Building Resiliency in Struggling Students: 7 Key Ideas from Research


In the coming weeks, millions of students across the country will return to school. Countless numbers of them will be labeled with such terms as at-risk or high-risk for academic failure or inappropriate behavior. As educators, we strive to find interventions, strategies, and programs that will help these students be successful. 

Resiliency can be defined as the ability to persist in the face of adversity or the ability to bounce back after facing a challenging situation. Helping students develop resiliency skills and attitudes has a positive effect on academic achievement, behavior, and long-term success in life (Hanson & Austin, 2003).

With this in mind, here are seven key ideas to help struggling students become resilient:

  1. Avoid labeling children as “high-risk” or “at-risk.” Instead, refer to high-risk environments or situations that present challenging conditions. All children are capable of great things given the appropriate support and they tend to live up to or down to the expectations we set for them. (Ginsburg, 2011)
  2. The person who delivers the program is more important than the program itself. There are numerous effective programs available that are designed to increase resiliency in students and loads of research about the effect of teaching students the skills and attitudes of resiliency. However, personal relationships and connections are the foundation of all effective programs. (Werner & Smith, 1992)
  3. Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree. Students facing challenging situations or difficult home lives need to understand and believe that they can succeed. They need to know, through stories, examples, and role models, that with the right work ethic and commitment they can be successful. They need not be bound solely by their environment, background, or surroundings. (Jensen, 2009)
  4. View children not as problems to be fixed but as individuals with strengths, dreams, and opinions. Traditionally schools have been places where the focus has been on identification, remediation, and correction of deficits. Indeed, schools need to know where students are lacking and work hard to help students master important skills and content. However, we also need to use the strengths, abilities, interests of students for them to truly thrive and overcome adverse situations. (Henderson, 2003)
  5. Students must be actively involved in the life of the school and in their own learning. Resiliency isn’t developed being passive. Students need to connect to the people, the content, and the overall learning environment in order to thrive. Challenge students to track their own learning, create goals, and connect to other students with similar interests. In addition, all students should be exposed to challenging curriculum and high expectations. (Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull, 2008)
  6. The stuff of school can be cold and impersonal. The curriculum, the overreliance on testing, the schedules, and even the instruction can sometimes lead children to believe that school is something that is done to them. Take time to make personal connections with students, to laugh with them, and share stories to make school warm, fun, and personal. (Kohn, 1999)
  7. Resilience isn’t constant in any of our lives. Resilience tends to ebb and flow throughout our lives based on current situations and challenges. We all have times in our lives where things are going well and times when things are tough. The resilient person is the one who can bounce back, learn, and thrive through the tough times. (Bernard, 2004)

Post submitted by Bryan Harris, director of professional development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of Battling Boredom, published by Eye On Education. More information can be found at


  1. I once heard someone refer to children “at-hope”. Hope for a better future. What are your thoughts about this term?


      • “At-hope”, “At-promise”….I love them all! They remind us to view children as individuals with potential, capacity, and a future worth fighting for. Thanks for your input. – Bryan

    • I absolutely love that term and the more positive approach and outlook that it connotates for my students. It seems much more proactive and powerful than “at-risk” and the other popular terms. Building hope and dreams based on individuals should never be called something else…..well, unless it is empowering instead of damaging. I am excited to have seen this term and put it in my toolbox.

  2. Thank you-so many great points. When we give children choices we show them that we value their thoughts and ideas!

  3. Thank you for such a clear article about building resiliency. I work with students with special needs, and am always seeking ways to empower them in their learning lives. I found that number six can unfortunately be true at times. I would like to see how I can work on improving in all of these areas to better serve my students.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. I agree so much with # 5, our students need to more activityly involved in their education.

  5. Enjoyed the article! I won’t be surprised at all if when I return to preservice in a few weeks or so I hear the term at risk at least 5 times. I like at promise and at hope! I actually want to forward your post to my principal and suggest that she shares these 7 key ideas to help students become resilient. Almost all of my students require some resiliance building. It’s hard to choose one key idea because all the ideas seem equally important. However, number four ‘Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is one of my favorite because it states how we need to instill hope and a belief in themselves that they can succeed.

  6. Number seven, “Resilience isn’t constant in any of our lives”, really stands out to me. I once heard someone say that we need to teach our children how to “fall forward”. Many students who have exprienced repeated failure lack the motivation to move forward. Educators have a responsibility to empower students. We need to reassure students that failure is a part of life but we are not defined by our failures. I do believe that we can make success a reality by establishing trusting relationships with students. One word of encouragement can make the difference.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this article. I think that in regards to #4 we should make an effort to get to know our students so we can build upon their strengths instead of focusing on the negative!

