Teaching Resilience in Schools and Fostering Resilient Learners

15 FEB 2019


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Teaching Resilience in Schools

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The most important skill that a teacher could share with his student is, by far, that of resilience.

But resilience cannot simply be ‘taught’; indeed, beyond memorization, calculation or other traditionally used learning methods, the learning process has to be interactive, engaging, and challenging.

It’s a process of becoming which can only be fully grasped by a child once he has developed a firm set of beliefs about himself and the world.

It’s a life lesson that emerges out of the blending of different positive and functional dynamics, that ingrain in the mind of the students the belief that they are worthy, as well as capable of overcoming the challenges that they may face, regardless of how complicated and difficult they may appear to be.

It may seem like knowing how to carefully pass down this specific mindset is a taxing endeavor.

It’s not; the main thing is knowing how to go about it.

We’re here to help. In this article, we will provide you with the knowledge and resources that are needed to develop the art of resilience among children in the classroom.

In case you are interested in resilience and haven’t read it already, we’ve written another article on the topic which puts the general topic of resilience within a broader framework.

The article also features a number of great resources including videos and exercises that altogether hoard quite some food for thought.

But let’s focus on society’s most precious resources: its children, its classrooms and its schools.

This article contains:


Fostering Resilient Learners

Few attitudes that characterize an individual are acquired in isolation.

As Aristotle once wrote, ‘man is a social animal’ and as the social sciences show us, almost all of our beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, rituals, ideas are shaped by the social world that surrounds us.

Further, psychology shows that the stories we tell ourselves determine our perspective on life and what we perceive to be in the realm of the possible.

Thus, at the intersection between our social realities and the narrative of ‘I’ that unfurls inside of our heads, lies our identity.

And while this identity may feel ‘real’ and ‘ours’ it is also undoubtedly molded by the exposures we have had throughout our lives, but especially those that present in our childhoods.

Parents, close relatives, siblings, teachers: every interaction or relationship we have had may have, to varying degrees, had a lasting impact on the way in which we today emotionally respond to a certain event or situation.

And because of this, parents are most aware of the damage that a potentially traumatic scenario could have on their child, and the haunting consequences it could have on adulthood.

However, cultures are different which means that parents not only respond and perceive differently what can be defined as a ‘stressor’, but also that they exhibit a varying range of beliefs about the world which included whether it is a safe place and whether others are trustworthy or not.

Second, the culture itself, with its norms and constructs will define specific parameters that will either maximize or minimize a child’s potential for well-being, success, and happiness.

As Gonzales et al. (2008) illustrate, among Mexican families living in the U.S. the notion of familism is prevalent, which sets a high value on the family as a unit and involves a range of obligations that an individual part of the community is expected to comply with.

According to the authors, tight-knit social networks “serve as a buffer against adverse social circumstances”, which in turn protects Latin youth against externalizing problems and fosters resilience among individuals.

But as Reyes, Elias, Parker, and Rosenblatt (2013) also point out, sociocultural factors can also hinder resilience.

This has been the case in the United States, where a sociocultural shift has led to the rise of ‘helicopter’ and overprotective parenting, having the effect of inhibiting children in a variety of ways.

As Rosin illustrates (2014), childhood norms since the ‘70s have shifted drastically- and actions that would have been considered paranoid then are now ‘routine’, and markers of “good, responsible parenting”.

This change, she argues, has been fuelled by the false belief that the world is today a more dangerous place than in the past.

Part of this belief stems from the number of mediatized cases of child abduction that have made the headlines in the last decades.

However, this increased anxiety among parents is more to be linked with the fact that the very nature of the American family and communities have changed.

The prevalence of divorce, women joining the workforce, single-parent families coupled with an increase in mobility have fragmented families and neighborhoods, resulting in what Rosin calls a ‘loss of cohesion’, which she says has eroded the fragile bond of trust which previously tied the individual to society.

As a result of changes in the structures of communities, neighborhoods, and families, parents have “sought to control more closely what they can – most of all, their children” (Rosin, 2014).

According to Hart, children would in the past gradually take on responsibilities as they would grow older: “They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some of them got small neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year” (Rosin, 2014).

