Ruth D. Kirsch, Ph.D., LCSW

Children arrive at school with different “standard equipment”: abilities, skills, needs, and readiness to learn. For example, some students have few opportunities to develop the early skills that support reading success. An accompanying ISSS Brief, Vocabulary Instruction Through Stories and Expansion, explores some innovative approaches to help develop those skills. But student success is not limited to reading and math. In order to be successful in life, children must also develop healthy personal skills, both interpersonal (“plays well with others”) and intrapersonal -- those skills that are necessary to deal with adversity and promote emotional health. This Brief addresses the latter category: students’ ability to respond to life stressors, generally labeled coping or resiliency skills.

These skills start to develop early in life as an interaction of the infant’s temperament and the responsiveness of his or her environment, most especially the development of a secure, trusting attachment to a caregiver. Resiliency skills continue to develop and to be refined throughout one’s lifetime; they can be learned at any age. Often, resiliency is thought of as a “protective factor” since it tends to counteract, or mitigate against, “risk factors” such as biological compromises, development delays, emotional difficulties, poverty, and family circumstances. Resiliency is defined as the ability to maintain personal competency despite encountering adverse situations, misfortune, or stressful events. From a child’s perspective, resiliency might be described as:

  • I have
    • Trusting relationships with adults and friends
    • Rules and structure to my life
    • Parental (teacher) encouragement
  • I am
    • Loveable
    • Capable
  • I can
    • Do things well (academics, sports, computers, etc.)
    • Act independently
    • Make meaningful choices

Essential resiliency skills also serve to protect against a variety of adverse life outcomes: acting-out behavior (eg., bullying), substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and accompanying sexually transmitted diseases, depression, and suicide. To accomplish prevention, research recommends developing skills in self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (Greenberg et al., 2001). Furthermore, research suggests that prevention is best accomplished through comprehensive programs designed to teach all of the skills, rather a program targeting one adverse outcome such as substance abuse.

Schools are an excellent place to foster healthy development in youngsters whether teaching the “Three Rs” or AP chemistry. Each adult can support resiliency development by

  • communicating caring and support;
  • setting high expectations;
  • providing meaningful opportunities for participation and involvement in the school community; and
  • viewing students from a strength-based perspective.

Viewing students' strengths and teaching appropriate behavior skills is an essential component of Positive Behavior Supports (PBS). To learn more about SERC’s PBS Initiative, click here.

Direct instruction in resiliency skills can be accomplished through comprehensive, universal social-emotional learning curricula. A recently published document, Safe and Sound, provides a listing of research-based programs. Written from a “consumer's perspective,” the publication provides a wealth of information about the components of each program and their efficacy. To download a copy of the document, click here: For additional information about resiliency and the benefits of comprehensive programming, visit