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Building Resilience in Students from Challenging Backgrounds

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March 5th, 2018

By the time they are in high school, students with histories of academic difficulties frequently develop sophisticated strategies to avoid situations where they will experience the negative consequence of failure. As a teacher of students with disabilities, I regularly saw first hand how these strategies played out.

Whether it was time to read aloud or work independently, students would implement avoidance strategies ranging from the simple to the sophisticated. The greater the perceived challenge, the more impactful the strategy. For a math quiz, it might be the forgotten pencil or frequently trips to the sharpener; for class projects, it could be lost work; and with exams, the behaviors would trend towards disruption in the hope (perhaps unconscious) to be sent out of class. For the young adults in my classroom, these avoidance strategies had evolved over the years with the most efficacious ones surviving. Not effective as in helping students perform, but effective in that they protected students against the feelings that coincide with failure.

Self-efficacy is a belief in one’s ability to successfully complete a task (Bandura, 1977). With greater self-efficacy comes greater effort, persistence, and resilience. Students who have experienced academic difficulties in the past have often internalized that, despite their efforts, they should expect once again to do poorly. Self-efficacy is also a significant predictor of academic achievement. When faced with an academic task, the student’s expectation of a success informs their effort, persistence, and resiliency in the face of frustration.

As teachers, we have the power to reverse the spiral of negative self-efficacy that comes with a history of academic failures.  By the manipulation of students’ experiences through differentiated instruction and assessment, we can engineer authentic success. With each cumulative experience that negative spiral of self efficacy can be reversed into a positive spiral.

Engineering success doesn’t need to be done at the expense of academic rigor. Properly defined, a rigorous education is instruction within an individual student’s locus of proximal development. Therefore, a truly rigorous classroom can only occur in one where differentiation is not an occasional practice but rather a foundational principle informing both instruction and assessment.  

Attempts to build up students’ self-efficacy through false or excessive praise should be avoided at all costs, as it has been shown that students interpret insincere praise (or praise that exceeds their actual accomplishment) as evidence that the teacher also does not believe in their ability to perform at a high level (Graham, 1984). False praise is a practical example where good intentions can have negative consequences.

Students (and adults) go to great lengths to protect themselves emotionally. The need to protect one’s self worth is a primary driver in decision making (Thompson, 1995) and struggling students often develop patterns that limit the risk of the feelings they have come to associate with failure. The graphic below summarizes the four pathways and the characteristics often assigned to students. The left side represents students who are successful. Students who would say “I study and succeed” are described as “Hard Working.” Students who best fit under “I don’t study and I succeed” are described as “Genius.” On the right are the pathways for struggling students. Those whose pathway is “I study and I fail” are frequently labeled by themselves or peers—and sometimes even by teachers—as “stupid.” The other path available for struggling students is “I don’t study and I fail.” These students are often described as “lazy.”

If you are a struggling student and the protection of self worth is a driver of your decisions, which do you think you would choose: Stupid or Lazy? If throughout your school years you try and still fail, your self-efficacy (or expectation of success) will be severely curtailed. The social and emotional costs may lead you to decisions that help you to manage that failure to protect yourself emotionally. Your failure is no longer due to the fact that you can’t do the work, it is now because you won’t do the work.

One of the greatest challenges and most rewarding experiences for teachers is to help turn a student from failure to success. What specific strategies can help move students from that lower right quadrant to the upper left? Dr. Frank Worrell of UC Berkeley has a saying I really like: “Don’t lower the bar, raise the floor.”  

Engineering authentic success for students requires differentiation of both instruction and assessment. Foundational to that is access to accurate academic data and the frequently monitoring of student growth. Instructional practices that create access points aligned to students’ levels allow all students to fully participate. And when properly structured, experiencing success at these access points has the potential to begin reversing the downward spiral of negative self efficacy.

The model of gradual release of responsibility (e.g., I do, we do, you do together, you do alone) supports the authentic inclusion of learners at all levels. Strategic questioning practices help struggling students experience early success. Helping students to understand different types of questions (literal or text-based vs. analytical) and the explicit teaching of key vocabulary used in questions helps level the playing field.

Turning a student around involves a partnership, but not one where both student and teacher play equal roles. Expecting the student to meet you halfway at the beginning will generally lead to frustration. Initially, it might be even be a 90-10 split. However, as students begins to make progress and experience authentic success, that division should change as they begin to take greater levels of ownership of their progress. The unraveling of a history of academic struggles doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but eventually it can come with proper access, persistence, and patience.


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.

Graham, S. (1990). Communicating low ability in the classroom: Bad things good teachers sometimes do. Attribution theory: Applications to achievement, mental health, and interpersonal conflict, 17-36.

Thompson, T. (1994). Self‐worth protection: Review and implications for the classroom. Educational Review, 46(3), 259-274.

About the Author:

David Stevens has spent the last twenty-five years working with students with significant academic, social, and emotional needs. He currently works for Berkeley Unified School District’s research and evaluation department and is the creator of the Academic Support Index.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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