations of chronic stress, for example the children of drug-abusing or alcoholic parents. Lastly, children who have suffered extreme trauma, for example through disasters, sudden loss of a close relative, abuse, and have recovered and prospered. Resilient children, therefore, are those who resist adversity, manage to cope with uncertainty and are able to recover successfully from trauma (Newman, 2004, p.).

    What Are the Consequences of Childhood Trauma?

    Trauma has reached epidemic levels, where it occurs everywhere and affects everyone, and no one is immune to traumatic experiences (ChildHelp 2013). More? importantly, developmental exposure to trauma may result in toxic levels of stress which disrupts normal development resulting in impairments in brain function including memory, mood, and learning (Shonkoff & Garner 2012, p.). Notably, a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 1997 on Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs was unprecedented in that it linked medical diseases, mental disorders, and social issues with trauma experienced in childhood (Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V.,Marks, J. S. (1998)). Adverse childhood experiences that were measured were physical, sexual, verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect, having an alcoholic or drug addicted parent, a parent diagnosed with a mental illness, losing a parent to abandonment or divorce, or a family member in jail (Felitti, V. J., et al). Specifically, those who experience one to four ACEs have an increased risk of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and alcoholism. Further, these changes result in long term impairments in social learning and academic performance (Souers & Hall 2016, p. ). In school we see the effects of trauma manifest as negative behaviors in children as they act out (fight) or withdraw (flight or fright); they often have trouble trusting adults or getting along with their peers. Nearly 15% of students have been identified as suffering from anxiety, depression, and anger issues and they will develop negative or harmful coping strategies including drinking or doing other drugs, having dangerous sex, overeating, engaging in violence or thrill sports, and even over-achieving (Sawyer et al, 2000; Mission Australia, 2009, p. ). Thus it is imperative that schools utilize their unique place to contribute to healthy student attitudes and self-awareness.

    However, one positive outcome of the ACEs study is that it documented that resilience can outweigh trauma. Although trauma can never just go away, resilience is an effective tool in our toolbox to deal with trauma. Resilience gives us the capability to handle stress and find joy in life moving past the trauma. The world in which our children live has changed and they are making their way through this changed environment the best they can. Our children are often over protected and not allowed to experience failures which never gives them a chance to develop resilience strategies naturally. Further, they exist in a world without a filter resulting in constant exposure to travesties around the world producing fear, anxiety, and stress.

    Thus tolerable stress, a temporary increase in stress levels, may be elevated but can be buffered with relationships and resilience. On the other hand, toxic stress, ongoing and chronic stress, is maladaptive and leads to physical and emotional delays (Souers & Hall 2016). Indeed, allowing children to experience some stress, like failure, and then helping them understand how to deal with it appropriately yields a sense of control over their emotions and builds resilience to future stress (Souers, K. et al. 2016). The more that resilience is nurtured within them, and modeled and provided to them by their family and community, the more they are able to respond well to the stress they experience, which builds more resilience (Souers, K. et al. 2016).

    While all children feel stress and often experience the same stressful situations, such as bullying or failure, each child may respond differently to the same environment or situation. Interestingly, identical twins raised in the same environment exposed to similar stresses handle the response differently supporting a natural or innate resilience (Amstadter, A. B., Myers, J. M., & Kendler, K. S. 2014). Indeed, it has been demonstrated that these experiences produce detectable changes in gene expression or the epigenome which underlies the long-term effects in these individuals source. Further, the pattern of expression continues to diverge as individuals age resulting in different responses to stress. Importantly, these resultant changes may not be limited to the individual but may affect their children (Roseboom et. al, 2011). Thus, unmitigated traumatic situations not only affect the child immediately experiencing them but will have lasting effects on their children and their children’s children. To end this cycle of trauma we must provide children with the tools to deal with stress and trauma so they can build resilience to be successful throughout their life.

    How Can Resilience be Fostered?

    If you were to watch a swim class you might notice some children float with ease while others struggle with staying afloat. After instruction and learning how to handle breathing and controlling their body all children can have success with floating and swimming. Swimming is taught in leveled classes, slowly building on techniques previously learned. We give swimmers tools to use to make themselves feel more comfortable in the water that leads to successful swimmers. If children can learn complex activities like swimming, riding a bike, or playing the piano then social emotional skills can be taught as well. I am working on the premise that all children can be resilient by providing them with the tools necessary to cope successfully to stress and trauma. One area schools have taken the lead is with social emotional education. Social emotional education provides children skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (Cristóvão, A. M., Candeias, A. A., & Verdasca, J. (2017). States including Wisconsin have started implementing social emotional standards to address the needs of children. The standards or competencies as they are referred to by the Wisconsin Department of Instruction include grade levels pre-kindergarten through adult. The domains are broken into four categories: Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, Self-Management, and Focus Attention. In the self-awareness domain students will be expected to able to demonstrate awareness of their emotions and how they may be the same or different from others. (Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards (WMELS) Domain II A EL.1). The standards help school districts focus efforts so children can manage their feelings, build healthy relationships, and navigate social environments. Social emotional learning programs not only increase a students ability to handle social situations but social-emotional learning programs have been shown to increase academic scores by 11 percent (Child Development, Vol.82, No. 1, 2011). Research by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) conducted in Alaska suggests that learning standards may increase the likelihood that students will receive instruction in social and emotional learning, experience improved school connectedness, and become better learners (Dusenbury, Mart, Weissberg, Zadrazil, 2011). The good news is that we can teach children to become resilient. Seligman suggested using the vaccine model of immunizing children against stress and depression by teaching to deal with failure in small bits and overcoming it through effort (Siegel, D. J. (2019). Children should be taught how to deal with failure as it is a vital part of learning. This trial and error type of learning, which is making a mistake, learning from it and trying again, teaches persistence and self-mastery and is a valid form of learning. Teachers can also reinforce effort and increase students self-efficacy by asking the following questions developed by Carol Dweck : “What did you learn today?, What mistake did you make that taught you something?, What did you try hard at today?, What can you learn from this? “ (Dweck, C., 2011 p.) Through this step by step approach to teaching, modeling, and building resilience in children we can give them lifelong skills to overcome trauma.

