Building resilience

Last Friday, I was out of my building for a professional development opportunity. Cornelius Minor, one of my #eduheroes was in town and working with teachers and administrators from across our district. Anytime he’s around, I make it a point to spend time learning with him. I’ve had the privilege to meet him on 4 different occasions, and his message always feels fresh to me. I’ve written about his visits before, and I’m guessing that this most recent visit may result in a couple of different topics to share with you. If you really want to see a bit of my in-the-moment thinking, you can check out the thread of tweets I shared while Cornelius was presenting here:

For those of you who don’t know much about Cornelius, he is a Brooklyn-based educator who still spends most days in a middle school classroom, but his skills as an educator can translate to any level or subject area. Every time I’m in a room with Cornelius, I feel like I’m with a close friend who is helping me become the best educator I can be to support the students I work with!

On Friday morning, Cornelius started the day with a guiding question for our thinking: “How can we create conditions where all kids succeed?” While he did not come back to the question multiple times, the work we were doing helped to answer that question, at least for me.

One of the standout portions of the day for me was a conversation he shared about building resilience in his students. There were three things he said that he feels all students need to know or be able to do to be resilient in the classroom. He said that all kids need to know:

  1. What learning looks like
  2. When to pause
  3. How to talk to parents about what you’re working on at home

Let me expand on each of those thoughts just a bit – some of what I share here will be based on the thinking Cornelius shared, but some will be my own thinking as I have been reflecting on the day.

What learning looks like – Think for a moment from the perspective of a student in your classroom (if you are a teacher). What must that day feel like? Depending on your age, you go from one learning activity to another, sometimes with a clear understanding of the purpose of what you’re doing, sometimes without that understanding. For our elementary students, most of these learning activities take place in the same room. For our middle-grade students and up, they may be transitioning to a different classroom every 45-ish minutes with a 5-minute break to get from one class to another. Our students might start working on reading, then shift to word work, then to writing, then to math, and hardly have a moment to pause and reflect between these transitions. In that whirlwind of a day, can you identify what the purpose of the activity is? How do you feel when your day is jam-packed with things to do? Can you remember what you accomplished during your day? I know for me, I cannot! As educators, we can help build resilience in our kids by defining what we are working on. Tonight, I asked my son what he was doing for math homework. He shared that he was learning how to figure out percentages, like adding a tip to the bill at a restaurant. I was excited about this answer because often the answer I get is “stuff” or “I don’t remember what we did today.” I must have caught him at the right moment. We can support this understanding of what learning looks like by sharing things like success criteria, or “I can” statements so that kids know what the target is for their learning and building in moments to pause and reflect in our lessons. If we think about the learning cycle, learning does not happen if there is no time for reflection. And if our students can’t share what they are learning, then did they really learn it?

When to pause – Life for a child can be a challenge, and for some of our students, these challenges can lead to a student acting out in a physical or verbal way, shutting down, or possibly even just leaving the classroom. When students notice that they are becoming dysregulated, they need tools to be able to react appropriately. If they don’t yet have the tools, we must teach them. Most of the time, there are three reasons students need to take a pause from what they are working on in class – they feel overwhelmed, they need a moment to think or process, or they need to help someone else. Often, students have not been taught yet how to pause what they are doing, so that pause may turn into putting a head down and not engaging in work, or it may result in goofing around, or worse! What students need is to know what a pause should look like. When students in Cornelius’s class need a pause, there is a three-step process: 1) Put your pencil down and find the clock on the wall and focus on the second hand. 2) Watch the second hand until it goes all the way around and is pointing at the same number as when you started looking at the clock. 3) Take a deep breath, pick up your pencil, and get back to work. And he also teaches students how to help someone who has taken a break – when they notice that their tablemate has taken a break, they can put their pencil down, watch the clock, and when their neighbor has taken a breath and picked up their pencil, they can turn and say, “How may I support you?” Sometimes kids may not be able to answer that question, but they know they have support, which helps them get regulated.

What I think we all know is that when we are feeling overwhelmed, or need a moment, we need to try to help our brain slow down. By focusing on the clock, we give our brain something to think about other than whatever is overwhelming us. During that time, we are breathing. When we stop whatever we’re doing just to breathe, the mind-body connection helps alleviate stress. Blood pressure will come down, and stress hormones are able to filter out of the brain. The pause allows us to come back closer to our baseline. After that minute, students should be better prepared to engage in their work.

How to talk to parents about what you’re working on at home – This one probably applies more to students who are in our older grades or have moved on to middle school or high school. As teachers, when we have our students take work home, we know that there is a risk that parents may help their child. Or that a parent may say “I think you should do all the problems on this page for practice” even though you have only assigned a few. If parents do the work, we don’t really know where our kids are (one of my issues with homework, but that’s a different post). When parents ask their kids to do extra work, they are taking away a child’s time to be a child (parents do this with the best of intentions, but as a teacher, I know just as well if my students understand their math work after 4 problems as I would if they did 20). Cornelius has taught his students 2 sentences that they can use if a parent is trying to help too much:

“Even though I can’t do/understand it, I know the right questions to ask.”

“No thank you, I’ve got it from here.”

Parents just want to help, but part of what we need students to learn is how to advocate for themselves. By being able to say these things to their adults at home, they are advocating for their own skills.

These are just a few ideas that came from our day with Cornelius to support resilience in our students. What other ideas might you have? Do you have ways you help build resilience in your students? Share your thoughts with us all in the comments below.

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