The Relationship Between Resilient Leaders and Resilient Students

Even with the many effects on student well-being, the pandemic showed that students are also capable of incredible resilience. Here’s how to continue to foster and learn from that resilience.
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A resilient school leader is the key to a resilient school. When a principal or school leader demonstrates resilience—the process of adapting to and bouncing back from adversity or significant stress—it’s more likely their school community as a whole will feel more empowered to accept and adapt to situations, move forward, and grow from their collective experiences.

We’re aware of the adverse effects the pandemic has had on students’ emotional and physical well-being, including widening opportunity gaps, disproportionate impacts on students of color and those living in poverty, and a myriad of mental health challenges. However, it’s also important to remember how resilient students have been during this time. Many of them have had to navigate the same challenges as school leaders and teachers, including the quick shift to remote learning and the concern for the health and care of themselves and their families.

A resilient school leader is the key to a resilient school. 

As we focus on wrapping up this school year and taking what we’ve learned into the next, here are a few ways resilience shows up in our students, why it’s crucial to honor that resilience, and how school leaders can cultivate it for the future. 

What does student resilience look like? 

Students can face a number of obstacles as they progress through their education. According to development psychologist and author Marilyn Price-Mitchell, resilience helps students “emerge from challenging experiences with a positive sense of themselves and their futures.” Price-Mitchell goes on to say that at the core of resilience is the belief that while you can’t control everything in life, there are many aspects you can control, including how you approach obstacles. 

The pandemic was certainly in the “beyond control” category for students—and we saw resilience in action over and over again throughout the last two years. There’s PepToc, the hotline dispensing the wit and wisdom of the students at West Side School, a small primary school in Healdsburg, California. Two artists and educators created the hotline so “a grieving world could find joy in the resilience of high-spirited schoolchildren.” Some students have examined resilience by leaving their classrooms for walkouts, calling attention to a variety of causes important to them.

Common life challenges can build resilience as well, such as divorce or a change within family units, conflicts with friends or peers, or transitioning to a new school or grade. When students cultivate an approach to life that helps them view these kinds of challenges as a critical part of success, that’s when they build resiliency. 

When students cultivate an approach to life that helps them view these kinds of challenges as a critical part of success, that’s when they develop resilience. 

The importance of fostering resiliency in students

Resilience isn’t something we’re born with. It’s gleaned from the ways we learn to think and act, and one of the ways young people learn their behaviors is through the adults in their lives. As an education leader, this means promoting the mindset that all children can learn at exceedingly high levels, and resilience is what makes it possible to challenge students and maintain a rigorous curriculum. 

Both of which contribute to a growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s research notes that students with a growth mindset believe intelligence is something that can be developed, and they view effort and struggle more positively. They understand that struggling with a task they haven’t yet mastered is the only way to grow. This mindset is one of the tools for building resilience and sustaining a student’s resilience well beyond the classroom.

Growing student resilience in your school

Increased resilience is undoubtedly one of the pandemic’s silver linings, and school leaders can play a pivotal role in continuing the trend. The key is being intentional and purposeful in your decisions and interactions and finding new ways to connect with students, understand what they’re going through, and offer encouragement that will help them feel seen, cared for, and supported. Here are a few ideas to consider: 

Focus on visibility

For New Leaders alum and former principal Beulah McLoyd, getting to know students meant supporting their sense of safety and security. That required trust and trust required interacting with students. In an unconventional move, McLoyd would often drag her desk into the hallway and turn the corridor into her office. 

“Having my desk in the hallway gave me the chance to have one-on-one time with students as they made their way to and from class,” she says. “By stepping out of my office and into students’ lives, I was able to hear their stories and build much-needed trust.” Consider your daily routine. Are there little ways that you can increase your visibility with your students?

Prioritize social-emotional support

Social-emotional learning, compassion, and support are paramount for New Leaders alum and principal Clariza Dominicci. She works to name emotions with both students and adults in her school, using an emotions chart to guide the conversation. When there’s a conflict, she asks both parties to pick six emotions from the chart—three they were feeling and three they thought the other person was feeling. 

“Hearing a student say they felt abandoned and helpless changes the whole dynamic and helps bring everyone down after a conflict or heightened sense of trauma,” she says. “It’s really given our students more words to describe their feelings and express what is happening.” Think about the ways your school integrates social-emotional learning throughout the day. Are there resilience-building opportunities there?

By using intentional strategies to help students respond to challenges, adversity, and stress, school leaders can create an environment where students are ready for whatever’s next.  

Consider pathways to mentorship

When New Leaders alum and elementary school principal Archie Moss, Jr. saw that the Black boys in his school were not doing well academically, he knew something drastic had to be done. He founded the Gentleman’s League, a mentoring program to offer at-risk supportive relationships and enrichment. 

The result has been fewer suspensions and disciplinary issues as well as an increase in student achievement, morale, and accountability. “The Gentleman’s League was so much more important to them that they didn’t want to miss out on those opportunities,” he says. Reflect on the space being provided for mentoring in your school. Are there new ways to approach mentorship in the year ahead, especially for the student groups that need it the most?

Emphasize clear and transparent communication

New Leaders Chief Implementation Officer and former administrator John Jenkins realized that, as a Black administrator, he had a special way with the students in his care. He used this to bridge the communication gap between students and teachers, coaching students on how to share feedback with teachers.

“For the first time, teachers sat and listened to students in a way that helped them see how their own behaviors were contributing to the student reactions, and students were able to open themselves up to the reality that their teachers actually cared about them,” he explains. Consider whether there are new ways you might communicate with students to increase their emotional resilience. 

Building on what we’ve learned

The pandemic has taught us an important lesson: we can grow resilience in ourselves, our school community, and especially in our students. By using intentional strategies to help students respond to challenges, adversity, and stress, school leaders can create an environment where students are ready for whatever’s next. 

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