    What are Key Factors to Building Resilience?

    Factors that build resilience in a child include living with a caring and healthy adult, having social connections, being involved in community activities, having family and friends who believe in a better future, and being taught how to calm themselves and to regulate their emotions, even at a very early age (Resnick, 1997). These factors can be divided into two distinct areas of resilience, external and internal factors of resilience.

    Resnick, (1997) demonstrated that the two most important predictors of positive adjustment in children are their family and school. This precipitated a significant shift in education to focus on what is happening in the students’ lives and how that relates to the development of children. This shift acknowledges that the external factor of social environments, family, school, and community are large indicators of a child’s’ development (Nicoll W. et., al. 2014). These external environments can provide children with a strong sense of community and belonging. These factors include : access to health care, stable housing, economic stability–ability to earn a livable wage, social support–connections to family and friends, and affiliation with a supportive religious or faith community. One way to effectively ensure and provide intervention to children is to help families learn how to provide a safe, caring, supportive environment for their children (Weir, K., 2017). When that supportive environment is not available then it falls to internal factors to help support the child and give them a strong relationship and resilience.

    Internal factors rely on the development of essential social-emotional competencies. Researcher Richard Sagor in 1996 identified these internal, social emotional attributes as; competence, belonging, usefulness, and potency or optimism (Sagor, 1996). These, internal factors, are areas that can provide positive reinforcement in children to build resilience through deliberate instruction and in a positive school environment. It is in this external environment of school that can provide supportive and caring relationships that lead to higher academic achievement, motivation, and positive social adjustment through deliberate instructional practices and strategies to reinforce the internal factors of resilience.

    What are Effective Strategies to Build Resilience?

    Resilience can be promoted with interventions that can occur within the community, at school, or with families. Interventions have often been aimed at people interacting with the child: parents, siblings, relatives, and peers. If we recognize children’s behavior as their communication for what skills they still need to learn then we can effectively guide them to building resilience. However, children with low resilience tend to overreact to stressors and may interfere with development of resilience skills. If a child can only react to difficult situations then they are not able to make choices for how they behave. If they are receptive to difficult situations then they can observe and assess the surroundings and then choose how best to act. Students need strong support systems from teachers, administrators, and schools to allow them a safe environment to develop resiliency.

    For my purposes I will focus on deliberate interventions to develop internal factors that include building competence, belonging, usefulness, and potency in children at school. Through student responses to problem solving questions I will offer interventions to meet their needs. These in class interventions will provide immediate feedback and modeling on how to handle stressful situations.I will work to identify individual strengths and interests to provide a base to build from. I will provide experiences that allow for competency or success in academic achievement, by building a strong classroom community, I will give students a sense of belonging, to allow students a sense of usefulness I will provide an opportunity for all students to contribute to our classroom community, choices will be given to provide empowerment or potency. These interventions will give students a sense of belonging and will leave them feeling optimistic about school and their future.

    I will also utilize Mindfulness techniques to develop emotional control in my students. Mindfulness allows children especially to see that emotions are controllable and while things may happen to us that cause these emotions we can choose how we react. Breathing exercises, meditations, body awareness, and mindful body movements such as yoga will allow students to become aware of their feelings and reactions to those feelings. Infusing the classroom and the curriculum with resiliency building experiences can have a profound impact on our students’ self images. By providing real feeling of usefulness, competence, belonging, and optimism we would be giving children a resiliency antibody to help protect their future. Daily resilience building skills must be provided so that all students may have those positive feeling of belonging and usefulness. A school wide approach needs to be used for implementation of a resiliency building program with the staff starting with coming to an agreement about the schools current condition and then moving forward to plan strategic interventions and look for common desired outcomes.

    Does Resilience Education Improve Student Performance?

    In 2004, three researchers Thomas L. Hanson, Gregory Austin and June Lee-Bayha studied the relationship between resilience and academic progress. Students in schools that offered caring relationships, high expectation messages, and opportunities for meaningful participation and contribution showed significant strides in academic performance. This performance was determined using 1998-2002 test score data for 7th, 9th, and 11th graders from the Standardized Testing and Reporting Program’s (STAR) as well as data from the California Department of Education (Hanson, Thomas L.; Austin, Gregory; Lee-Bayha, June, 2004). Additionally, Waxman et al. (2003) suggests that focusing on educational resilience and those factors that can be altered to promote resilience may help address the gap in achievement between those students who are successful and those who are at risk of failure.

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