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How to bounce
A portrait of Zak Simon ’21 looking away from the camera, focused, with an overlay of birds in flight over portions of the photograph

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.

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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.

Tyris Lebeau ’21 in a prayer pose with overlay of forest landscape

Tyris Lebeau ’21

How do you pump up your resilience?

Chandler recommends focusing on the four building blocks of resilience—the ABCS:

Active Coping: Seek regular exercise or meditation.

Building Strength: Focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses.

Cognitive Awareness: Listen for patterns of automatic thinking and negative self-talk and work to refocus them.

Social Support: Help others when you can—and ask for help when you need it.

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.

Changing minds

Tajimier Jones ’23 is shown with an overlay of swirling water

Tajimier Jones ’23

It was out of this realization and her passion for teaching these coping skills that Chandler developed her class Changing Minds, Changing Lives. Approaching this curriculum from a strength-based pedagogy, Chandler drew from her own research, from the latest data in this ever-expanding field of study, from social justice education, and even from business strategies, all of which support students having a deeper awareness of their own resilience while introducing them to more health-promoting skills.

About the same time Chandler was debuting her course on campus, Jim Helling—a clinical social worker at UMass and a counselor in the Athletics Department—was looking for a different approach to support student-athletes who, for a variety of reasons, have heightened stress levels. Helling wanted something that would teach them more health-promoting skills, something that would lead them “toward growth, health, and wholeness.” Chandler’s class was just what Helling was looking for.

Together, Chandler and Helling began by teaching the class to students who were first-year football student-athletes. Then they taught it to the women’s and men’s basketball teams. The outcomes were more transformative than either Chandler or Helling could have anticipated—the pre- and post-class surveys showed that as students learned about resiliency, they developed important, empowering skills.

“In terms of my education, this class has helped me relieve the pressure I put on myself as a student,” says Hailey Leidel ’20, a UMass women’s basketball player. “I’m always so worried about my grades and GPA, but after taking this class I’ve been able to take more of a breath and just do my best and not expect perfection with everything I do, which ultimately isn’t realistic or sustainable anyway,” she observes.

Women’s basketball cocaptain Vashnie Perry ’20 noticed a change in how she handled overwhelming workloads. Now, she says, “I take a moment and breathe, and I tell myself everything will get done.”

Xavier Gonsalves ’23 with overlay of rippling water

Xavier Gonsalves ’23

“Negative thoughts stick to us like Velcro,” Chandler explains. “We have to train our brain to hang on to the positive things. We are experts in stress, so we need to practice building up the calm side of the brain, the focused side.”

Football player Jermaine Johnson ’22 says he learned from the class that “to actually overcome the past you have to talk about the past, and be able to share with others.” Kolton Mitchell ’23 of the men’s basketball team agrees, noting that the class helped him and his teammates to “better understand one another and grow our friendships and bonds together.” Studies show that this increased sense of belonging and community, as well as an improved ability to manage stress, are key elements that contribute to academic success.

Far and wide

Changing Minds, Changing Lives continues to bloom across the university, as both the nursing and engineering departments now offer the course. A version is also being taught in Springfield Central Public High School, where UMass student-athletes serve as mentors and role models by facilitating the weekly classes. Chandler and Helling received funding from the NCAA to study how the course supports players in transitioning to college. The educational community both on and off campus recognizes that a strong education includes both academic passion and mental wellbeing. Elizabeth “Betsy” Cracco, the university’s executive director of Wellbeing, Access, and Prevention, is working with Chandler to develop ways for more students to access the benefits of the practices taught in the course. “We recognize the essential skills that are being developed here and want to translate that to help all of our students,” she says.

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.