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From the Quad

Choosing Schools that Foster Resilience

Resilience—the ability to pick oneself up, dust off, and get back in the game after a setback—is crucial to success in school and life. Thus psychologists have spent decades studying what fosters this personal attribute. Ben Foss, head of an educational advocacy group called Headstrong Nation, referenced two foundational factors in a recent talk about learning differences at Eagle Hill Southport in Connecticut: challenges commensurate with ability and unconditional love. As an educational advisor, I can confirm that applying these principles to school search and selection is the key to finding an excellent match for any student.

Our society has traditionally thought of resilience as a byproduct of toughening up. We toss around such clichés as "sink or swim" and "pull yourself up by the bootstraps." Certainly people have tremendous potential to grow from rising above challenging circumstances, but such high stakes situations can more easily promote failure. Will those who do not overcome have the resilience to "buck up" and try again? Or, will they feel defeated, overwhelmed, and begin a downward spiral.

Research shows that the most consistently effective learning environments come from working in the sweet spot where an individual encounters just the right amount of challenge—not too much, nor too little.  Working at the right skill level inspires creativity and the desire to tackle more challenges because students feel confident and take ownership of their ideas. In this scenario, even if students don’t accomplish specific goals, they internalize the lessons of their attempts and they got far enough to feel secure trying again.

This approach to building resilience is not about insulating students from failure—which is where the unconditional love comes in. Students need the experience of failure as much as they need the encouragement to find success. Students borrow optimism from the support they feel from family, friends, and caring educators who make clear that a person’s worth is not measured by a test score.

Parents’ dreams for their children sometimes make the boundary between high expectations and too high expectations unclear. Acknowledging what kind of learner a child is, and mapping and accepting his or her strengths and weaknesses is crucial to finding that perfect school setting that every child deserves. When children feel a sense of comfort in a learning environment, they grow confident and resilient—and take the risks needed to achieve their dreams.


Holly McGlennon Treat specializes in helping families interested in independent junior and secondary boarding schools. She can be reached at