  8. I throughly enjoyed your article about building resiliency and the 7 key ideas to help build them into struggling students. I personally enjoyed number 4 reminding teachers of the individual person. The person who has strengths, dreams, and opinions. Our job is not to “fix them.” Our job is to encourage their curiousity, show how to use research and understand the wonders of the world thereby developing a love for learning and leading children down the path of becoming a life-long learners. Thank you for sharing your 7 fabulous key ideas on resiliency. I enter my school year now with both hope and promise for my students to shine and present their positive attributes to the world through my guidance.

  9. Reading your article prior to the start of the school year was timely. Beginning the school year with this information in hand will: ensure that I set high expectations for all my students, focus on a strengths-based approach, and above all else focus on the relationships and connections that are key for all students.
    Thank you for your insights in building resiliency.

  10. I really enjoyed reading your article about building resiliency. I really thought about #3, “Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.” I work with special needs students, and a lot of them will say, “well my dad had a reading problem, so I will never learn anything.” If we instill in our students that everyone is capable of learning, then they are more likely to succeed. They need to believe it themselves, which is why we, their teachers, are here. We are here to show them that they can succeed no matter what their home life is like.

  11. This is a great article! Ideas #2 and #6 reminded me of the importance of building a strong relationship with my students. I work at a continuation school, and I am not so fond of the term “continuation”. I think “opportunity school” or something along those lines would be more encouraging to our students, just as at-promise is more edifying than at-risk.

  12. I enjoyed reading the article, however, the one key idea that hit home for me is that students must be involved in their own learning and in the school. As you know most of our at risk students struggle in school, home and in society. Allowing them to connect to our school environment with others sometimes is more frustrating to them. When their lives are overlooked they focus on trying to solve problems alone. However, when we allow them to share their own experiences and relate somewhat to their problems, then they are more acceptable to the school and society.

  13. I absolutely loved your article! I am a new teacher and I will be teaching in a “high-risk environment” and I plan to print this and hang it on my wall next to my mission statement.

    I particularly loved #5. I agree that when students are actively involved and take responsibility for their own learning it makes them more successful. Also, I am a big advocate for service-learning because it helps students to connect with the content, and helps them to understand the important role that they play in their school, as well as in their community.

    #7 is also something that we need to always be reminded of. Just like our students, we will always have challenges to face, but our fortitude is demonstrated by how we handle those challenges, and this is something that we can model for our students to emulate.

  14. Excellent article! #3 and #7 were most insightful and rang the truest for me. Teaching in an urban area as impoverished as where my school is located, it is essential to instill in my students that there is more to life than what they are being subjected to at home and in their neighborhood. Also, it is imperative that teachers be mindful that most adults are unable to bounce back from certain situations and challenges, so we must make every effort to make school the best experience possible for our students because they have enough going on in their lives outside of school that they have to bounce back from. I will be minful of these 2 points going into the new school year.

  15. A article, but two things – two huge things – are missing:

    1) What I have found in my few decades in the field – five, now – is that health is the foundation. I know these things are said so loosely, but the truth is if kids are not healthy it is very, very difficult to keep them motivated in a direction that will pay off for them or be ‘resilient’. This is why I always said that Headstart was a godsend program because they headed off a lot of fundamental health issues by assessing, then referring children for treatment right off the bat. As a consultant (part of the entry assessment team) with them, a lonnnnng time ago, I saw such wonderful things being done for children that truly helped them be CAPABLE of doing some of the other things that are recommended. Kids who have vision problems will not be good readers. Children with general sickness or worms* will be listless and non-motivated. I think schools totally have left themselves out of the loop on child health. We just keep pressuring them to “do better” when they just may not be capable because of migraines, thought disorders, general depression, nausea, allergies, chronic anxiety, malnutrition, etc.

    Schools need to be more involved in holistic approaches – and student health being #1 priority.

    2) Now that we have the health issue out of the way 😉 the second critical issue in resiliency is “choice-making”. Kids need to be encouraged and allowed to make decisions every day. In the younger years it almost doesn’t matter if the choice opportunity is a “trivial” issue (“How can we decide today what color the new background for the bulletin board should be?!?!” “YOU choose which color you want the pumpkin to be. It does not have to be orange today. Choose a different color just for fun.”

    The thing we fault adults for mostly is – in essence – making lousy choices. They need practice ahead of time. The other benefit is that the only way you can raise a child’s self-esteem is to let them have some control over their lives and to see their choices benefitting themselves and/or others – breeding self-confidence, the bedrock of self-esteem.




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here