Bend, But Not Break: Cultivating Resilience in Students and Ourselves

Elizabeth Wilcox, Sr. Consultant for Advising

Exciting new research on personal and academic resilience is helping to advance our understanding of this important quality. We are naturally drawn to the special magic of resilient people who captivate and inspire us and we wonder:  What is resilience?  Who has it?  How can it be developed in ourselves and others?

As preparation for advising, our own experiences of loss, setback, disappointment and failure have helped to develop one of our most critical advising tools: empathy. Our ability to empathize with the student who may be struggling is part of the important contribution we make to supporting persistence and retention. Even at a prestigious institution of high achievers with astounding intellectual and creative accomplishment setbacks are common, to be expected, and even necessary to learning. As advisors, we know intuitively and through experience that it is as important to teach students how to handle setbacks as it is to help them reach for and embrace success.

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”. It isn’t about avoiding stress but about learning to master it.

One of the most important advances in the study of resilience is that it can be cultivated. In their book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney provide a range of strategies for developing resilience which include,

1)     Learning how to regulate your emotions

2)     Adopting a positive but realistic outlook

3)     Becoming physically fit

4)     Accepting challenges

5)     Maintaining a close and supportive social network and

6)     Observing and imitating resilient role models.

Each of the recommended strategies provides a means for either reducing stress or encouraging personal growth. For example, there are two approaches to regulating emotions, cognitive reappraisal and mindfulness meditation. Southwick and Charney explain that cognitive reappraisal is a means by which “individuals reinterpret the meaning of an adverse event so that they see it as less negative”. As a result, physiological and emotional reactions may be more easily modulated. Mindfulness meditation, or the practice of turning one’s attention to the present moment instead of dwelling in the past or jumping to the future, may also help strengthen resilience and reduce stress. Advisors are encouraged to consider how they might use these strategies to build their own response to stress and encourage better coping in students.

In terms of academic resilience, the work of Carol Dweck on Mindset is also highly recommended. Cultivating a “growth” as compared to “fixed” (or failure avoidant) mindset involves focusing on effort over innate ability. Talent alone does not create success- effort is needed to build accomplishment and self-esteem. Dweck recommends learning to hear your fixed mindset “voice” and talking back to it as a strategy for developing a growth mindset. These resources and strategies may expand our ability to work effectively with students encountering challenge, setback and difficulty.

For more on this fascinating topic please see:

Stanford University, The Resilience Project

The Road to Resilience: American Psychological Association

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven M. Southwick, M.D. and Dennis S. Charney, M.D.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success