This type of upbringing starkly contrasts with the currently dominant one, in which middle-class American children are not expected to do anything independently or engage in any activity that may represent a potential risk.

The effect of this was that while these were spending quite some time in the company of adults, and were to a certain degree able to emulate them, “they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant” (Rosin, 2014).

This desire to “protect” wrapped up as control was not only restricted to the child’s physical activities and engagements with the outside world but also came to overlap with different parenting strategies that ultimately shielded the child from necessary instances of unease.

A symptom of this general tendency is articulated by Benoit (2013), who illustrates how, in his experience some parents would do the homework of his pupils, believing that they are helping them by protecting them from the sometimes stressful, overwhelming and sometimes harsh realities of life.

The assumption shared by these parents could not, in fact, be further from the truth: this attitude -which Locke, Campbell & Kavanagh (2012) call ‘overparenting’- has counterproductive effects as children are brought up feeling helpless when having to confront challenging experiences.

Over time, this response can become internalized and surface in adulthood in the form of anxiety, and an inability to find within themselves adequate resources and coping mechanisms to essential for dealing with potential setbacks.

If not addressed, research has shown that this type of wiring can crystallize in afflictions of low self-esteem, confidence, and depression, as although the grown-up adult may desire to do certain things independently, they will, out of fear subconsciously avoid engaging in scenarios of which they cannot predict the outcomes and do not believe they would be able to cope if these turned out to be negative.

This parenting approach is, however, overall more detrimental than the momentary stress the child may encounter while facing a difficult situation.

Benoit highlights the pivotal role of teachers in tackling the issue and argues that the fundamental duty of teachers is to teach children a skillset, which is other than the conventional reading, writing, and arithmetic. Indeed, he stresses the following:

“we teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach”.

In other words, according to Marilyn Price-Mitchell (2015),

“children who develop resilience are better able to face disappointment, learn from failure, cope with loss and adapt to change. We recognize resilience in children when we observe their determination, grit, and perseverance to tackle problems and cope with the emotional challenges of school and life”.

It is therefore essential that teachers -not only to substitute for bad parenting strategies, but in their general teaching methodology- implement a framework which encourages the key life skill of resilience, because in the context of an achievement and growth-oriented, competitive culture, which builds its values upon Hellenic ideals, failure and imperfection are perceived as shameful as opposed to states that should be embraced and understood as part of the process of becoming.

Here, the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which dates back from the 15th century, finds its relevance.

A Kintsugi bowl

Image from The Book of Life

With roots in the Zen philosophy of wabi-sabi -which embraces the aesthetics of imperfection and impermanence- Kintsugi, literally meaning ‘to join with gold’, is a crafting method which consists of an assemblage of “broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot” which are glued together with “lacquer inflected with a very luxuriant gold powder” in order to recreate the pot as it once was, albeit with visible fractures that are adorned with gold (The Book of Life, 2018).

The purpose of this composition is to symbolically represent the beauty of reassembling shattered pieces, that may have been cracked by a contingency of life (i.e. a fall, fracture or failure).

The gold shows that what matters isn’t the setback, but rather the value that emerges out of the assembling of the different fragments that had once lost their original aesthetic. The learned lesson adorned with gold endows the pot with an unassailable beauty, resilience, and strength.

While in Western culture, results and outcomes tend to be most valued, Kintsugi and wabi-sabi teach us something about the process of becoming itself.

They bestow us with a wisdom that begs us to appreciate the value of attempt, failure, and persistence.

All this does certainly sound nice on paper, and you’re probably wondering how such an assemblage would look like in a child or teenager.

As we have previously seen, younger age groups are especially vulnerable as they are traversing the most pivotal years of their lives, in search of who they are and making important choices for themselves and their futures.


7 Characteristics of Student Resilience

Since most people assume that resilience is an attitude that restricts itself foremostly to adults juggling with numerous responsibilities and that children cannot truly ever be considered ‘resilient’, given that they are expected to do very little for themselves, resilience as a skill is not seen as one that should essentially be promoted in classrooms but rather, one which individuals come to acquire independently in their lives.

This view is part of the problem- if resilience and character strength are perceived as an attribute that comes ‘naturally’, then, we are making the assumption that everyone can equally face difficult contingencies of life by finding within themselves the necessary internal coping resources when the time comes.

