CYC-Online 73 FEBRUARY 2005
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school-based practice

Using academic strategies to build resilience

Theodore Pikes, Brenda Burrell and Connie Holliday

Developing and implementing educational experiences that foster resiliency can be as easy as gaining a new perspective on traditional academic activities. This article provides five examples of academic projects that can be used to build five important elements of resilience. competency, belonging, usefulness, potency, and optimism.

A college professor had his sociology class go into the Baltimore slums to get case histories of 200 young boys. They were asked to write an evaluation of each boy’s future. In every case the students wrote, “He hasn’t got a chance.”

Twenty-five years later, another sociology professor came across the earlier study. He had his students follow up on the project to see what had happened to the 200 boys. With the exception of 20 who had moved away or died, the students learned that 176 of the remaining 180 had achieved more than ordinary success as lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.

The professor was astounded and decided to pursue the matter further. Fortunately, all the men were in the area and he was able to ask each one, “How do you account for your success?” In each case, the reply came with feeling, “There was a teacher.”

The teacher was still alive, so he sought her out and asked the old but still alert lady what magic formula she had used to pull the boys out of the slums into successful achievement.

The teacher’s eyes sparkled and her lips broke into a gentle smile. “It’s really very simple,” she said. “I loved those boys” (Butterworth, 1993).

* * *

Increasingly, the term “resiliency” is being used in reference to outcomes like those depicted in the above illustration. Resilience is the strength and abilities youth acquire to withstand, adjust to, or recover from adverse environmental circumstances such as school failure, substance abuse, child abuse/neglect, teen pregnancy, delinquency, poverty, and violence (Berliner & Benard 1995; Edwards, 1997). Although this strength is innate, it can be greatly enhanced by social supports, like that provided by the teacher in the story, which promote the development of coping mechanisms (Duttweiler, 1995; Sagor, 1996). These social supports help make it possible for students not only to survive, but to thrive.

According to Sagor (1996) and Wang, Haertel, and Walberg (1995), schools can provide support to students, particularly those at risk, through resilience-building experiences that focus on five themes:

  1. Competency (feeling successful)

  2. Belonging (feeling valued)

  3. Usefulness (feeling needed)

  4. Potency (feeling empowered)

  5. Optimism (feeling encouraged and hopeful)

Experiences that relate to these five factors are likely to enhance students' motivation and self-esteem – and consequently, their achievement (Edwards, 1997).

Resiliency-Building Class Strategies
While developing and implementing educational resiliency-building experiences may seem like “one more thing to do,” many of these techniques are already part of an educator’s repertoire (Sagor, 1996). Teachers can infuse the five themes of resilience into everyday academic instruction across subject areas, either as repeated learning experiences or as themes for long-term group and class projects. For example:

The five examples which follow can serve as models for long-term activities and class projects that infuse resiliency as a primary aspect of the projects' theme. Each of the five themes associated with resiliency – competence, belonging, usefulness, potency, and optimism – is addressed. The examples are appropriate for any age group and can be adapted for a variety of functional and interest levels.

Fostering feelings of competency

Using a process approach to writing and a popular slogan, students can develop written compositions that recall significant demonstrations of competency after experiencing failure. The writings will be autobiographic narratives that focus on positive life experiences that have resulted from or occurred after experiences with failure.

During the planning stage of this process approach to writing, the teacher can facilitate a class discussion about mottoes and slogans associated with success. A wide variety of slogans from advertisements, bumper stickers, organizations, peer affiliations, and other sources should be discussed. After the discussion, the class should choose one slogan to use as a theme for all individual autobiographic narratives and discuss the meaning and use of the slogan. For example, in one of our schools in New Orleans, the class chose a chant used by fans of their local football team – the New Orleans Saints. The class discussed various chants used by the fans (e.g., “Who Dat?” “I Believe,” “Bless You Boys,” “Cha Ching!” “Whoot, There It Is!”) and chose the last one as a common slogan because it is usually used when the Saints make a touchdown.

Once a slogan is selected, the class then:

  1. Brainstormed words and phrases synonymous with the chant

  2. Identified possible occasions when a person may experience a “Whoot, There It Is!” moment after experiencing an instance of failure

  3. Discussed ways of gathering information and impressions about instances of failure and subsequent success from diverse sources

The class also exchanged compliments “each student was told by classmates or the teacher about something they remembered as a “Whoot, There It Is!” moment for that student.

A thinking and verbal language homework assignment can also be a part of the planning stage for writing the autobiographic narrative. For example, students can be assigned to think about moments in which they have experienced success after a failure, talk with witnesses about their memories of the events, and select one moment as the topic of the autobiographic narrative. Planning activities can then include creating and gathering materials for the content of their writing (e.g., an outline of details to include, questions for interviews, pictures or other existing documentation) and determine the format they will use to present their work (e.g., poster or bulletin board display, custom-designed portfolio, multimedia presentation). Students can receive feedback and writing suggestions from others by sharing their plans within a small group or with the entire class.

Once they have planned a myriad of authentic and meaningful processes for gathering information and feedback, students can proceed with their writing. During the drafting, revising, editing, publishing, and metacognitive (self-reflection) stages, students can continue to consult one another as well as with the teacher. This ongoing consultation provides opportunities to discuss their successes repeatedly because they are the focus of the writing activity. The publication of their works can then occur in multiple contexts (e.g., school programs or exhibitions, local print or electronic media, national publications).

