How to Bounce
How do you teach the elusive quality of resilience in a classroom? A nursing professor has some ideas that are gaining traction.
Resilience—once a trait for gurus and yoga classes—has come to be seen by academics and scientists as an important life skill. Genevieve “Ginny” Chandler, a professor in the College of Nursing, defines resilience as “recognizing your internal and external supports to manage stress,” and she has spent more than two decades studying the nuances and complexities within that simple definition. As interest has grown in what constitutes resilience and how one might cultivate it, Chandler’s long-standing research focus is fast becoming an educational precept. Now her techniques for building resilience are empowering UMass students with a new set of skills that will strengthen them for a lifetime.
Myth: Either you have it or you don’t
Chandler’s work began years ago when she was brought into Putnam Vocational High School in Springfield, Massachusetts, to lead writing groups. Employing the methods of Amherst Writers & Artists, her goal was to build coping and self-efficacy skills.
At the time, resilience was seen more as a character trait—something you either had or didn’t have. As Chandler describes it, “Adolescents who were resilient were those who had high GPAs, were involved in school, extracurricular activities, were not doing drugs.” And although the students she was working with were the opposite of that, when she asked if they were resilient, they all said yes.
As Chandler dug into this, she noticed that their resilience often came from isolating or insulating themselves. She recognized that although behaviors like substance abuse or disengagement from school were not necessarily beneficial, they may have started out as a way to manage stressful situations. This essential insight led Chandler to publish two scholarly articles and create a new framework with her coauthor A.J. Hunter called the Continuum of Resilience.
The ‘Continuum of Resilience’
Chandler’s research broadened the concept of resilience by recognizing a spectrum of behaviors associated with resilience—both health-defeating actions and health-promoting ones. Health-defeating resilience might include substance abuse, promiscuous sex, or any other strategy that might get one through a stressful moment but is not healthy for the body and mind in the longer term. Chandler’s goal is for people to draw on health-promoting skills as opposed to health-defeating ones, and she firmly believes that health-promoting resilience skills can be taught, so that people can move up the continuum as they adopt better coping skills. By understanding that some actions that are destructive to health are actually attempts to handle stress, Chandler took away the shaming language that had previously existed and created an opportunity for positive change.
Teaching resilience in the midst of a crisis
When the coronavirus pandemic sent students home in the middle of spring semester, Chandler and Helling worked with UMass Wellbeing, Access, and Prevention to continue bringing these essential wellness tools to students at a time when the need for those skills had become more critical than ever.
The Changing Minds, Changing Lives course became a free online drop-in space for the month of April, where students could “share stories of resilience, learn about their personal strengths, empower their leadership, and feel connected to the UMass community.” Twice-weekly sessions offered guided relaxation and stress reduction techniques, structured writing activities, and a forum for sharing personal stories of strength and honesty.
Students who completed five sessions received a Community Resilience Leadership Certificate as a testament to the skills added to their personal and professional tool kits.