Further research in psychology has shown that the age at which resilience is acquired is cultural and socio-economic rather than fixed.

For instance, Masten (2009) and Garmezy (1981) show how African-American children despite facing poverty demonstrated having an ‘internal locus of control’ or an independence which contrasted with children of different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, to the extent that it surprised their teachers.

That is not to say that children not coming from migrant backgrounds do not ever exhibit traits that from an adult’s perspective, may be described as ‘resilient’.

Rather, because that when present, they are overlooked or not considered as so, because they do not conform to the established definition of what is and looks like (as it has been dominated by adult understandings of the term).

In children, as Cahill, Beadle, Farrelly, Forster, & Smith’s (2014) work stresses, attributes of resilience – aside of the aforementioned ‘internal locus of control’ and independence – can be found in the following elements:


In sum, an ability to develop positive bonds with one’s peers, manage small challenges, trust one’s capacity to deal with responsibility, having a positive outlook on life, showing an emotional attachment to one’s relatives as well as to the social framework one daily engages with, are characteristics that are considered very promising and key to enabling individuals to deal with unforeseen circumstances linked to change, challenge, and adversity (Bernard, 2004).

In a classroom, it is not uncommon to be able to single out a few or the majority of the children as exhibiting these attributes.

However, not all do; and while classrooms are also there for children to learn from and grow with their peers, teachers play an important role in promoting these and ensuring that teachers incorporate resilience at the heart of their educational curriculums so that all children can benefit from these life-lasting skills and outlooks.

But, how to instill the classroom with these notions? How to equip children and teenagers with a skillset that will enable them to strive in their adult lives, and recover from adversity?


How to Teach Resilience in the Classroom?

How to teach resilience in the classroom

Image via Stocksnap

We all know what resilience looks like.

It’s the single mother of two children who is struggling to pay the end-of-month bills and who yet carries a smile on her face; it’s the CEO who is working seventy hours a week, bearing an overwhelming amount of responsibilities, and yet finds the energy to get up every morning to keep his business going.

It is not a coincidence that when we think of cases of resilience, adults and their achievements first come to mind. There exists an unspoken assumption in the claim that the ‘world is a tough place’ and that one can only strive within it by means of the virtue of resilience.

Hence R.W. Emerson’s quote that “When a man is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something”.

While this may be in part true, people often omit considering what life parameters set the psychological foundations for a resilient mindset.

Some adults appear to be more resilient than others primarily because deep inside of themselves, the child that was once shaped by a particular environment which encouraged resilience (whether intentionally or not) still lingers.

Indeed, children are the tabula rasa of society; because their brains are so flexible and developing so quickly (thanks to neuroplasticity), they can virtually learn anything.

This capacity is also their biggest vulnerability, as their earliest experiences in life will shape the way they relate to others and themselves for the rest of their lives.

This is a great thing if such experiences center themselves around love, safety, security, etc.

Unfortunately, not all children are brought up in the best conditions; overlapping factors of economic, social, cultural, structural or biological nature can often be seriously detrimental to the overall health and well-being of a child.

These can be immensely discouraging and can become, for the person experiencing, them insurmountable obstacles.

This is exacerbated by the fact that sometimes, families perpetuate – whether voluntarily or not – certain undesirable behavioral patterns which may hinder the child’s development, and lead to social and psychological problems, if the child cannot find the inner resources to develop resilience.

Thankfully, many children become resilient while facing adversity. But it shouldn’t be this way; at best, resilience should be developed in the context of a nurturing supportive environment with people ready to walk side by side with the child on his pathway to inner growth and fulfillment.

This way, the norm shouldn’t be that resilience should stem from trauma, but rather, from a supportive and loving environment, and this skill should be used to shield the self from the experience of trauma (or maximize the possibility of overcoming it) for an entire lifetime.

Almost inevitably, classroom dynamics along with the teaching methods adopted by teachers have a significant degree of influence on pupils and their well-being.

Indeed: school plays a huge role in children’s lives, a setting in which they spend at least 15,000 hours on average (Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, Ouston & Smith, 1979).

When risk factors are singled out at the level of the individual, family or community, teachers can play a key role in minimizing these by building protective factors with the intent of positively benefitting the child and his development.

