Helping Students Develop Resiliency

Helping Students Develop Resiliency Post COVID and Beyond

Christina N. Conolly, Lisa Katherine C. Cowan, & Lisa Coffey

Over this past year, we have heard repeated accounts of the traumatic impact of the pandemic on children and youth. From the countless lives lost, physical isolation from loved ones, absence of normal experiences, financial distress, and the myriad pressures on mental health, everyone has been impacted in some way by COVID-19. The concern has school districts wondering what can be done to support students and mitigate potential negative outcomes.


Importantly, while almost everyone has experienced increased stress during the pandemic, not everyone has experienced an acute traumatic event (i.e., death of a loved one due to COVID19). Helping all students regain their equilibrium, whether they have experienced mild stressors or more intense toxic stress or trauma, is a critical role for schools. One key strategy is to foster students’ resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to “bounce back” from adverse experiences, to learn from failure, to be motivated by challenges, and to believe in one’s own ability to handle stress and difficulties. The good news is that building resiliency is a natural function for the learning environment. It intersects with the basic elements of effective schooling, including curricula, skills development, and positive school climate, and fits under the multitiered systems of supports (MTSS) framework.


Create positive school climates

Creating welcoming, inclusive school environments where all students feel respected, engaged, and safe provides the foundation for resilience and learning. Students do best when they feel they belong, are valued, and know how to get help when they need it. Key components include fostering healthy, trusting relationships between students and adults, implementing positive behavioral supports and discipline, engaging families in a meaningful way, establishing a culture of shared responsibility and opportunity, and ensuring access to needed mental health services. Train staff members to reinforce emotional intelligence, praise students for successes or progress toward success, and avoid judgmental or harsh criticism for failure.


Teach students how to cope with negative experiences

To develop the whole child and prepare students for adulthood, we must teach them how to react to situations and people they encounter. Teaching reading, writing, and math is not enough. School districts should implement school-wide strategies that focus on the whole child and reinforce positive well-being and resiliency as part of MTSS tier 1. This includes engaging in universal lessons that support social-emotional learning (SEL). CASEL (2021) defines SEL as “acquiring and applying the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” SEL lessons should teach students how to focus on core competencies: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. School districts must support SEL with fidelity at every school level and engage families so that lesson content is reinforced at home.


Encourage healthy habits

The ability to manage stress is central to being resilient. Educators can incorporate positive stress control strategies, such as meditation and mindfulness, into school curricula. Mindfulness can be implemented universally as a tier 1 strategy and in a more targeted way for students with more intensive or chronic needs. These strategies teach students to become more self-aware and take immediate actions to reduce their heart rate, slow down their breathing, and reduce the symptoms of toxic stress. If a student becomes upset, engaging in mindfulness techniques can teach students how to mitigate the stress from the negative experience. Mindfulness strategies support everyone in a school and can be practiced throughout the day. The technique of starting the day with a minute of deep breathing to stabilizing emotions by focusing on the details of an objectcan help lower heart rate and stress hormone levels. It is also important to promote good nutrition, encourage adequate sleep, and provide opportunities for physical exercise.


Provide leadership opportunities to facilitate problem solving and engagement

Problem-solving skills form the building blocks of resiliency. These skills apply to academic learning, interpersonal relationships, decision-making, and goal setting. As educators, we want students to have the power to solve problems when faced with difficult experiences. This is called having an internal locus of control. Students can be taught to acknowledge when a problem exists, discover solutions, solve the problem, and see failure as a learning opportunity, not a sentence. Among the many ways to teach problem-solving is providing students opportunities to engage in leadership activities. Similarly, we can teach peace-building skills such as conflict resolution, peer-mediation skills, strategies for standing up to bullies, and violence-prevention strategies, all of which are a form of problem-solving. Outside of student government, sports, or other student-led activities, ask what your school is doing to teach students how to be leaders in the community and how to take initiative to solve problems happening in their life or school experience. Encourage volunteerism by creating and promoting a variety of opportunities for students to contribute to the well-being of others both on and off campus. This can extend to the aftermath of a crisis by engaging students to suggest identifying and responding to concerns either resulting from or exposed by the event.



Provide targeted and intensive mental health support

While many of the universal interventions discussed will help the majority of students to develop resiliency, there are some who will need more intensive support. School districts will need school-employed mental health professionals to provide targeted and intensive support, like group and individual counseling, to students. Counseling is another mechanism of teaching adaptive coping strategies to respond to significant acute and chronic stressors. School districts may also work with outside agencies that can provide intensive individual and even family therapeutic services to the school community.


Students who have mental health diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder may need this type of mental health support to develop post-traumatic growth (PTG). While resiliency involves one's ability to “bounce back,” PTG occurs when someone “endures a psychological struggle and ultimately finds personal growth over time (Collier, L, 2016).” Students can develop resiliency by achieving PTG.



Renowned athlete Wilma Rudolph shared, “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion. The potential for greatness lives in each one of us.” This mindset should guide our work as educators daily and is integral to building resiliency. In the end, being resilient is about acknowledging the problem but seeing the potential and knowing the strategies to move forward. Students are not necessarily born resilient, but they can develop these life skills at school, home, and in their communities. Schools play an important role, particularly in the context of a crisis or other potentially traumatic event. School leaders, including school board members, should work to ensure that educators have support at all tiers of service delivery to foster student resiliency as an integral framework for fostering student well-being and success.



Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2021). What is SEL. Retrieved 3/20/21


Collier, L. (2016). Growth after trauma: Why are some people more resilient than others and can it be taught? Monitor on Psychology, 47 (10) pp. 48. Retrieved on 3/21/21


American School Counselor Association and National Association of School Psychologists (2020). School reentry consideration: Supporting Student Social and Emotional Learning and Mental and Behavioral Health Amidst COVID-19. Retrieved on 3/20/21


Kaye-Kauderer, H., Feingold, J., Feder, A., Southwick, S., & Charney, D. (2021). Resilience in the age of COVID-19. BJPsych Advances, 1-13. doi:10.1192/bja.2021.5


Center for the Developing Child (2021). How to Help Families and Staff Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Outbreak. Retrieved 3/20/21


Christina N. Conolly, PsyD, NCSP, is Director, Division of Psychological Services 

Montgomery County Public Schools (MD) and Chairperson, School Safety and Crisis Response Committee (SSCRC) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).


Lisa Coffey, Ed.S, NCSP, is Director of Social Services, Orange County Public Schools (FL) and a member of NASP’s SSCRC .


Katherine C. Cowan, is Director of Communications for NASP and staff liaison to the SSCRC work.


Helping Students