By Sherry Posnick Goodwin
California Faculty Association member Frank Lilly at CSU Sacramento.
Keira Flionis greets every student at the door with a handshake and a personal greeting when they enter her classroom at Wells Intermediate School in Riverside. When something goes wrong, she talks about the importance of “bouncing back” and hands out rubber balls to make her point. She focuses on her students’ strengths and what they are doing right, rather than their weaknesses.
Flionis, a member of the Alvord Educators Association, attempts to foster resiliency in her students, because she believes it will help them do better in school and better in life. She doesn’t teach it as a separate subject; rather, she incorporates her philosophy of being resilient in her regular curriculum.
She decided it was necessary after realizing that resiliency was the “missing piece” to help her low-income students be more successful. She attended training on how to foster resiliency in students, and started
applying what she learned in day-to-day teaching. As a result, she says, her classroom became a better place.
“I firmly believe that looking at resiliency had a huge part in that,” says Flionis. “The trick, I believe, was in focusing on what the individual students already had going for them. Before the training, I was focusing on what was wrong with the class.”
For example, if a student misbehaves, she may take that student aside and comment on that student’s ability for natural leadership, and ask them to use that strength in a positive way. “Instead of saying ‘stop that,’ I’ll remind them that they know what’s right.”
Necessary coping skills
Flionis says students these days are under more stress, but lack basic coping skills — and the ability to recover from adversity — in a way that previous generations did not. She counts herself among the growing number of educators who believe it is necessary for schools to foster resiliency among students, since these skills may not be taught at home.
Nan Henderson, who taught the resiliency workshop that Flionis attended, believes that it is important for educators to communicate a resilient attitude that says to students: You have what it takes to get through this.
“I interviewed a young man a few years ago who had lived a painful life of loss and abuse,” says Henderson, who has worked with school staff in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and other districts throughout the state. “Most of his adolescence was spent in one foster home after another. He told me that what helped him the most in attaining his own resilient outcome was people along the way that told him: What is right with you is more powerful than anything that is wrong.
“In my trainings, people tell me that this is difficult to do,” continues Henderson. “For example, a child who is skipping class and responding with anger and belligerence to any offer of help presents a typical paradox: At the very same time a person is weighed down with problems in one area of life, he or she also has strengths somewhere else. The challenge is both to be aware of the problems and to draw upon the strengths of the person to help solve them — as well as to sincerely communicate the belief that the current problems can be successfully overcome.”
Another example might be a student struggling with family problems who is failing two classes. Instead of confronting the student with the problem, another approach might be, “I know about all the problems in your family. Please tell me how you have managed to do as well as you have done? Perhaps we can use these things to bring up your grades in math and science.”
Henderson has created the Resiliency Wheel (see sidebar, below), which displays six key elements to help build resiliency into the school environment and mitigate risk factors.
Bolstering resiliency skills
Davidson Middle School in San Rafael has launched a pilot program to bolster students’ innate resiliency skills. Davidson staff members are working with a local nonprofit, CorStone, meeting weekly for 28 weeks in groups of 10 with trained facilitators who are either therapists or therapist interns. So far, the program has paid off in dividends, says Steve Leventhal, CorStone director. Suspensions have been reduced by half, and a formal evaluation by University of San Francisco shows increased levels of student optimism and decreased pessimism.
Students are asked to consider their strengths, and to build on those strengths by improving their social and emotional skill sets. They learn healthy ways of dealing with their emotions and how to work out conflicts without involving teachers, administrators or counselors.
“These days you can definitely see a need for it with behavior such as cutting,” says Alison Jacobs, a counselor and San Rafael Teachers Association member, referring to students who mutilate themselves. “We have students who are saying, ‘Help, I need coping skills, I don’t know how to do this.’”
