Resistant Learners? or Resilient Learners? A Great Tool Every Teacher Needs in their Toolbelt.

In every classroom there’s that one student who just can’t sit still. They jump out of their seat, yell and cuss, and distract their neighbors around them. As a teacher what can you do? How do we get students to behave? Most would say throw the book at them, discipline is what kids need in order to live healthy academic lives, but what if I told you we’ve had it backwards for centuries now? Shocker, right?

Kyle's reading blog: Summer Entry III
Students today in every administrator’s office

A great novel that I have recently picked up is called Fostering Resilient Learners by therapist Kristin Souers and . In her book she describes how students may not be looking for attention, they’re just settling for it, and their outburst have a hidden meaning underlying them.

Students come prepackaged with their own little set of life experiences and it is our job as teachers to build upon those experiences to raise up their learning potential. On the one hand, what if that package comes with trauma? In Souers’ book she explains how students come with not-OK events categorized as ACE’s, or adverse childhood experiences, and how these events impair the learning experience.

It’s important to recognize that trauma is real. It’s also prevalent and toxic to the brain. Affecting development and learning in multiple ways. To children these events that induce trauma are experiences such as:

  • Substance abuse in the home.
  • Separation of parents or divorce
  • Mental illness being present in the home
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Suicidal household member
  • Death of a loved one
  • Incarceration of a parent
  • Experience of abuse (being emotional and/or physical/sexual) or neglect

We have learned that we need to create an environment where students can learn. To do that we need to set up our classrooms where students can feel safe. If students feel that they are in a hostile environment they will never be able to relax and think logically. They will be in fight or flight mode or what Souers refers to as the upstairs and downstairs brains.

The upstairs and downstairs brains

Starting with the “downstairs brain” this is where people, not just students, go when faced with conflict. This could be feelings of insecurity, confrontation with another person, or when presented with challenges that overwhelm them. They simply react and allow their emotions to overrun their thinking process. The upstairs brain is where one goes when feeling secure. This mind space allows one to think critically and logically. They are able to assess the situation that they are in and come up with solutions that logically resolve their situation.

For example, say a student has not developed the skills they need to complete an in class activity. This overwhelms the student and they react by horsing around and throw a pencil across the room. The instructor then approaches the student upset that the student is not doing what they were assigned and goes to scold the student. Both individuals are in their downstairs brains as they are simply reacting to the situation without thinking about it logically. As the adult in the situation the instructor needs to be the one to move into their upstairs brain so that they can further assist the student.

Female teacher with a blank blackboard and pointing stick. 3374160 Vector  Art at Vecteezy

In order to help our students we first need to calm ourselves down. Remember to take care of your own emotional needs first. As they say you cannot fill a basket from an empty bucket. Do activities that you enjoy outside of school hours, so you do not feel drained. Then you will be able to be the best teacher you can be!

Going back to our scenario, the teacher is now in a position where they can pause and take a deep breath to assess what the student is trying to tell them. This helps to avoid a power struggle that could erupt into distrust between mentor and student. Schools are so strict with discipline that the natural method may be to scold the student for not being able to sit still or maybe the instructor might demand that the student begin sitting still, start the assignment, and be quiet. The student being confined like this might even react more negatively as they feel their autonomy is not being protected. This could result in a power struggle so horrible that it ends with the student being kicked out of the classroom or even suspended from the school.

Now obviously that is the least desirable outcome. This sense of harsh discipline results in thousands of students being suspended from school or even expelled. What can you do as a teacher to ensure you are reacting in the way that best benefits your students? Souers describes how through every interaction we need to:

  1. Listen
  2. Reassure
  3. Validate
  4. Respond
  5. Repair
  6. Resolve

Often teachers are doing steps 1, 4, and 6, but without doing 2, 3, and 5 the behaviors that students are doing will just continue. As instructors we want to keep the lessons going with as little distractions as possible, but that is not how life goes, and we cannot simply bulldoze over the emotional distress of one or two students just to keep our lesson plan on agenda.

Check out this video below as Bob Stilger discusses resilience in classrooms abroad.

The steps above that we talked about not only work on students but parents as well! Say an upset parent comes to you upset about their child’s grade on a recent test. The parent is angry saying how dare you give their angel a less than acceptable grade. They know their student was up all night studying. First we listen to reassure the parent that we know why they are upset and validate their feelings. One could say, “Oh you’re upset that your student failed. When you know that they put in a lot of effort?” Then you could respond saying, “Well maybe they were having too much test anxiety that day.” To repair the relationship with the student and their parent you could offer to speak with the student to figure out why went wrong. Then to resolve the situation you might offer to let the student retake another test in a more comfortable setting. This is how we can use all the steps above to help build the best learning environment for our students.

