Resilience is a term I’m sure we all encounter regularly as part of working in careers. However, until I recently facilitated a resilience workshop for second year students it wasn’t something I had thought deeply about. After doing a lot of reading and research to prepare for the workshop, I came across lot of interesting perspectives on the notion of resilience and how it can be developed. This post is the first of a two-part look at the concept of resilience, why it’s important and how to go about building resilience in higher education students. Part 1 looks at how to define resilience, what makes it an important concept and how to introduce it to students. Part 2 introduces three different ways of exploring resilience on a deeper level, and provides example activities that can be used when working with students or other client groups.
The word resilience comes from the Latin word ‘resiliens’, which refers to the pliant or elastic quality of a substance (R. R. Greene et al., 2002); so we can think of resilience as the ability to ‘bounce back’. It therefore makes sense that when thinking about what resilience means one might think of things like adaptability, flexibility and perseverance. Although these aren’t synonymous with resilience per se, they link closely to behaviours many would consider resilient: staying effective under pressure, overcoming defeat, managing emotions and reactions to challenging (and changing) events and being able to stay positive in the face of uncertainty.
Why is resilience important?
Resilient qualities and abilities can help us get through periods of change and stress while maintaining levels of health and wellbeing. Given the uncertainty, isolation and growing trend towards self-reliance in contemporary society, being resilient means we are more likely to form and maintain positive relationships with others, something that has been shown to improve quality of life and even make us live longer. Resilience has been shown to improve outcomes for children from deprived backgrounds and The Department for Education recently launched an award to for schools that develop ‘character’ in their students. Outside of education, employers actively seek employees who can juggle the pressures of their job with a demanding home life. Mental health costs the UK £26 billion every year (Centre for Mental Health) and stress has been shown to reduce productivity in the UK workforce by £15.1 billion every year (ACAS). It’s clear then that resilience has a vital role to play in both personal and professional life.
Introducing resilience to students
Although as practitioners we should be familiar with resilience and its importance in relation to careers, students may be less aware of it as a concept and the value many employers place on it. During my resilience workshop I asked students to share their own interpretations of what resilience meant to them, explored the concept through an object-based analogy (“If resilience was an object what would it be?”) and then got them to think about a resilient role model. I found these approaches worked well in getting students to see the depth of resilience as a concept.
As some people may appear to be more resilient than others, it’s natural to ask whether resilience is a skill that can be developed or a quality we’re born with (a point explored further in this video, which features Simon Weston OBE visiting the Genome Centre in London to try and determine if he has ‘the resilience gene’). Now, most students don’t anticipate an employer assessing their level of resilience, so unless prompted it’s unlikely they will go out of their way to reflect on how they can develop it further. It’s important to make clear to students that even if they currently feel lacking in resilience it is something that can be developed to benefit them in both their personal and professional life.
In the workshop I ran I found it very helpful to link the idea of being resilient with the types of interview questions that employers might ask: “Tell me about a project you were involved in where you faced a major obstacle. What did you do to get around it?”; “What has been your greatest disappointment to date?”; “Describe a situation when you were unable to achieve your desired result. What did you do? Why were you unsuccessful?”. The students in the group were more engaged after recognising that resilience was something they might need to evidence to an employer and this then allowed a discussion around examples they could provide if asked a question like this in future.
Building resilience in higher education students
In this post I’ve given an overview of resilience and provided examples of how I introduced it to students I worked with. I’ve briefly covered how I further explored the concept of resilience with them, and in Part 2 I’ll expand on this much further to detail three approaches I found particularly useful in enabling students to understand the ideas around resilience and begin applying them to their own situations.