What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to effectively cope with, adapt to, and overcome adversity, stress, and challenging experiences. When educators help students “cultivate an approach to life that views obstacles as a critical part of success, we help them develop resilience,” writes Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a developmental psychologist and author.

“Resilience is not a genetic trait. It is derived from the ways that children learn to think and act when faced with obstacles large and small. When the adults in children’s lives—caregivers, teachers, coaches—help young people develop resilience, it helps them emerge from challenging experiences with a positive sense of themselves and their futures,” says Price-Mitchell.

Mary Alvord, a psychologist, put it this way, “Resilience works like a muscle we can build through effort and repetition, and we want to keep our muscles strong and flexible so we can think of many ways to solve a problem. At the core, resilience is the belief that while you can’t control everything in your life, there are many aspects you can control, including your attitude.”

The Special Needs of Special Students

Students who need therapies previously carried out in person, such as speech or occupational therapies, or children who relied on paraeducators, aides, or special education classes were suddenly cut off from important learning supports, along with the familiarity and comfort they provided.

Even children who did not access these services, including homeschoolers or those without an official diagnosis qualifying them for in-school special education support, are heavily impacted by changes to their routines. “Children with a lot of behavior challenges are impacted disproportionately because their routines have been so disrupted,” notes Jerri Clark, a parent resource coordinator for the PAVE (Partnerships for Action, Voices for Empowerment) Parent Training and Information program.

As a result, children with behavior challenges may have meltdowns and act out more often than normal at a time when families have fewer outlets for relief or sources of support. As precious respite care and other forms of support become scarcer, families are stretched, stressed, and simply worn out.

“Respite services that were already hard to access have gotten harder, and even things like a parents’ night out that might have provided a break have been cut off due to COVID. Because of medical fragility, some families can’t support one another the way they normally do.” says Clark.

Resilience as a Learning Objective

Real-world resilience is an important and underappreciated learning goal for students with disabilities, says Jessica Soper of University Place. Adapting to COVID has meant becoming more self-reliant, more tech-savvy, and more organized than they used to be — all positive changes, Soper notes.

Shifting plans, asking questions, and finding new ways to communicate with others via technology help prepare students for a fulfilling life beyond school, she notes. “Ultimately, I want to empower my kids to function in real life.”

Three strategies to help special education students build their resilience:

Building Resilience

1. Establish Brave Goals

According to psychologist Ryan C.T. DeLapp, an essential part of developing resilience requires the ability to identify personal goals, and then mustering the capacity to “tolerate the discomfort that’s creating resistance toward that goal.”

Many educators help their students to develop goals using a SMART framework: specific; measurable; attainable; relevant; and timely. “It’s not easy to write SMART goals,” writes Maurice J. Elias, a professor in the psychology department at Rutgers University. “This skill takes time to develop, and it’s especially important to have in place for students at the secondary level.”

A vague goal, Elias writes, might look like this: “I will do better on my next report card.” However, a more specific goal would be, “I will do my math homework before I do things with friends, and when I hand it in, I will ask the teacher about anything I am not sure about. When I get anything wrong, I will make sure to ask the teacher, or one of my classmates how they got the right answer.”

“It’s critical for the child to celebrate achieving the goal,” notes DeLapp. “Make time to reflect on progress toward their brave goal, and express gratitude and excitement when they meet them,” Phyllis L. Fagell, a therapist and school counselor advises.

2. Learning From Mistakes Can Be Invaluable

Learning from failure “is paramount to becoming a resilient young person,” writes Price-Mitchell. Educators need to create classrooms where “failure, setbacks, and disappointment are an expected and honored part of learning,” where students are “praised for their hard work, perseverance, and grit, not just for grades and easy successes,” and where they are encouraged to feel “ownership and internal reward.”

Consider creating a classroom bulletin board where “students can brag about their biggest mistakes and what they learned from them,” wrote educational consultant and author, Richard Curwin. Allow students opportunities to resubmit their work after correcting mistakes, and acknowledge when their work improves because “nothing shows learning from mistakes more than improvement,” Curwin noted.

3. Promote Healthy Risk-Taking

Recognize and compliment students when they challenge themselves and take responsible risks- especially when they fail. For example, “stumbling on words while reading out loud,” writes high school special education teacher Daniel Vollrath. “These are opportunities to build confidence, and risk-taking, and most importantly, to keep a resilient momentum going forward while in a safe space.”

What’s considered a healthy risk? One that pushes a child to go beyond his/her comfort zone, but will result in very little harm if the effort is unsuccessful. This could include attempting a new sport, acting in the school play, or engaging a shy peer in conversation. Whereas avoiding risk internalizes the message, “I’m not strong enough to handle challenges,” embracing risk teaches children to push themselves.


Vollrath compares resilience to a stress ball. “A stress ball is resilient because it springs back to its original shape after being squeezed. Likewise, when students experience stress or frustration, we can think of that as pressure on them that they need to spring back from.”

The hope is that giving children strategies to build resilience will ease the frustration and help them return to the optimal and productive focus for learning.