As Namka (2014) illustrates, for some children, school may be the only haven they have; as one teenager partaking in her research acknowledges, “The only positive adult attention I got was in school from some of the teachers. I knew which teachers liked me and I learned more from them. At home, there weren’t any adults who were interested in me so school became my favorite place to be.

Furthermore, Pianta & Walsh (1998) highlight that “schools have historically been the great equalizer in the American landscape – the ‘ticket out’ for youth struggling to overcome conditions of adversity and poverty”.

In other words, while socio-economic inequality may be a very real force that is sculpting the architecture of American society, schools are toolboxes that equip the youth with tools which, if effective, can foster social change and mobility.

In the traditional school system, children tend to be rewarded when they obtain good grades or reveal that they have behaved in a way deemed excellent by his tutors, and punished when obtaining negative results or displaying an attitude that ought to be frowned upon by the school standards.

The Finnish educational system, famous for its progressive educational reforms, has tackled this good/bad mindset by removing standardized forms of assessment, and instead grading students on an individualized basis, while providing them with a holistic environment in which equality, cooperation -as opposed to competition- and harmony are encouraged (Colagrossi, 2018).

While it is impossible to entirely reform the American educational system, there are ways to incorporate a systemic framework in schools to promote certain norms that teach children how to be resourceful and resilient, not only at school but also in their private lives.

In the past, a lot of attention was given to deficit-based approaches, which sought to tackle behavioral problems by taking disciplinary measures designed to inhibit undesirable types of behavior (Cahill, Beadle, Farrelly, Forster, & Smith, 2014).

Times are however changing and, influenced by positive psychologists, this approach lost its popularity against a strength-based model which, instead of focusing on undesirable traits a child may exhibit, the goal became to focus and take advantage of existing strengths, positive qualities while promoting well-being and resilience (Cahill, Beadle, Farrelly, Forster, & Smith, 2014).

Indeed, one of the aims of positive psychology is to allow people’s strengths and capacities shine through their weaknesses or vulnerabilities, in light of helping them to focus on what makes them thrive in life (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi 2000).

In the school setting, this can only be achieved if some primary elements are actively incorporated, such as:


Once combined, these elements provide an ideal context for children to thrive not only in the learning process but also in their social and psychological inner lives (Bernard, 2004).

As we will now see, these points can be broken down into different specific examples as to how they can be practically implemented in order to maximize resilience among students.


Examples of Promoting Resilience at School

How can teachers convey the beauty of Kintsugi art to young pupils, and the significance of the gold that emerges from the cracks of the broken pot?

The metaphor is indeed somewhat complex to communicate to children who most likely have close to no exposure to philosophical theories.

Fortunately, there are simple and very easy ways of reinforcing positive attitudes and resilience that can, over time, have a clear impact on a child’s independence, perception of self-worth, insight, and perspective about the process of becoming.

Here again, it is important to remember that the objective should not be about encouraging the child to pursue success at all costs, but rather, for him to understand that what matters is the attempt, as well as the insight that is developed regarding the outcomes of the attempt, and the way in which this insight feeds into the broader picture of the child’s development.

Building upon years of experience in preschool, elementary classrooms and a psychiatric hospital teaching children emotional, social and vocational growth skills, Namka (2014) write how she always resorts to the following model before she introduces a new psychological conceptual framework relevant to the classroom she is entrusted with.

  1. Determine which psychological skill would be most useful for your group
  2. Make sure you use a language which matches the general vocabulary of your students and their understanding of specific life issues
  3. Start a discussion on the concept or skill using life examples that the children can relate to and would feel at ease discussing
  4. Choose a book, a video, film, a playing activity or even a creative project that will give the students the concept you have chosen a specific as well as practical idea as to how it would play out in daily life.
  5. Throughout, ask students questions for them to reflect on how they connect personally with the concept and reward students that demonstrate a clear understanding of the significance of the concept.


Although this approach is useful for introducing and determining a specific paradigm, there are also a number of ways in which resilience can be promoted at school without diving head-first into the subject with the classroom.

