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Coping with change: teaching adaptability will help kids grow

Across a student’s lifetime, their world will change and change again. They’re likely to see industry reshaped, medical advancements, and huge changes to technology. In their own life too, they will begin…

Moderating your behaviour, emotions and thinking in the face of change is not easy – but can it be taught? Emotion image from www.shutterstock.com

Across a student’s lifetime, their world will change and change again. They’re likely to see industry reshaped, medical advancements, and huge changes to technology.

In their own life too, they will begin school, transition to further education or work, move out of home, begin or end relationships, maybe have children, and retire from work.

To navigate this ever-shifting world, young people will need to be adaptable. But is this something you can teach? And what kind of difference can being more adaptable make?

The times they are a changin'

Whereas much research and discussion has focused on young people’s resilience, very little has focused on their ability to adapt. Resilience refers to individuals’ capacity to deal with adversity, while adaptability refers to their capacity to respond to uncertainty, change, and novelty.

In our recent research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, we looked at the adaptability of 969 high school students from nine Australian secondary schools. Adaptability was assessed through a series of questions in a survey. These questions revolved around uncertain or changing situations and asked students to rate how effective they were in responding to those situations.

We found there are three parts to adaptability: behavioural, cognitive, and emotional.

The behavioural part involves adjusting one’s actions or behaviour in response to uncertainty and novelty, the cognitive involves adjusting one’s thinking and the emotional involves adjusting one’s positive and negative emotions.

We found that young people who are more adaptable were more likely to participate in class, enjoy school, be more satisfied with life, have higher self-esteem, and have a more concrete sense of meaning and purpose in life. In addition, we included a measure of resilience in the study and found that adaptability was a better predictor of these outcomes than resilience.

The effects of adaptability also went beyond any effects of personality and prior achievement – two factors also included in the study. Adaptability, therefore, emerged as a potent factor in academic and non-academic outcomes.

Teaching adaptability

The results of the study have implications across the school community – for teachers, school psychologists and for parents and caregivers – and for the advice we give students.

But how can we help students become more adaptable?

At school, students will often be faced with changing lessons, a different teacher, new work groups, new academic skills and tasks, fluid social group dynamics, new sporting or creative challenges – and so on.

One advantage of unpacking adaptability into its three components (behavioural, cognitive, emotional) is that advice and guidance can be developed in specific and concrete ways.

When it comes to students behaviour for example, we can encourage students to seek out new or more information or take a different course of action when faced with a new situation. This can be as simple as asking a teacher for some good reading on a new topic or reorganising their study timetable based on a test announced that day.

Even just something as simple as thinking about the opportunities a new situation might create or not assuming that change is a bad or undesirable thing can make a big difference.

Students can also be encouraged to learn to minimise disappointment and maximise enjoyment when circumstances change. Or indeed, keep a level head when in a winning position.

There might also be opportunities to explicitly draw students' attention to some new tasks as they arise and guide them through the behaviours, thoughts and emotions essential to succeed on those tasks. For example, as students make the transition from one year group to another, or embark on a new subject, teachers may identify ways students can adjust their behaviours (such as increasing effort, asking for help), control their thinking (challenging pessimism, self-doubt), and manage their emotions (keeping fear or anxiety in check).

Like most skills, young people greatly benefit from clear and direct guidance from competent and caring adults.

Tomorrow’s opportunities

Change, uncertainty, variability, transition and novelty are a reality of life. The extent to which young people effectively respond to this reality will have a significant bearing on their life course – beyond the influence of other important factors such as resilience and personality.

Encouragingly, research and practice show that young people can successfully adjust their behaviour, thought, and emotion – with some at-risk or underachieving youth perhaps requiring more intensive and sustained support to do this. Young people can be taught how to be more adaptable, and then in turn better embrace the opportunities of their ever-changing world.