There’s a lot of talk about how living in challenging times can help students develop resilience. But sometimes adults forget that it’s not just facing adversity that builds resilience—it’s facing adversity with support. According to Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, “The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

Educators can be that “other adult.” The question then is: How can we approach our relationships with students with a little more purpose? How do we help them navigate the challenges of each day with wisdom?

As we accompany students on their journeys of learning and growth, there is remarkable consensus about the strengths of character we strive to help them cultivate:

  • Habits of mind allow students to pursue professional and academic excellence—including tenacity, thoroughness, creativity, and intellectual honesty and humility.
  • Habits of heart strengthen their friendships, family relationships, and communities—including empathy, compassion, respect, and gratitude.
  • Habits of character allow them to face challenges and embrace opportunities—including courage, temperance, responsibility, and integrity.
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So how do we help our students develop these strengths? What they need is practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is that internal compass present in everyone that, when activated, helps us to reflect on our true north so we can deliberate and respond well in each moment. Ancient thought and modern research offer insights into how students can navigate the challenges and opportunities that come their way as they strive to become the best version of themselves.

Putting strengths into practice

Two thousand years ago, the philosopher Aristotle wrote, “We learn by doing. [We] become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts . . .  brave by doing brave acts.”

But what is justice? And what is bravery? Every virtue, or strength, is found at the high point between two extremes. For example, true courage lies between cowardice or emotional paralysis (too much fear) on the one hand, and recklessness (not enough appropriate caution) on the other. Similarly, hope can be eroded by both despair and wishful thinking. This is a familiar concept—even young children know that Goldilocks encounters “too hot, too cold, too hard, too soft” as she searches for “just right.”

Every day presents students with numerous opportunities to aim high, to build strong habits, to learn by doing. How do they treat friends, family, and strangers who cross their paths? How do they prioritize their time? How do they respond to setbacks and frustrations? Courage will not look the same in every situation, and it takes practice and experience to habitually respond to challenges bravely.

When students encounter a challenge or opportunity, their first reaction might be to shut down, jump to a conclusion, or want to throw a punch. But they are not bound to this initial reaction. Using the theoretically grounded Practical Wisdom Framework (that we developed) as a guide, they can own their response when they:

  • Recognize their first, often instinctive, reaction.
  • Pause to reflect on the situation, remembering what they are aiming for, and who they aspire to be.
  • Recalibrate and respond in a way that matches their vision, their why.

This is practical wisdom in action.  

What is your first reaction?

To begin this process, have students consider a situation in their life when their first reaction was fear or anger. For example, maybe a classmate made fun of them or an experience of stage fright in elementary school is preventing them from auditioning for speech and drama in high school.

Our gut-level response to a situation is our “first reaction.” The same external situation will evoke different first reactions in different people: excitement or fear, hope or dread, joy or disgust. Depending on our personality, temperament, and prior life experiences, we all tend to initially gravitate toward one extreme or another.

To gain some awareness, students can reflect on their own habitual patterns:

  • Biologically, we are all equipped with a “fight or flight” response to stress: Some of us are inclined to use that extra burst of adrenaline to confront a situation, and some of us want to use it to retreat. In the face of conflict, is your first instinct to rage or retreat?
  • In expressing difficult feelings, do you gravitate toward passive or aggressive communication?
  • What was your initial reaction to this situation? Did it match your habitual patterns?

Here’s the good news: These first reactions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They just are. While students may not have control over the emotion that washes over them, they do have the ability to choose what to do next. That is where a compass helps to point the way. It helps them know what to do when they don’t know what to do. In other words, it helps them to choose well. The Practical Wisdom Framework™ helps students develop that compass, giving them the scaffolding they need to make considered, responsive choices aligned with their aim, rather than impulsive, reactive ones.

What is your aim? Your vision? Your why?

The Cheshire Cat told Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know “where you want to get to . . . then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.” A clear vision of who they are, who they want to be, how they want to treat others, and what they hope to accomplish helps students respond to everyday challenges.

Giving students opportunities to articulate a strong vision about who they want to be and what difference they want to make in the world is protective in the face of inevitable challenges. Research out of Stanford University found that asking middle school students to reflect and write about the things that truly mattered to them during stressful points in the school year resulted in significant academic gains, particularly for at-risk students. A similar writing exercise with first-generation college students—where they were asked to write about the three values that were most important to them—also resulted in academic gains.

There are many other exercises you can do with students to help them articulate what matters to them. For example, you might ask students to read and discuss Robert Frost’s short poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” After discussing the poem, ask students to make a list of non-material things that do “stay” and endure. Ask them to star the ones that matter most to them and then pair up and share what they starred and why. For homework, invite the students to ask their parents what they would add to the list. Encourage them to revisit this list and add notes and reflections throughout the year.

Reflect, recalibrate, respond

So how do students bridge the gap between their initial reaction and a thoughtful response that matches who they are and who they aspire to be?

With their specific situation in mind, invite students to reflect on clarifying questions, such as:

  • How am I feeling right now about this? Why?
  • What do I know?
  • What do I need to know?
  • Who can help?
  • What do I want the outcome of the situation to be?

When students are having a strong emotional reaction, reflection can help them pay attention to what it might be telling them. As psychologist Susan David from Harvard University explains, emotions can give you tremendous data. However, she adds, emotions are data, not directions. For example, the feeling of loneliness may tell students that they crave connection—but there are lots of ways to seek out social connection, some healthy and some destructive.

When students reflect, they can evaluate their reactions and take small, deliberate steps to move in the direction they want to go. For example, they might ask themselves: If I want to take better care of my physical wellness, what’s one step I can take, right now? If I am overwhelmed by demands, what small changes can I make to prioritize my time? If I am in conflict with a friend, what might help open up lines of communication?

There’s no magic formula. Students will have moments of success and moments that feel like failures. That’s why taking time to reflect, recalibrate, and respond is critical to developing practical wisdom.

We are all works in progress. We all have inherent dignity. We grow with experience, facing life’s ups and downs with as much grace as we can muster. When we remember who we are and who we are called to be—when we consult an internal compass that is pointing us toward a larger vision—we can navigate challenges, live with integrity, and find the resilience to get back up and take one more step forward.

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