Jacobs finds it ironic that schools are putting more pressure on students, but decreasing services for counseling and mental health. “Kids are going through so many changes in a world that is continuously changing. In the classroom, standards are getting tougher, and students need to know curriculum earlier. In the news they see violence, people doing drugs and people committing crimes. A lot of them have parents who are always working, so there’s not that time at home for them to learn these skills and values. So it’s up to schools to give kids the necessary coping skills.”
“We are teaching them life skills and ways of resolving conflict that are self-empowering, peaceful and accountable,” says Leventhal. “They are settling things in a way that is respectful of others, as opposed to a punitive and isolation model.”
Safe haven for students
At the School of the Arts in San Francisco, the Wellness Center offers a safe haven for students to chill and discuss problems such as stress, violence and abuse, depression and suicide, sexual orientation, chronic illness, eating disorders, family issues, peer relationships and risky behaviors.
Teens today are under enormous pressure, comments Joanne Cohen, Wellness Center coordinator. “They start testing here in second grade. To get into our school, they have to audition, like in the movie Fame. For kids who are motivated, even a 4.0 GPA is not enough. To get into a UC, they need AP and honors classes.”
Their problems are exacerbated by technology, with some students cyberbullying and spreading gossip via texting and Facebook, says Cohen, an education support professional and member of United Educators of San Francisco.
“I try to foster awareness that they may be using negative coping skills when it comes to drinking, smoking pot, promiscuity or cutting themselves,” says Cohen. “It may feel good for them to yell and scream, but that’s not a coping skill that will be helpful in the long run.”
To help bolster resilience, Cohen tries a different approach. “I’ll encourage them to remember what kinds of things make them feel good, such as listening to music, jogging, playing basketball and dance class. Things like dancing can cause a higher level of endorphins and a sense of well-being. Sometimes they forget how good it feels to move their bodies. They get too busy, stressed or depressed to do the things they like to do.”
Some students, notes Cohen, find it therapeutic to write down their thoughts and feelings. But she advises them to do this the old-fashioned way, on paper, rather than online in a way that makes them more vulnerable.
“Sometimes teens just need some perspective and a little bit of a reality check,” she adds. “Is it a real crisis — or just a temporary situation?”
Cohen received a pink slip, and doubts she will be rehired by the district next year. Students say they will miss her sage advice for coping with life’s problems.
“We’re all panicky about getting into good colleges and stuff, and there’s a lot more pressure,” says 10th-grader Cassie Grilley, 15. “Someone like Ms. Cohen is unbiased and helps you to get through whatever is going on.”
Transition to college life
Once students get into college, they may find themselves adrift for the first time in their lives, says Frank Lilly, a professor in the Teacher Education Department at CSU Sacramento. They have difficulty juggling time management and priorities. For the first time in their lives they are making their own decisions — and based on those decisions, they will either sink or swim.
“They may be used to doing things at the last minute and it being okay, and suddenly it isn’t okay,” says Lilly, whose specialty is educational psychology. “They find themselves in a conundrum because they’ve always been able to do well, and they are not doing well.”
Lilly, a member of the California Faculty Association, is involved in programs to help freshmen survive the college transition. One program, the Guardian Scholars, is designed to help students exiting the foster care system. Another, First Year Experience, is a semester-long course to help students acclimate to the university. Students in that program have higher graduation rates than students not in the program.
Lilly believes that today’s college students are less resilient than their predecessors because years of testing and test preparation have robbed them of critical thinking skills and the ability to self-reflect.
“One of the best ways to be resilient is for someone to self-access their own meta-cognition,” he explains. “They need to be able to ask themselves, ‘How should I study?’ ‘What is the best way to do this?’ One of the strongest ways students can learn resiliency is through problem-solving strategies, questioning and reflecting.”
College instructors can help by being on the lookout for students who are having difficulties adjusting and seem unduly stressed out.
“The best thing a teacher can do is notice,” he says. “Be aware of signs that a student is having incredible difficulty. It’s hard, but I try to get to know students by name. I notice when they are doing well and speak with them about what they can do differently. I want to help them succeed. That’s why I’m here.”
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