Teaching Resilience: Why Willpower and Grit are Essential for Student Success


What makes some people successful while others fail? What one ingredient is essential for success? Every successful person has something in common which has allowed them to get to the point of success, however they may define it. There are obvious practical skills they’ve picked up along the way, and their lives are better because of these strategies and skills. We can discount standardized education as the common denominator for success because we have enough evidence to the contrary of the many successful people who didn’t finish school.

Can it be taught?

Yes. Studies, history, ancient philosophy, and now modern science show this skill or virtue, referred to by many different names: non-cognitive, grit, willpower, resilience, etc., is not only needed for success, but is essential. Those of us in our professional fields have it. We wouldn’t be at the level of success we are if we didn’t, but where did WE get it? And, why haven’t so many others? These questions have been a focus of mine throughout much of my education and my experiences.

The answer keeps coming down to the common factor of one virtue. As mentioned, this simple three syllable word we refer to as resilience is essential to success, and the ramifications for not having it are detrimental to a person’s academic and personal life. The effect of our students having or not having resilience is the difference between being successful or not, flourishing or lacking, persevering or quitting.

The Resilience Utility Belt

Think of resilience, as a set of tools, and as analogous to trying to build something or fix something, a house, a sink, a tire, a car, a career… a life. There is desire; there is need, there is effort, but if there are no tools, there is nothing. Resilience is the utility belt. The goal of resilience then is to have a set of tools and strategies to demystify success. It’s a way to have students understand and control their very often difficult environments, by having a set of go to tools which is a practical source of skills which lead to solutions.

Perhaps some of us have picked up these skills subconsciously or may even have been born with them, but all our students can be better off just by being aware of the virtue of resilience and the tools it offers. We can teach the strategies, tools, and practical workings which will change the likelihood their lives will become better.

Resilience practices focus on self awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision making, dealing with pressure etc. The goals of these practices are to make possible a Resilience and Inspirational mentality leading to a Self Empowerment belief system within all of us.

The Dopamine Addiction of Technology

In our technological native age we have large populations of students who are so absorbed by spectacle, entertainment, and distraction that their life purpose is at risk of being lost. They are addicted to the dopamine rush of their cell phones, text messages, social media, and gaming.

Students are at the mercy of the onslaught of information telling them everything should be easy, simple, and stress free. As a result we have many students who are not reaching their full potential, and in the worst case scenario simply giving up, when life becomes challenging. They are not finding their purpose. And, many times at the first sign of difficulty, quit. My studies and experiences here and abroad have more than assured me the need for resilience education is essential in the livelihood of our students in this country, and across the world, in order to flourish and not just be part of the people who become sheeple in the masses of compulsory consumerism.

As educators, it is our responsibility to give our students tools to build resilience which fosters inspiration, and self-empowerment. It benefits students to understand Plato’s lesson to Alexander the Great, about objectifying emotions and understanding them as something concrete. In Alexander’s case, emotions were analogous to horses. Aristotle made the lesson relevant, as in the chariot with a team of horses on the left and a team on the right. The charioteer is behind to control the horses, which is symbolic of reason. The horses on the left were taught to be the lower based emotions, while the horses on the right were the higher based. Aristotle also told Alexander to name them accordingly. The left could be named, anger, fury, greed, etc.for example while the horses on the right could be called, temperance, fortitude, justice, and such. Resilience education makes the abstract concrete; understanding the difference between intent vs. result; responsibility vs. excuse; knowing the way out of distraction, spectacle, and entertainment; understanding failing is good, and that everyone, even Mother Theresa had critics, are lessons which just by knowing are valuable. Resilience curriculum goes onto to teach them “how” in practical terms to apply skills and strategies when needed. These are but a few of the practices which our students must know and have integrated in their conscience to succeed in a modern world where they are being constantly distracted away from their life purposes of creating, producing, and simply being better. Too many of our students are caught by distraction, spectacle, and entertainment. Resilience curriculum gives practical tools which teach our students to succeed in school and in life.

