The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Katie Renton

4 ways to develop resilient teenage learners

To prepare young people for success in later life, we must first help them overcome adversity, cope with uncertainty and recover from failure in the present.

It’s no secret that the life of a teenager is challenging, and that building resilience against stress, anxiety and pressure is no easy task. Exam worries, body confidence issues and emotional difficulties are contributing to higher stress rates in teenagers than ever before. Supporting their ability to cope through hard times should be the priority of all schools and colleges across the country.

Modern trends have made this task ever more challenging. Teenagers spend up to a third of their waking hours online, making the pressure of societal expectations of appearance, lifestyle and success a constant reality.

Photos of attractive celebrities heighten the value we place on aesthetics, while the moments in life we share make those scrolling through Facebook or Instagram feel inferior to their peers. At school, students can spend more time trying to impress their peers than focusing on work. Attention spans diminish.

Schools and colleges are no strangers to the consequences of these day-to-day burdens, particularly as stress and social pressure compound and sometimes manifest in depression, self-harm, eating disorders or drug and alcohol abuse.

In addition to providing immediate care, staff need to help teenagers learn how to cope when the going gets tough, and where to find support. The need to foster resilience is clear. But how can it be done?

Provide time to talk

More than anything else, giving young people the opportunity to talk is the first step to helping them work through their struggles. Of course, the prerogative of every teacher is to teach, but it’s often true that as much can be achieved by listening. Teenagers spend the majority of their time in school, meaning that their social and emotional difficulties are intrinsic to their identity as a learner.

It’s vital that you embed a school-wide culture of openness, transparency and positivity. Does every student know who they can turn to in their time of need, and is that person going to be available to them?

In addition to making sure that every student has a point of contact, set aside some time for honest discussion of mental health and emotional wellbeing as part of PSHE education.

Celebrate success

Openly acknowledging your students’ success is a good way to build their confidence. It is easy for teachers to feel the pressure of high expectations, particularly come exam time. However, homing in on the end results can obscure the moments where your students’ effort and learning really shine. 

Those who are finding subjects they aren’t confident in an uphill battle can be aggravated by peers doing better, or parents expecting more. Take time to praise their focus, development and perseverance as achievements of their own.

Maintain key relationships

Support networks can be as important to young people as their own internal strength. Friends and families provide varying levels of support each day, but having at least one teacher they can rely on is crucial.

Does every student know who they can turn to in their time of need?

School must be a place for teenagers to feel welcome and encouraged. If they are reminded that they are not taking their paths alone, it might just help them get through the difficult days. After all, everyone will be dealing with their own set of challenges. The trick is to explain resilience not as a singular, predefined set of thoughts or actions, but as something unique to the individual – a trait that, as developed, will help them overcome their specific obstacles.

Care about trends

If you’ve wondered why students have suddenly stopped ‘dabbing’ and started ‘floss dancing’, you’ll see why it’s so easy to feel out of touch with the tastes, habits and interests of the young people you teach. But an often overlooked skill in providing nuanced social or emotional care is being able to identify with the student you’re supporting. For example, if a student is being isolated by their friends on Snapchat, would you feel confident speaking to them about it? If not, how would you go about helping them?

Understanding as much as possible the intricacies of their world – particularly that which takes place online – is paramount to understanding the issues at hand.

You might say that’s easier said than done. There’s no shame in admitting that it’s difficult to stay up to date with trends that change so quickly. Apps are perhaps the most common sticking point: as soon as staff feel they’re clued up on one, another will have long since taken its place. But don’t despair: there’s a wealth of current, easy-to-digest advice on keeping up with the zeitgeist.

The floss dance performed by its inventor, 15 year-old Russell Horning.

If these four tips seem simplistic, it’s because resilience is neither as intangible or as unattainable as you might think. For schools and colleges, the starting point has to be creating a culture where students are led to perceive their own strength, not just their own insecurities. They take steps to celebrate the former, while being helped to overcome the latter gradually but healthily.

With the right blend of one-to-one and more holistic support, dialogue and relationship-building, you will help young people flourish in the most tasking time of their lives.

More from Optimus

Mental health: what can schools do to build resilience?

Anxiety in schools: 8 tips for teachers

Be better at understanding and responding to self-harm

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