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Resilience — A Sustaining Gift for Your Children

Helping children become resilient builds their character & academic success.

Resilience — A Sustaining Gift for Your Children

Personal photo
Source: Personal photo

Resilience in learning, as in life, provides the capacity to persevere through setbacks, take on challenges, and even risk making mistakes on route to reaching goal achievement. Helping your children build their resilience promotes their character, academic success, optimism to undertake new challenges, and encourages a more positive approach to life. When guided to build their resilience, children find motivation to be effortful, optimistic about sticking with tasks when stymied, willing to request help without shame, and positively respond to constructive feedback.

Guided experiences can promote your children’s resilience. This blog describes techniques to help them build competence, mistake tolerance, and goal setting elements of resilience. These are the foundations that help children sustain effort even when the challenge seems unsurmountable or mistakes are perceived and suffered as setbacks and failures.

Competence builds resilience

Personal photoi
Source: Personal photoi

It is not uncommon for children to respond to repeated failures by developing low self-expectations for success. By providing confidence enhancing experiences that build their competence, self-efficacy, and mistake tolerance, you’ll help unburden them from that restricting expectation of failure.

They may feel overwhelmed when perceiving a task as beyond their capabilities or, in a larger sense, suspecting they’ve fallen too far behind to get back on track. A simple activity exists that can help enlighten children to recognize that they can succeed even when feeling helpless confronting these stumbling blocks. This activity can show them that some tasks, seemingly impossible or too confusing at first, can be broken down into smaller parts they can understand and act upon.

You'll need an unrepairable clock, watch, safe (not sharp and unplugged) appliance, or broken mechanical toy (e.g. talking stuffed animal, jack-in-the-box) from your home or from a thrift store. Using an age-appropriate object, ask your child how he thinks it might work.

Don't give hints, but support all and multiple guesses/predictions with a positive response. After he as offered several theories, invite him to take it apart. Make it a discovery experience without any expectation that he must come up with an answer about how it works. Let him know it is already broken and he won't need to put it back together.

The object is to build his resilience to feeling overwhelmed by letting him discover, his own abilities to evaluate complex problems or tasks by "breaking them down" into recognizable “doable” parts.

If your child needs encouragement to recognize familiar parts, you can prompt him with questions. Ask if he recognizes any simple workings such as, springs, screws, coils, wheels with teeth, gears, batteries, or wire. If so, invite him to share how the parts might work together to help make the device function.

On completion, explain, “You’ve just demonstrated your ability to break down something that you didn't understand into parts you did understand.” What an accomplishment!

When children experience how breaking-down an object reveals parts they recognized, they can remember this when future tasks seem overwhelming (and you can remind them of the activity as needed). The experience will build their competence awareness that they can break down complicated tasks into doable parts and avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Help children do the same with planning events such as their birthday parties, picnics, camping outings, or family celebrations. They will build awareness that big tasks and school assignments can be broken into small tasks. This will build their confidence to get started and their strength to persevere. Invite your child to put her insights into a motto or posters for her room such as, “By achieving one task after another, I can get the whole job done.” “Break it down, build it up,” or “One step at at time will get me there!”

Fotosearch Royalty Free Images
Source: Fotosearch Royalty Free Images

Failing forward

When you provide opportunities for children to encounter mistakes as an expected part of the process of learning or novel experiences, you build their resistance to setbacks and errors. Through sharing your own mistakes, encourage open discussions of their past "blunders" and guide them to recognize that mistakes are really part of learning. For example, "If you don't make mistakes, it means you already knew it, so you aren't building your knowledge or skill." The goal is for your children to develop the competence, optimism, and understanding to persevere and progress from missteps to goal-achievement.

Here are some topics to prompt discussions and build mistake resilience.

  • When children make mistakes, explain that these are not failures. They are opportunities for brain building that will bridge them to future successes.
    • Regarding mistakes, help them understand that their brains have evolved to be survival tools. In this programming, the brains of mammals in the wild, adapted to make rapid decisions and choices in response to change or threat. Our human brains still have that primitive reaction of making quick responses to new situations and even to questions on a test.
    • “Your brain is doing its survival job when it jumps to quick conclusions. But because you are not out in the wilds in danger of attack or stalking wild beasts, you can use your human ability to think before acting. Knowing your brain might jump to first responses, take few seconds to be sure your brain’s first choice is the best.”
  • When your children make errors encourage them to correct them with revisions. Explain that:
    • “When you correct an error you make, your brain builds new wiring to guide you to make a better choice the next time and the next.”
    • “Your brain is programmed to rewire any faulty memories or ideas that lead it to make mistakes. It makes sense that for survival the brain would learn from miscalculations. When you take the time to think about the better choice or answer, your brain takes this correct information and wires it into the memory network to replace the faulty information. This is why the strongest understandings to guide your best future answers and choices come from evaluating for mistakes, rethinking, correcting and revising and re-trying.”

Other opportunities are suited to build tolerance so children see mistakes as “failing forward.”

  • Discuss/demonstrate common mistakes kids might make before or as your child prepares for a new skill or assignment
  • Point out your own mistakes and acknowledge how you feel (or felt) at the time
  • Invite them to share their past “whopper” mistakes and recognize they survived them and can revisit softened with the perspective of time and perhaps humor.
Quasar/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Quasar/Wikimedia Commons

Personal meaning builds persistence

Relevance is a powerful tool to ignite and sustain resilience through engagement and effort. Guiding your children to find personal relevance in challenging school topics increases their interest and effort. Showing them how they could use the skill or knowledge in present understanding or future actions provides incentive to struggle on.

For example, if your children are studying the metric system, boost relevance and perseverance by inviting them to select a recipe from a cookbook you get from the library or online published in England or another country that uses the metric system. They will want to know how to make the “translations” between metric and standard measurements to make that cookie dough or play dough clay. They will be motivated to use tools of metric conversions to achieve the personally desirable goal.

Increase personal relevance to motivate perseverance in the study of history by using examples or comparisons encompassing a controversy of current day issues that are of interest to your children in sports, school policy, or community conflicts of interests regarding city planning. Adapt their word problems in math to include your child's name, sports heroes, or names of other people of high interest.

Personal photo
Source: Personal photo


It’s not what they know, but what they can do with what they know, that is the most powerful wisdom for your children. By enhancing your children’ resilience through applied experiences they can progress with the understanding that success is possible, mistakes are part of learning, and knowledge builds through personally relevant tasks.

Children are more likely to remember, embrace, and apply what they learn to future applications when they connect with personal relevance, discovery, and strengthen their skill and understanding with perseverance.

More from Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed.
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