Modeling Resilience with Autonomy and Belonging

Bridget Gwinnett (April 2021)

With the pandemic came the recognition that America’s young people were facing a mental health crisis. Along with this recognition emerged the conversation about resilience. Is there a guidance lesson for resilience? Nope, not one that I’ve found. As a school counselor, I’ve been thinking about the ways my students have been demonstrating resilience every day and how some kids are really struggling to cope. What I see is a direct connection to optimism and autonomy and belonging. 

By definition, resilience is the inner strength we need to overcome challenges and negative life experiences. I would define that as a skill and therefore it is teachable and “learnable.” Vaccinations and decreasing death tolls have given us a sense of hope and freedom, that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Now that light has illuminated just how much our kids have endured and how they have been asked to hold the emotional impact of a world turned upside down. Our kids were stuck at home with their laptops and iPads replacing the classroom; TikTok and SnapChat replacing the lunch tables and game fields, creating disconnects for which they were not prepared.

I believe my school’s ability to survive this year of hybrid, in-class, and remote learning is rooted in our relationships and the value we place on the community. While this has been hard on our teachers and our students, our acknowledgment of that frustration has given us opportunities to work through it together. There is no greater protective factor for children than the sense of belonging and trusted relationships within their community. So when children observe adults struggle and recover when obstacles occur, they are learning. And when children and adults struggle together and recover when obstacles occur, it increases trust and belonging. 

When there are restrictions placed on so much of what we do, autonomy is like sanctuary. A recent study in the journal Child Development (Neubauer, et. al., 2021) highlights autonomy-supportive parenting, and I would argue, autonomy-supportive teaching, as highly effective strategies for well-being. Teachers who provide their students with a choice in how they learn — with guidelines — are giving their students the chance to own their work and the outcome. Hybrid teaching has forced me to think differently about how I support my AP Psychology students’ education. This year, I provided students with a digital notebook with a “Choice Board.” Within every unit, students are allowed to choose the three practice applications that appeal to them. Each application has standards and a rubric, but the perception of choice about how they apply what they have learned has made all the difference in the world. And it’s a win for me! 

I don’t think there will ever be a lesson plan for resilience as effective as adults helping children work through real-world complications in autonomy-supportive ways. When this is our problem-solving strategy, it’s not surprising optimism grows. Every day is an adventure! 

Neubauer, A.B., Schmidt, A., Kramer, A.C., Schmiedek, F. A Little Autonomy Support Goes a Long Way: Daily Autonomy-Supportive Parenting, Child Well-Being, Parental Need Fulfillment, and Change in Child, Family, and Parent Adjustment Across the Adaptation to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Child Development, 19 January 2021.