Are we getting resilience wrong in schools?

We’re constantly being told about the importance of resilience, writes Ceri Stokes – but we may be missing the point

Teaching resilience: Are teachers digging a hole for themselves?

A conversation on Twitter got me thinking recently. 

There were lots of people talking about resilience and how perhaps we are pushing people to their limits unhealthily, and this made me doubt myself.  

I had just written a blog that almost suggested students weren’t resilient enough and needed to be taught “how to fail” and be OK with it. 


Quick read: Are we getting pastoral care wrong?

Quick listen: Why we need more support for mental health in primary

Want to know more? How to get pupils talking and improve outcomes


Was I pushing students too hard? Was I expecting too much from them?

My mental health first-aid training explained resilience in an excellent way. 

It said that everyone is a bucket. Life is the water that fills us up. We all have different levels of water for different reasons. Life and stress add more and more water.  

To release the water, we need an outlet. Be it talking with friends, going for a run or listening to music. 

Each outlet lets out different amounts of water. Sometimes the water spills over, but that’s OK because water is easy to clean up and doesn’t make a mess. 

It’s when there is a waterfall that we need to worry. 

Teaching resilience 

I realised that perhaps I am using the word “resilience” when I mean “coping strategies” (a phrase that is often mentioned by child and adolescent mental health services staff).

Sometimes pupils can cope with the pressure and challenges life throws at them, but other times their coping mechanisms aren’t in place. They need strategies, including asking for help.

I am sure we can all think of times when students have crumbled under immense pressure, but there are those who have crumbled over simple things, like getting straight As in assessments apart from one subject in which they got a C; misunderstanding a question; losing a sock; getting a “funny look” from a friend; forgetting to send an email to excuse themselves for a music lesson.

All of these are life lessons. Things that we have all done and have learned from. This is why it’s so important that they fail at some point and know how to pick themselves up. This is what resilience means. 

Everyone copes with things in different ways. It doesn’t mean that they are better than you, it just means that we are all different.  

That’s why schools are amazing; we all get to meet all kinds of characters and learn from each of them. Some days we can cope and other days we may be a little stressed, but this is OK.

Communication is key

As a designated safeguarding lead, I can’t break down in tears when a child discloses to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a little cry when I am at home. 

Communication must be key to all of this. We should be kinder and support each other. Senior leaders need to look out for staff, and staff need to be honest and communicate with SLT so that help can be given.  

This needs to be done in a non-patronising way, in an honest and caring manner. It could so easily turn into a tick-box exercise or even a rota within the SLT.  

I work with students a lot, but I worry that I don’t praise and support my staff enough. Am I pushing them to deal with challenging situations without giving them enough support?

We have to be resilient, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t support each other and take responsibility as a team.

Ceri Stokes is assistant head (DSL) at Kimbolton School in Cambridgeshire. She tweets @CeriStokes

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