For instance, Carol Dwek (2015) suggests that there are a number of questions a teacher can ask a child on a regular basis in order to promote a growth mindset among children, such as:


These questions, if asked to children on a regular basis, are likely to help them gain insight into their experiences, keep track of their progress, think and plan ahead of time and reflect on what they can do in order to improve their performance over time. It is likely that they will develop a sense of self-worth in relation to their insights, stemming from the acknowledged value of their independent endeavors.

As Namka (2014) emphasizes, if the message “comes through again and again” that the child’s attempts to be autonomous are receiving a full and unconditional support, and that the person tutoring him fully believes in his or her ability to work things out, this will lead to the “self-fulfilling prophecy of “Someone believes in me so I must have what it takes to work out the threatening situation!”.


Lesson Plans for Teaching Resilience to Students

Currently we are blessed by the countless number of quality and classroom-relevant resources that are free and available to consult online in English.

We’ve picked some of the best lesson plans sources for you, which address the topic of resilience and you may want to have a deeper look into and see which would suit best your classroom dynamics.

Reach Out Lesson Plan

Reach out, self-described as Australia’s leading online mental health organization for youth people and their parents, compiled six different lessons in a resource called ‘Embracing the F Word’ (F referring to failure- the authors talk about learning and motivation through failing better), and draw a parallel between resilience and developing a growth-oriented mindset.

Here is an example of the lesson named “Setting Goals – ‘Mastery’ and ‘Not Yet’ Tracking” (p.38):

Duration: 50 min

Main takeaway for the teacher:

Enabling students to adopt a growth mindset, and for them to conceptualize their educational experiences (learning, development, achievements) in terms of ‘mastery’ and ‘not yet’ (Carol Dweck).

This approach has the objective of teaching children how to think of failure as a positive and natural part of the process of learning. Reach out emphasizes how ideally, school should provide students with the adequate space for them to be able to pursue specific skills or tasks until they have mastered them, as not all students have the same pace on the pathway of learning.

Unfortunately, usual constraints connected with time and student numbers do not facilitate the task. Nonetheless, teaching students about the significance of mastering a skill as well as the specific attitude that comes with it is priceless, and has an important message in terms of resilience, which will provide useful for students throughout their lives.

Key Messages:

The goal is that at the end of this lesson, students have a clear insight into the following points:


Growth-oriented questions to ask students:

If you are looking to develop a growth mindset with students, you may want to adopt in your speech a few questions while busy with or after they have been working on difficult tasks. Hearing a voice which vocalizes the growth mindset approach may indeed be beneficial in giving them a sense of what their own thoughts should sound like when they are being challenged.


Activity 1: Opposite Hands

Put the students in pairs and tell them to them to use their non-dominant hand to write words linked with mindsets backward, for the partner to guess them. Mindset words are the following: Mindset, Growth, Fixed, Yet, feedback, failing, learning.


Activity 2: Tracking Mastery

Ask the students to complete the “Tracking Mastery” worksheet (pdf).

Instigate a class discussion and invite students to share the different skills they have come to master during the task.


Activity 3: Backward Mapping & Tracking Mastery

Ask the students to complete the ‘Backward Mapping & Tracking Mastery’ worksheet (below)

Backwar mapping & Tracking Mastery

Activity 4: Learning Pyramid

Tell the students to fill in the learning pyramid (below) for them to reflect on the lesson.

Learning pyramid


Samaritans Lesson Plan

Aside of Reach Out, Samaritans also provide a useful lesson outline suitable for teaching resilience in the classrooms. Here is an example of the lesson you may find on their website.



Key message:




Tools: (click on the website link below to find out more)


Digital resources:



  • With your students, watch the ‘Resilience’ video clip.
  • At the end of the screening, allow some time for your students to discuss their thoughts on the movie.
  • Divide the students into small groups, distribute the printed out discussion points, and assign one character per group.
  • The teams should work on the completion of a character profile (handout), focusing on their assigned character in the movie.
  • While doing this, encourage the group to think specifically about what the character can do to build resilience, and what if they would advise him or her to do if they were their friends.
  • When completed, ask one team leader to volunteer and share with the rest of the class the reflections developed in the group discussion.


