Building Resilience in Kids: What It Means and How to Do It

By Donna Volpitta, EdD
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At a Glance

  • Resilience is an important life skill, especially for kids who are struggling in school.

  • Building resilience can help kids learn coping skills and find solutions to problems.

  • There are many ways you can help your child develop resilience.

It’s not easy to see your child have a setback, especially after your child has worked really hard. But facing challenges and learning from them can have an upside. It can help your child build resilience.

Resilience is a life skill that can be taught. It’s especially important for kids who are struggling in school. Kids who learn and think differently face challenges other kids don’t. It’s harder for them to get through schoolwork. And they may have trouble with everyday skills like self-control, following directions, or picking up on social cues. Resilience can help a child learn from challenges despite having setbacks.

Learn more about what resilience means, how the concept of resilience has changed over time, and how to help your child develop resilience.

The Old Way of Thinking About Resilience

Researchers know resilience is important. But what exactly does this word mean?

For decades, resilience was seen as the ability to recover from disaster and hardship. Researchers focused on how kids and adults bounced back from tragedies like hurricanes, fires, and floods. They studied why some people get “back to normal” quickly while others continue to struggle.

Families typically viewed resilience in a similar way. They’d think of it in terms of how quickly their child bounced back from a serious illness, accident, or other major event. In other words, resilience was something their child “showed” when faced with a big challenge.

The New Way of Thinking About Resilience

Today, resilience has a much broader meaning. For researchers and professionals working with kids, it’s not just about “bouncing back.” It’s about “bouncing forward.” Resilience doesn’t just mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge.

It’s not limited to tragedies or major life events, either. Resilience can apply to more common struggles. In fact, when kids respond to any type of challenge—including trouble with learning—it creates an opportunity to bounce forward. It helps them learn coping skills and how to find solutions to problems.

For instance, if kids fall off their bicycle after hitting a rock in the road, they may become more careful about watching for obstacles. If they do poorly on a test, they may work to improve their study skills.

Using everyday setbacks to explore new and better ways to approach things helps all kids. But it can be even more valuable for kids who learn and think differently. It creates opportunities for them to build key skills for working on weaknesses and gaining new strengths.

Learning from setbacks can empower kids who learn and think differently. It can help them build self-awareness and self-advocacy skills. It can also help them develop new strategies and tools for solving problems. And it can boost their motivation and self-esteem.

Helping Your Child Develop Resilience

Resilience was once thought of as a character trait that was more or less set in stone. But professionals now view it as a skill that can be actively taught. The key to resilience is mindset: how we think about whatever challenge we’re facing.

Teaching resilience to kids involves preparing them for challenges. That includes reflecting on how they handled them and discussing other solutions to the problem.

Here are some ways to help kids who learn and think differently build resilience:

Expose your child to challenges. Kids can’t learn if they don’t have the chance to do things that are difficult—and perhaps fail at them. Find everyday situations where they’ll need to work things out on their own, try different strategies, and persist even when things get tough.

The playground can be a great spot for this. Struggling to get across the monkey bars or working with other kids to build a bridge across a stream are both learning opportunities.

Don’t jump in to fix things. When things aren’t going well, your child may need your support. But that doesn’t mean solving the problem for your child. You can give guidance. But also allow space for your child to find solutions and strategies before jumping in with yours. A certain amount of frustration can lead to positive results, which can help build persistence.

Let consequences do some of the teaching. When kids do something that results in a negative outcome, it can feel defeating. But it can also motivate them to change. Negative experiences can lead them to find strategies that lead to positive outcomes.

For example, some kids keep leaving their homework at home. Missing assignments pulls down their grade for the marking period. But that negative outcome can motivate them to use more organization strategies at home, and their grades improve. Now they’ve learned resilience and organization skills.

Talk about the lessons learned. After kids have experienced a setback or a disappointment, help them make sense of it. Talk about the strategies they used and discuss things they could have done differently.

Suggest people they could have gone to for help and ways they could have asked for help along the way. Reflecting on what happened can help them identify supports that might be useful next time.

Avoid a “sink or swim” situation. Resilience is about learning from challenges and moving forward. But what if kids had no guidance at all? It’s important to give kids enough support to face challenges—but not so much help that they can’t make mistakes and learn from them.

One way to do this is by using a “scaffolding” approach. Think about how people teach kids to ride a bike. First, you give a lot of support, holding on to the back of the seat and the handlebars. Gradually, you give less and less support, until you finally let go.

“Helicopter parent? No, I’m a life raft mom.” Read this mom’s story.

This same approach can be used to teach kids resilience through any challenge. If your middle-schooler is struggling with an assignment, you can review the directions together. You can guide your child to look back at the textbook or suggest calling a friend for help. You can also encourage your child to reach out to the teacher.

If your child doesn’t do those things and gets a low grade on the assignment, that may motivate your child in a couple ways. It may motivate your child to try using those supports the next time or to come up with a different strategy.

Encourage your child to ask for additional supports at school. Is your child still struggling with the work after trying different strategies? You can suggest that your child talk with the teacher about additional supports. Kids may not follow through on this. But they’ve still had an opportunity to learn how to persist in the face of a challenge and how to advocate for themselves along the way.

Find out what your child needs to thrive. If your child is struggling in school, and you’re not sure why, consider asking the school for an evaluation. Your child may be eligible for supports, services, and accommodations.

Building resilience doesn’t always come easily. Even when a resilient child learns from challenges, they can still feel frustrated. Help your child learn constructive ways to deal with frustration. Give honest feedback and praise for the hard work your child puts in. And inspire your child by sharing stories about the many successful people who learn and think differently.

To learn more, watch an expert talk about building resilience in kids who learn differently.

Key Takeaways

  • Resilience isn’t just “bouncing back.” It’s “bouncing forward”—learning from challenges and finding the motivation to tackle the next one.

  • Learning from setbacks can help kids build self-awareness and self-advocacy skills.

  • Allowing your child to do things that are difficult—and even fail at them—can help build resilience.

About the Author

About the Author

Donna Volpitta, EdD 

is coauthor ofThe Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting.

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