Responding to adversity: Survival skills for teachers and students

Four elementary students and a teacher looking at a laptop computer

As the first bell rings to start the day at many schools across the country, it would almost seem fitting to see teachers and staff lining the walkway to greet some of the students with a round of applause just for showing up. A large number of today’s students face difficult and adverse childhood experiences that cannot be controlled by the school but have great impacts on the learning that occurs there. Dysfunction and instability in the family greatly affect students’ ability to learn. This is not just true of low-income or inner-city youngsters, as issues that can negatively impact learning such as divorce, abuse, family discord, depression, erratic and hostile home environments, alcoholism and substance abuse, disengaged parenting, and the lack of a trusted and supportive role model are also found in students of moderate or high-income families and rural areas. Each of these variables can work against the goals for student academic success. For schools to survive and overcome these challenges, supports and practices need to be developed and implemented to address these risks, or behavior problems will continue to occur and student performance will continue to suffer.

If these students are going to be successful in school and life, the school must recognize the importance of focusing not just on cognitive skills but also on life skills that will improve the students’ habits of behavior to overcome these adversities. Daily learning activities should incorporate strengthening their abilities to build relationships with adults and peers, to learn how to better respond and react to difficult situations, and to connect with a trusted and supportive adult who can serve as a role model and change agent. How can this be accomplished?

Teachers can design activities that allow students to practice their skills in appropriately relating to, interacting with, and communicating with others. If most lessons are “sit and get,” lecture, silent reading, computer, or independent seatwork, students do not have opportunities to develop these skills they often lack. Activities should instead focus on skill building in the areas of:

  • goal setting
  • problem solving
  • team membership
  • decision-making
  • good citizenship
  • coping mechanisms
  • self-control
  • perseverance
  • anger management
  • negotiation

Activities to teach, practice, and reinforce these skills might include:

  • role-playing
  • project work
  • discussion groups  
  • rotation of leadership assignments
  • community service projects
  • buddy systems
  • oral reports
  • games
  • individual contests or group challenges
  • individual or group presentations
  • partner-learning
  • debates
  • student-lead lessons
  • jigsaw formatted lessons
  • total group response cards/polling
  • carousel walk techniques
  • dramatizations

In these student-centered activities, learners are allowed to experience and practice being flexible, expressing themselves, controlling their actions and responses, depending on others, and responding to rules, guidelines, and timelines. Giving students more choices in the activities and assignments builds on their confidence, decision-making skills, and resilience.

Additionally, students need to learn the appropriate and acceptable vocabulary to use when interacting with others. Students from anger-filled, unstable home environments aren’t able to experience how to respond when there is disagreement, conflict, or confusion. The classroom can be a perfect atmosphere to show students how to appropriately express themselves, their feelings, and thoughts. As the teacher reinforces good use of language and identifies replacement language for unsuitable words, students can be redirected and learn to make better word choices by mimicking their teachers and classmates. When teachers use respectful language and tone when responding to a student who is acting out, the behavior is more quickly diffused than when one responds with anger or frustration. Anger and frustration transfer to the student. Typically this exacerbates and reinforces the behavior issues. Helping students learn the impact that mean, judgmental, and derogatory words can have promotes developing empathy for others.

It is also important to build trusting relationships with students. Countless research studies over the years have resulted in the same conclusions:

  • Effective teachers are what make the greatest differences in the classroom.
  • The more effective the teacher, the greater the academic gain for students.
  • Building positive relationships serves as a key component, if not the foundation, for creating a classroom climate that promotes effective instruction and increased student learning.

Research shows that a student’s improved behavior can be directly linked to the personal connection he/she feels to a teacher or adult. Teachers can work individually and in groups to help students become more self-aware. Discussions can focus on their strengths and areas of concern. Students can be taught to recognize triggers for their inappropriate behavior and make more suitable replacement behavior choices. Researchers are beginning to discuss the importance of acknowledging and addressing the executive functioning of students – a collection of skills such as decision-making, self-control, flexibility, mindfulness, anger management, etc. – with equal emphasis as on academics. Master educators have long recognized that social-emotional issues must be addressed before academic success can be actualized. Children are very resilient; and with the correct support and guidance, their behavior can and will change for the better.