Fostering Feelings of Belonging

Social Studies

Teachers can initiate a class project that engages students in investigating themselves and their relationships with others by creating a timeline of their own personal histories. Initially, after a class discussion of historical timelines, students can be instructed to develop timelines that include significant events in their lives within a specified length of time (e.g., the last five years, three months prior to the current school year, Monday through Friday of the next week of school). After students' initial timelines are developed, the class can examine them and identify entries that represent social elements related to belonging (i.e., interdependence, love/affection, unique contributions).

The class might watch a movie about feeling valued (e.g., It’s a Wonderful Life) and discuss the concept of belonging. Using information and insights gained from the initial timeline and these discussions, students can construct a second timeline that specifically focuses on aspects of their personal histories related to belonging. Their timelines may include instances when others depended on them, occasions when someone demonstrated heartfelt love or affection, and/or times when they added something to a situation or solution that no one else could.

The timelines that focus on belonging can be used to generate a personal theme for each student’s history. Students can associate their themes with a picture or graphic and use it to design a personal flag that represents them similar to the way flags represent nations. The students' flags will signify the students' belonging in multiple contexts (e.g., among family members, in the company of peers, within their communities). Individual flags can be displayed in a variety of ways (e.g., on notebooks, clothing, and shoes). Student flag patches can be connected to create a class flag. The individual flags or class mosaic may also be used as part of a special recognition luncheon attended by students, school personnel, families, friends, and community members. During the luncheon, the flags can be presented ceremoniously with personal commentaries about how and why each student “belongs.”

Fostering Feelings of Usefulness


Students can build both reading skills and feelings of usefulness while volunteering in special reading projects with residential care facilities for senior citizens in their communities. Teach students to design, administer, and use a “reading needs assessment” to residents in these communities. Based on the needs assessment, work with students to develop plans for providing for those needs. The reading needs of the seniors may include:

Additionally, the primary need for some senior citizens may be to learn how to read.

Student volunteers can provide reading weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly services for the seniors. The project might also be designed to include opportunities for students to be read to by senior citizens and/or to participate in collaborative reading activities that specifically focus on comprehension.

Fostering Feelings of Potency


Teachers can work with students to construct word problems that pose decision-making situations the students actually face or are likely to encounter. Each word problem can include a common statement that reflects personal power, such as “It’s your call!” The word problems should require the use of a variety of critical thinking skills that are appropriate to the students' academic abilities. Word problems generated with students may include scenarios like the following:

You want to participate in your school’s fashion show and you must purchase your $210 outfit for the show by March 9. Today is February 13 and you have no money. You have been offered a job assisting the school’s custodian after school, earning $5.50 an hour for 10 hours a week, throughout the school year. You have also been offered a job delivering sealed packages to houses in your neighborhood that are known as places where strangers gather and the police are frequently called to investigate situations. You will be paid $20 for each delivery (which would take you no longer than 15 minutes on your bike every day) and you will have a chance to make 12 deliveries next week. What would you do? It’s your call!

Instruct students that in their responses, they should include information derived from mathematical computations, as well as statements about their personal principles and beliefs.

Fostering Feelings of Optimism


Students can work collaboratively to create Quality of Life portfolios that illustrate progressive uses of technology related to a number of thematic areas. These might include basic life needs (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, safety, communication), social issues (e.g., drug abuse, child abuse/neglect, adolescent pregnancy, juvenile crime, suicide), or specific areas associated with their personal perspectives on quality of life and their own goals and aspirations. Each group can select an area personally important to their quality of life as a theme for the portfolio and then determine its content and format. The development of each portfolio will involve research, reflections, and predictions of applications of science that are personalized, positive, and progressive.

Students will discuss and display past, current, and futuristic technologies in ways related to their families, school, and communities that represent positive change and the potential for change related. For example, one group working on the rise of the personal computer might include:

Providing opportunities for students to feel successful, valued, needed, empowered, and hopeful can be accomplished in ways that enrich required academic studies. All of the suggested strategies incorporate the use of recommended teaching practices (e.g., brainstorming, scaffolding, cooperative learning) while facilitating high levels of student engagement in critical thinking. During each activity, students can learn and construct information typically considered essential to gaining proficiency in basic subject areas, while at the same time focusing on factors associated with resilience and using their knowledge in personally relevant contexts.

When students' academic experiences are stepped in these five themes that contribute to resilience, they can not only survive, but also thrive in ways that allow them to become valued members of their local and global communities. We hope our activities will act as models for developing the classroom, schoolwide, and extracurricular strategies that are so crucial for fostering resilience.


Berliner. B., & Benard, B. (1995). More than a message of hope. A district-level policy-maker’s guide to understanding resiliency (Clearinghouse No. EA 027 147). Portland, OR: western Regional Center for 0mg-Free Schools and Communities. (ERIC Documentation Reproduction Service No. ED 387 946)

Butterworth, E. (1993). Love: The one creative force. In I. Canfield & MA. Hansen (Eds.), Chicken soup for the soul (pp. 3–4). Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Duttweiler, P.C. (1995). Effective strategies for educating students in at-risk situations. Clemson, SC: National Dropout Prevention Center.

Edwards, C. H. (1997). Classroom discipline & management (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Sagor, R. (1996). Building resiliency in students. Educational Leadership, 54(l), 38–41.

Wang, M. C., Haertel, G. 0., &walherg, H. J. (1995). Educational resilience: An emergent construct (Clearinghouse No. UD 030 726). Philadelphia, PA: National Education Center on Education in the Inner Cities.

This feature: Pikes, T., Burrell, B. and Holliday, C. (1998) Using Academic Strategies to Build Resilience. Reaching Today's Youth Vol. 2 issue 3. pp 44-47.

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