Say the teacher in the scenario above was just using steps 1, 4, and 6. It could look entirely different. Teacher listens to the parent, responds that the student should have studied more, and resolves the situation by saying that they are not going to let them make up the test. When we do not focus on the relationship between us and the student/parent the student’s learning ultimately suffers.

In conclusion it is our job as teachers to not give up on students. We need to help them work past their trauma so that they can learn. Don’t give up on students that act out in your classroom see if there’s something you’re missing that could be undermining their learning. Take the time to modify your lesson plans for that student as if they had an IEP or they are an ELL. They might just be looking for a place to feel safe and it is your duty to provide it.


  1. Hey Steven,

    As the author wrote in the book it’s not important for you to understand a student’s story. Simply being there for them helps them feel safe and comfortable. Don’t overly criticize and show a little empathy. Asking a student why they won’t sit in their seat doesn’t need an explanation such as, my low self confidence makes me think I can’t do this which gives me this overwhelming feeling. Which then activates my flight or fight resource because it’s easily triggered due to parental abuse at my home. Therefore I am paranoid to sit still as I may become a target of further violence. That was a lot, and students may not even have the capability to explain something like that. This is why you simply have to be there for them. Make observations, don’t interrogate them. “Hey there, you seem like you’re trying to run away from this problem on this worksheet. Why don’t we sit down and tackle it together? Let’s take a moment to forget the past few seconds and forgive ourselves. Now let’s get started.” Show students they can trust you and maybe they’ll open up. It’s not required remember to not need putting a label on every behavior.

    Good luck out there!

  2. Hey Mckenna,

    The methods I use for self care are just indulging in my hobbies. Which I should say is important, no matter what job you do have a hobby outside of work. That way you can decompress all that tension that builds up day after day.

    Hang in there!

  3. Hey Grace,
    You just have to get used to calling yourself out when you’re in your own downstairs brain. If you don’t get it at first, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that your ego doesn’t need to be a part of a student’s learning process. So, if you don’t move into your upstairs brain until after the heated argument is over allow yourself to forgive yourself and apologize to the other party. Come into a place of listening and validating the others feelings before working on a solution to the situation. Students, let alone their parents, want adults they can feel safe around. Show them you’re human too and model that forgiveness for yourself, so that students can forgive themselves.
    Hope that’s helpful.

  4. Good question Luke,

    Remember from our book that it is important that we do not need to understand what caused the trauma. It is our jobs to help the student work through those feelings before they can start the learning process. Start with deep breaths until we’re calmed down, make it clear what it is the student is expected to do, and then model the behavior for them. If the student still feels overwhelmed then keep them calm and in that upstairs brain. Have them communicate what they’re feeling and why, validate their feelings, and resolve the issue. Maybe by breaking the assignment into smaller pieces.

    Hope that helps!

  5. Hi Anthony!
    I enjoyed reading over your blog post. You brought up some great points in your blog that I think really were meaningful. The examples you used gave me a better understanding of the topic and were a great resource for me to read over. I think that being in tune with our students is important so we can understand their emotions. A question I have for you is how can we be in tune with our students without being to involved in their business and coming off as invasive?

  6. Hi Anthony! Great blog. I really liked the graphics and pictures you used, I think that they extend the purpose of your message well. You briefly mentioned that we need to care for our own emotional needs and should do things outside of the classroom to be able to support our students. Is there a specific self-care strategy that works well for you?

  7. Hi Anthony!
    This is a great post and I think you covered a lot. I like how you pointed out that some of these strategies can also be used with parents who are upset, such as the six step model. I think that many relationships and conflicts could benefit from people first listening and affirming, rather than just immediately trying to fix the problem or ignoring the needs or worries of the other person. When in the middle of a heated conflict, how would you remind yourself to use these steps?

  8. Hi Anthony!
    I really liked your blog. I appreciated how you pulled out specific examples from Resilient Learners to support your points. I like how you emphasized the importance of the teacher making sure they are not in their downstairs brain when confronting a student, as it could lead to a heated stand off that polarizes the classroom. What can you do, as a teacher, to respond to students with more systemic trauma that doesn’t stem from a single event?

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