  • On a piece of paper, or even coloured sticky notes, ask students to put down challenging situations they can think of.
  • Collect them and stick them on the board.
  • Read them out loud and ask the students what they would do if exposed to that situation or problem.
  • Take the coping cards and distribute either one or two as well as a blank card to each student. Tell the students that on the blank card they can add their own ideas if they have any.
  • Among the three, tell the students that they should chose one to hold up where everyone can see it.
  • In the room, label areas as helpful, harmful and useless.
  • One by one, read the situations the students wrote on the notes and ask them to move to the labelled areas, in function of whether they think that the chosen coping strategy will be effective for the given situation.
  • Once students are spread out in different areas of the classroom, ask students one by one to talk about why they believed that their position was the best one to choose.
  • Compare the different ideas and thoughts that play out. As Samaritans point out, you can also ask the following questions:
  • Who thinks that one coping strategy isn’t enough?
  • What would render a coping method harmful or useless?
  • What should we take into account when considering how we are coping?
  • How can one find out if the chosen coping strategy is helping?
  • What things may ‘get in the way’ and prevent us from adopting the most helpful strategy?
  • Is what is helpful the same as what is the easiest option?
  • Is it always easy to find out which approach is helpful in a given situation?
  • Try to think of an example where this may prove to be difficult.
  • How could this difficulty be overcome?



  • In order to build resilience, it is necessary for individuals to develop a set of coping abilities which not only can allow them to not only confront adversity when it arises but also keep a sense of harmony in our lives.
  • You can incorporate some examples and the ideas that emerged from the video clip you watched.
  • Sometimes, a belief in one’s ability to cope is not enough, and specific plans and strategies are necessary in order to be able to deal with things that can come to negatively interfere with our lives and cause us stress.
  • These can serve as toolkits to guide us and inform us on the best approach to take in different challenging circumstances, and therefore reduce the potential amount of harm they could potentially cause us.


Read more about Samaritans.


A Hundred Activities for Teaching Resilience

If you’re looking for activities that will help you teach resilience to your students, you are in luck. There are also a number of fantastic resources out there that are tailored to the needs of specific age groups.

Following this link, from page 30 to page 167, Lynne Namka has put together over a hundred activities for the purpose of instilling resilience in classrooms in a fun and dynamic way.

Each activity fits on the format of an A4 page, and outlines an objective, a discussion, an activity, helper words and tips to help the teacher to conduct the activity.

These also contain a range of age-appropriate materials (videos, mindfulness exercises among others) that can serve the complex concept of resilience to children.

Further, Namka’s work is adorned with countless inspirational and colorful quotes that can easily be printed out and distributed freely or hung on the classroom’s walls.


Specific Resilience Programs for Schools

Schools can enhance the impact of their efforts to promote resilience in their curriculum through programs which can build positive social norms as well as generate a sense of connectedness between teachers, peers, and the academic goals of the school.

This way of proceeding also corresponds to a positive psychologist’s view that systemic action should be taken at the school level (as opposed to individual classrooms).

Programs usually involve skill training for parents and teachers, and although most have the same goal in mind, they may differ in their methods and focus.

Furthermore, programs tend to be country-specific, so before enrolling in one make sure you do some background research to find the right one for your school within close geographical proximity.

If you cannot find a programme that would suit you in your needs where your school is located, you can always try to contact one of the following organizations, and schedule skype-training sessions or consultancies, or simply browse their websites in order to find some inspiration in how you would develop a resilience-based model for your own school.

In the United States:

The Penn Resiliency program, provide workshop and training courses to teachers and parents.

The program is said to teach children the skills of “assertiveness, negotiation, decision-making and coping with difficult situations and emotions and social problem-solving and relaxation” (Namka, 2014).

In the United Kingdom:

Project 6 is a charity based in West Yorkshire which works with children and young people who are at risk of using substances.

The program offers a range of services including brief intervention and group activities, with the goal of increasing resilience and confidence, raise awareness regarding risks, and prevent, reduce and stop substance use.

In Australia:

The Resilient Donut is a model which, by means of a two-year whole-school programme of training, development and evaluation, aims to “raise the well-being and resilience of staff, students and community”.

Adopting a systemic multilevel approach, the programme places building a positive strength and growth-based school climate at the heart of its curriculum.

Useful links for further reading: