Life is tough, no denying it. As adults, we have an indefinite list of things which keep us up most nights – finances, personal relationships, professional relationships, image, etc.. But why are some people more easily able to just deal with things, while others appear to be completely consumed by them? The answer: resilience. As a teacher, resilience is a duality, encompassing the flexibility we witness on a daily basis from students just trying to survive the cruelty that is adolescence and our own professional ability to “keep it all together”.

Recently, educators at our school board were invited to attend a presentation my Dr. Michael Ungar, one of the world’s leading researchers in resilience. Dr. Ungar’s research concludes that personal interactions (and not one’s individual traits) will ultimately determine someone’s ability to overcome adversity and keep going.


noun: resilience; plural noun: resiliences
  1. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

    “nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience”

  2. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

    “the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions”

    “Resilience.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web, 2016.

According to Dr. Ungar, we can facilitate resilience by encouraging the following 9 constructs:

  1. structure
  2. consequences
  3. connections
  4. strong relationships
  5. identity
  6. control
  7. belonging
  8. rights & responsibilities
  9. safety & support

Dr. Ungar’s work involves counseling troubled teens from a variety of paths who demonstrate difficulty coping with adversity. As a teacher working at a school in a disadvantaged urban area, many of the findings presented by Dr. Ungar were not revelations, but rather, an affirmation of the norm (not the exception) of what I deal with on a daily basis.

Here’s my take on Dr. Ungar’s nine tenants of resilience:

1. Structure

Contrary to popular belief, young people (and most adults too) crave structure. The sense of kinda knowing what to expect creates normalcy for many people. Good parents create routines so that a set of goals are developed for their children to aspire to. Teachers establish routines for their students to follow at the beginning of every year so that, come winter break, their classes are a well-oiled machine that is capable of functioning even on those days when we’re not there. Employers develop expectations for their employees so that everyone has common objectives to work towards. Having structure is the cohesive glue that keeps everything together.

2. Consequences

Any appropriate, well-intended context ultimately has a set of consequences (both positive & negative) attached to it. From an early age, children are taught to understand that certain actions will produce positive effects and others not so positive – and while some children may react in particular ways so as to appease their parents, eventually (if done properly) they’ll come to realize that their parents actually do have their best interests at heart. Good teachers also have clear consequences for various actions in their classes – and great ones demonstrate the ability to manufacture “learning moments” from the “corrective” measures used in their classroom. Professionally, adults also understand the importance connected to being a punctual, productive teammate. Without clear consequences, we threaten potential confusion, miscommunication, and decreased productivity and pride in ourselves and our careers.

3. Connections

I turned 40 this year, and for the first time, I’m beginning to realize just how important my connections with friends, family and colleagues really are. While growing up, it’s easy to understand why making friends is so important – they share a collective existence with you and are someone you can share interests with. As we get older, friends and acquaintances may come and go, and you may have friends for different reasons (it’s no longer about what you did as kids but rather what your kids now have in common), but everyone needs to make a sustained connection to at least one person in their lives. Doesn’t matter who people decide to connect with; everyone brings something unique to the table: the point is that remaining unconnected is just plain unhealthy – being social is part of our DNA.

4. Strong Relationships

Relationships, whether they be with peers, a mentor, coach, or confidante,  are critical towards our ability to be resilient. While many children are able to make friends relatively easily with other kids, an increasing number of young people find themselves socially cut off because of increased screen time, where virtual interactions are substituted for real human contact. Children who feel increasingly ostracized by their peer group run the risk of being increasingly isolated as adults, resulting in increased mental illness and suicide rates. For that reason, it is imperative that adults, not children, make an effort to be more mindful towards the young people they encounter on a daily basis, even if it’s as simple as saying “hello”. Strong relationships offer people a place to feel safe in their beliefs, which in turn allows for more creativity and productivity, leading to an environment where individuals are not afraid to make mistakes and contribute to increased levels of success.

5. Identity

Children’s sense of self is important towards their healthy development. It is our duty to help them maintain and develop their sense of identity and foster their resilience by carefully exposing them to adverse circumstances. Children can be helped to persevere and perpetuate their identity in difficult times through effective support from families, the communities they belong to and by having positive relationships with skilled practitioners who understand the importance of fostering resilience.

Teachers play an important role in this regard. Over the last 15 years, I have seen increasing numbers of students in my classes who originate from homes where verbal, physical, and substance abuse is the norm, not the exception. Schools are where kids are allowed to be themselves; to discover, develop, and display who they are and what they are all about. Educational institutions have evolved over the last decade to be more inclusive milieus, where race, colour, creed, and sexual orientation are no longer seen as reasons to be criticized, but rather, celebrated. Fortunately, our school staff includes medical staff, a psychiatrist, and other specialized individuals whose sole purpose is to work with students who present themselves with varying levels of trauma which prevent them from “just being kids”.

6. Control

Believing that you have some measure of control over your life is important for wellness, as it motivates helpful coping that would not otherwise occur. People without control over their environment are vulnerable to feeling helpless and to lapsing into passivity and depression. Research shows that real improvements in students’ physical and mental well-being occur when they are granted even small amounts of control over their lives, for instance, being able to choose some of their daily activities. Increased employee productivity and job satisfaction can also be linked to the ability of employers to give those who work for them some independence when completing projects, resulting in the increased number of “teams” people now work on. Having control over things you can do (primary control) and things you can attempt to change (secondary control) are really important when it comes to increased resiliency.

7. Belonging

Resiliency literature shows that, outside the family circle, teachers are the most frequently cited positive role models named by children. Teachers often take a compassionate view: we trust and accept children unconditionally, and often look beyond behaviour when trying to understand underlying causes. In most cases, teachers (and not parents) make children feel as if they matter. Teachers demonstrate a belief in a child’s capacity for success, show genuine interest in a child’s activities and pursuits, listen attentively to a child’s feelings, hopes and dreams, let them know they are missed when they are absent, and find ways to include the child in classroom and after school activities.

[Such a] relationship provided an environment of reinforcement, good modelling and constructive feedback for physical, intellectual, psychological and social growth. The attentive, caring and wise voice of a supportive adult gets internalized and becomes part of the child’s own voice.

Eccles, J., & Gootman, J. (2002). Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 209

Consequently, when a child is banished from the group (suspended or expelled), the opportunity for such learning is greatly diminished. Research shows that young people derive personal satisfaction and a sense of meaning from these relationships. The young people at greatest risk for dropping out of school have never been friends with any teacher.

8. Rights & Responsibilities

A right is, at its base, the expression of the society’s faithfulness to the dignity of each of its members. Society recognizes that certain individual needs are so important that their satisfaction cannot depend on the ups and downs of life nor on the goodwill of others. Formulated differently, a person can claim what is recognized as a “right”. We must nevertheless pay attention to not consider legal rights as more important than other rights. For example, the right of the child to be loved is, from the point of view of many, absolutely fundamental but difficult to impose in a concrete legal manner by the nation-state. Teachers often provide this love that children who are often neglected seek, rescinding themselves to the role of parent, mentor, and cheerleader. Even though we are not legally obliged to do so, teachers are governed by the law of en loco parentis, which stipulates that, when needed, teachers act in the role of a child’s parent(s) in their absence, leading to a situation where teachers are called upon more often than not to protect a child (and their rights) at all costs.

9. Safety & Support

Parents, early childhood educators, and other adults try to keep children safe by preventing stress and trauma. This is not always possible. Adults can, however, promote resilience in young children by fostering protective factors that can buffer the negative effects of adversity. Families and communities have a great influence on a child’s ability to persevere. When adults provide responsive care to children, they learn to trust others. When children are held to high expectations by their parents or other caregivers, children begin to believe in themselves and realize that they are capable. When adults encourage children to participate in the family or classroom by giving them responsibilities and offering them choices about their environment, young children feel a sense of belonging and competence.

Children need high-quality care, opportunities for developing and maintaining relationships, adequate nutrition, and support from families, educators, and communities. When these and other protective factors are in place, children experience positive development and have the internal adaptive resources to cope with the trauma and stress they encounter. As a teacher, the importance of the role I play in not only the academic growth of a child but more importantly, their emotional growth, appears to be more important now than ever before. The ability of a child to develop their resiliency becomes even more difficult when you throw a disadvantaged socio-economic upbringing into the mix.

The kids who need the most love ask for it in the most unloving of ways.

‘Til the next post.