Teaching “Survival”

As I was doing my research I came across schools which did focus on resilience, and in fact had resilience taught as a class. Interestingly, these are the exemplary schools in America, schools who teach the ambassadors’ and senators’ sons and daughters. They call it survival skills. They have an understanding of the importance of such practices. These schools were labeled: exemplary. And, the courses are labeled: survival. Why them and not us? I thought, is this intentional? Is this correlated or coincidental? More questions. This however is a different discussion. But the result is the same.

These practices are based on lessons which have withstood time, are taken from ancient philosophies and teachings of different cultures to current scientific studies. These practices are practical answers about how we succeed and win but have been all but lost in a modern culture where the focus is on instant gratification. Resilience education is a tool to learn to deal with the challenges of life on life’s own terms. Resilience practices answer questions about how to build a reservoir of strategies, and how to have a better quality of life, and, ultimately, how to succeed. I’ve taught these lessons for three years from a curriculum I developed and my classes have not only progressed socially and emotionally, but academically as well. My 8th grade class scored above the national average in reading in a national standardized test. R.I.S.E: Resilience, Inspire, Self-Empower practices are arranged in progressions which build upon each other. The lessons are prefaced with foundational philosophy and or studies which support the practice. This information can allow further research, discussion, and learning within individual classes, which lead to higher order evaluative thinking. Students engage because it’s relevant to their lives. It’s real.

As mentioned, these skills are based from historical teachings, scientific research, and ancient philosophies, and can be comprised of short stories, paragraphs, readings, which are all tied to an inspirational methodology based on practical measures to overcome adversity, hardship, and difficulty. Rather than having students read random articles or stories in a Language Arts Components lesson which students don’t relate to. Resilience practices are meant to provide sound encouragement, and practical lessons from proven strategies, and proven measures, and students can still learn grammar, spelling, punctuation, and comprehension, from material which is practical to them. The practices intend to teach flourishing in fact not feeling. Readers gain an understanding about perseverance, strategies for success, resilience, and facilitate a belief system and help provide a sense of self efficacy by learning strategies which have transcended time, but sadly are all but forgotten. For example, lessons about taking action come from our Christian Judeo teaching as we are taught to seek and you shall find, ask and you shall be given, knock and the door shall be answered. Or, in Nicomachean Ethics, we can learn about stoicism and lessons from Epictetus, the Roman Philosopher, who taught Marcus Aurelius it’s about how we take the events in our lives and stories we tell ourselves which create our reality.

The Great Equalizer

I wish I had known these skills as I was growing up. I would have loved to learn the automaticity of resilience skills just as I learned the skills of driving a car. Had I grown up with these skills becoming hard wired, then for example, I would have known it was okay to fail, and I wouldn’t have been so hesitant to take risks. If I had known criticism was part of our lives, I wouldn’t have taken it so hard. Had I known resilience skills such as these and others earlier on in my life, then my life would have taken a different path, a better path. Those around me too would have been more successful as well. My children would have been taught these lessons earlier, and they would have been better off for it. My goal is to make this a national standardized curriculum so all can have the opportunity to benefit as early as they can. The lessons should be taught fervently and often so that they become an automatic response for what obstacles are surely to come. Resilience needs to be practiced; hence the term, practices, for the lessons. They ideally should be taught when students are young and most impressionable so they may be better able to withstand the pitfalls of life, but it’s never too late.

Resilience is the great equalizer in education and life. It shows, in particular, to our students that independent of gender, race, color, intellectual ability, past, and age they are the creators of their own future. And, the world is a better place because they are fully involved.

What then is the essential ingredient for success? The answer: the virtue of resilience.

Eppie Lopez

Having returned from teaching in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Eppie Lopez is currently in his home state of New Mexico teaching with Albuquerque Public Schools. Lopez was awarded Teacher of the Year in Durango, Co., inducted into the Who is Who of American Teachers, and awarded the Ray Romer Teaching Fellowship from the University of Southern California.

Lopez’ continuous dedication to public service has inspired the development of R.I.S.E Curriculum. R.I.S.E is an acronym for Resilience, Inspiration, Self-Efficacy, and Empowerment.

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Eppie Lopez By Eppie Lopez

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