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  • Writer's pictureMaggie

What Makes a Student Resilient?

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Building Student and Community Efficacy Using Design Thinking

What makes a student resilient?

A child who loses everything in a hurricane starts a homemade soap business.

High school students who survive a school shooting organize a movement and take on Congress, the President, and the NRA.

A refugee child becomes a school leader and environmental activist.

A child who grew up hungry and homeless becomes a Macarthur-winning sociologist.

Science tells us that certain conditions are more important than “nature” and even more closely correlated than socio-economic class in these children’s recoveries from the disasters in their lives. Strong parental and social networks, persistent cultural traditions, and a sense of self-efficacy make all the difference (Fothergill and Peek, Children of Katrina). Of these three elements of resilience, schools can have the greatest impact on self-efficacy.

According to the American Psychological Association, self-efficacy reflects confidence in one’s ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment. Most disastrous situations, whether poverty, violence, or climate change disaster, involve a sense of life-threatening helplessness, and of seeing adults (who usually protect) rendered equally powerless. This can be traumatizing. Yet children also demonstrate significant capabilities in the moment, including creativity and resourcefulness, optimism and empathy, that allow them to act even when adults are overwhelmed.

In Children of Katrina, sociologists Fothergill and Peek documented the phenomenon of resilience among children who were able to help out in shelters and communities. Using their time before they could return to school to problem-solve and help others built their confidence back and prepared them for the next steps of recovery. In Puerto Rico, similar benefits appeared, as children were enlisted to organize food and water brigades supporting elders in apartment buildings, brainstorm ways to bridge rivers, helping to create community art, and to rebuild homes and institutions. In spite of steep odds, many of these engaged students and their teachers are now innovators and activists; creative, optimistic, and powerful. Schools can help validate and build on children’s innate capacities in order to be sure they are resilient BEFORE disaster strikes, as well as helping them to heal and build back efficacy afterward.

If a person’s ability to “bounce back” and persist is based on self-efficacy, then we need to explore pathways to efficacy mindsets and skills, and then determine how they can be taught.

It turns out that design thinking as both a way of learning/thinking and a problem-solving process, builds efficacy AND neatly supports what students need to thrive in the 21st century (see and to address the needs of our transforming world. If we could develop the resilience and innovative power of ALL of our people and communities, why wouldn’t we?

How might we engage students in authentic community and global problem-solving, so as to develop their resilience, deepen their learning, and engage them with relevance and purpose in school and community? One thing we should NOT do is to envision a service learning or problem-solving curriculum that is outside of the school day. While certainly this is helpful to those students who are involved, it separates the experience into a silo, and prevents it from influencing every aspect of student learning. What we SHOULD do is to start with a period of time (a two-intersession, perhaps two or three times a year) when the whole school can focus on learning design thinking and applying it to solve school or community problems. As the teachers’ facility with it grows, they begin to apply their experience in all aspects of their teaching. Gradually, the projects have more moving parts, and innovation is added to entrepreneurship and leadership in the school community as a whole. Student efficacy and agency in the creation of their own meaningful educational narrative grows along with the design thinking partnerships and practice. There is real beauty to the paradigm-shift of student-led community design thinking workshops and co-led professional development. Eventually, schools and communities together begin to develop greater integration across disciplines and generations to move forward together to confront the grand challenges.

Giving students and teachers the tools and the partnerships to identify and solve sticky problems in their communities empowers students to be changemakers. Giving communities these same tools and a new generation of innovators to deploy them can save the planet.

Efficacy is at the core of resilience. It is about having the sense that you can control, reflect on and enhance your own thinking and skills lifelong. If we make it the priority of our planning for school, and use design thinking in strategic partnerships with community organizations, it will be baked in to the way we learn, teach, and think. Transforming the way we think, act and teach will create resilient people and communities prepared to save their own and others’ lives on this planet.

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