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Activities for Developing Resiliency in Kids

Everyone wants to be resilient, right? We want to be able to handle whatever comes our way and keep on keeping on towards our goals. We want to be able to bounce back from problems and setbacks. And, we want to help the children we serve to develop resiliency as well. Whether it’s a traumatic experience or just a big change in their life, even young students have stuff to deal with. This post is about what resiliency is, protective factors that promote resiliency, and activities for intentionally developing resiliency in kids.

Let’s start by defining resilience or resiliency:

Resilience is “The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” (American Psychological Association)

Resiliency is “The personal qualities and skills that allow for an individual’s healthy/successful functioning or adaptation within the context of significant adversity or a disruptive life event.” (Lee, Nam, Kim, Kim, Lee, & Lee)

Resilience/Resiliency: “An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune, adversity, or change.” (Merriam Webster)

Protective Factors

There are several different characteristics or traits connected to resiliency (find some articles about resiliency here, here, here, here, and here). Sometimes these are considered protective factors because they can help to protect against some of the damaging effects of adverse experiences (minor or major).

While some are adult-focused, or family/community-specific, there are some that I think apply well to kids and that we can support in schools:

  • Sense of belonging/having positive connections to others
  • Setting goals
  • Problem-solving skills
  • A positive or hopeful outlook
  • Understanding personal locus of control
  • Identifying and using a support system
  • Self-regulation (behavioral and emotional)
  • Being able to talk to your family about your feelings
  • Feeling supported by friends
  • Having at least two non-parent adults take genuine interest in you
  • Self-efficacy (which is also connected to goal setting, locus of control, and coping)

Many of those elements are developed through strong and secure relationships between students and between students and teachers. The everyday conversations that teachers lead in schools also play a huge role here – modeling, reminding, coaching, etc.

While that is extraordinarily valuable, we’re focusing more on explicit resiliency-developing programming here. If you’re looking for more in the realm of classroom environment quick day-to-day communication strategies, I highly recommend starting with the book Fostering Resilient Learners (affiliate link).

Developing Resiliency in Kids

Intentionally developing protective factors or resiliency through explicit lessons or activities might look like proactive tier 1 programming or reactive tier 2 supports. The truth is though, that strategies that help students with adverse experiences are almost always strategies that help all kids! And that means that these strategies can be used with individuals, in group counseling, or for whole classes.

Quick note: I bet you’re already doing a lot of work with the students you serve around emotional regulation so I’m not including that here, but if you want to learn more about what that can look like, check out this post on Five Steps to Teach Emotional Regulation.

Teach Locus of Control

When things aren’t going as expected, or they are downright challenging, teaching children about their locus of control is hugely impactful. Here’s why:

  1. There are almost always elements still within our control. It may only be our own thoughts and actions but even just those two things can make a difference.
  2. When children incorrectly label some things as in their control (that are not), they become even more stressed.

One way I love to teach students what is in vs. out of their control is using the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day as a model. He faces many problems that we get to use to practice identifying locus of control. This was the first part of a lesson I did in third grade almost every year which I wrote about in detail here.

Another direct way to help students understand this idea is by asking them to label different concepts and problems as in or out of their control (or a little bit of both!). In order to make this a little more fun in group counseling using my Resiliency Group Curriculum, the example cards were all buried in my rice tray. Students dug them out one at a time to identify them and then placed them in relation to a seat disc (no hula hoops that year!).

Give Students Meaningful Opportunities for Responsibility

In Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation (affiliate link – excellent read by the way), Kristin Souers said:

“Intense focus on external factors supersedes students’ ability to internalize how they affect their surroundings. This impedes the development of responsibility.”

When a kiddo is constantly worrying about not-great things in the world around them, and/or when they’re constantly at a heightened sentence of alert, they don’t mentally or emotionally have the chance to think about the impacts of their own actions. While I loved a lot in that book, this quote stopped me in my tracks. It is a very different conceptualization of lack of responsibility, making it even more clear that responsibility is both a lagging skill and an experiential need.

One way we can use this idea is to give students jobs in the classroom or the school. This might look like: PE assistant, gardener, pencil sharpener, technology manager, etc. I’m a big fan of classroom jobs because I think everyone benefits from this (and it makes the classroom run more efficiently!). When that’s not possible though, school jobs can be used as a tier 2 behavior intervention for those who may need a responsibility boost (and/or those who may need a sense of control or connection).

As school counselors, we can also embed jobs into our group counseling services! The picture to the right (or below if you’re on your phone) shows some examples. They can be assigned for the eight to twelve weeks of group, or you can rotate them each week. (This group jobs handout is included in the Unlocking Tier 2 virtual workshop.)

Teach Optimism and Cognitive Coping

When children have a positive or hopeful outlook, they aren’t stuck in the muck of whatever their life circumstances are. They believe that good things are coming and that they can handle the tough stuff in the meanwhile.

I use cognitive-behavioral theory in most of my work and believe that helping students identify helpful thoughts they can have in different situations is really powerful. In my resiliency group, because it’s weather-themed, we practice this skill by using clouds, lightning, and suns to represent the different elements.

  • Clouds = Tough Situations
  • Suns = Helpful Thoughts
  • Lightning Bolts = Unhelpful Thoughts

As a group, the students work to match these pieces up. After, we talk about the impact or outcome of the different thoughts AKA discussing why helpful thoughts are helpful to us.

We end the session with students identifying some helpful affirmations from a list that they connect with and can use in any distressing situation.

Bonus: this skill is both a proactive/resiliency developing skill and a great in-the-moment resiliency tool!

Learn How to Use a Support System

We thrive on positive connections with others! We are hardwired for connection. Plus, when we’re experiencing challenges, having and using a support system becomes even more valuable.

I admit that I used to only think about support systems for grownups. Then I had a student devastated by the loss of her grandmother. In our work together, I was able to see the different ways her grandmother supported her and then helped her find other people in her life to fill some of those roles.

This led to the social support activity I created inside the resiliency group. In it, students identify a person that is their support…

  • When they are crying
  • When they need a laugh
  • When they need help with a tough situation
  • When they need help with schoolwork
  • When they are playing at recess
  • When they have good news to share
  • When they need encouragement
  • When they just need someone to listen

They write those peoples’ names on loops of paper and then create a paper chain of support!

Do you have some students in mind that you think could use some support in developing resiliency? Or maybe even a whole class that you want to implement some of these activities with? I’d love to hear your takeaways and how you plan to apply one or more of these ideas!

resiliency activities
Resiliency Group Curriculum

These activities are a GREAT fit whenever you’re working with students who need an extra boost in developing resiliency – whether they’re experiencing family changes, tough life circumstances, or just seem to need additional social emotional support!

I NEED THIS

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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
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