Bouncing Back: Educating for Resilience at Westtown School

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Nancy van Arkel, Principal of the Middle School at Westtown School, agrees with a recent New York Times Magazine article in which author Paul Tough suggests experiencing failure is critical to achieving success. Teaching students to persevere when they face difficult challenges is an intentional part of Westtown's program, one that helps fosters resilient adults.

Westtown 8th graders meet whitewater challenges on the Delaware River

On a canoe trip or a math test, in the science lab or on the playing fields, on stage or in a reflective essay, students take risks and grow from the experience. And it seems like a thousand times a day, a child's face lights up with 'Oh, I get it!' joy.

For Nancy van Arkel, Middle School Principal at Westtown School, any discussion of success also includes failure. Which is why she found the recent article by Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine –“What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?”– so very affirming.

“The very notion of ‘failure’ has such negative connotations today, and that’s especially true when it applies to parents and their children,” van Arkel says. “After all, what parent wants to see a child face setbacks or be hurt?”

“But,” she continues, “how many of us learn life’s big lessons when everything always goes well and the sun shines in the sky every day?” Nancy van Arkel believes – and she emphasizes this repeatedly in her conversations with Westtown parents of adolescents – the key to developing capable and resilient adults is making sure young people have the opportunity to experience small, manageable failures in the presence of caring teachers who are their “safety nets” and “mirrors,” helping them analyze what went wrong and what it would take to produce a different outcome in the future.

Westtown School, a Quaker college preparatory school founded in 1799 in West Chester, PA, has long recognized the positive value of challenge and adversity. “It’s one of the reasons we require all our students to play competitive sports,” van Arkel says. “Of course we absolutely play to win, and we’re thrilled when our teams come out on top. But we also know how rare it is to win all the time, so we look to the inevitable losses as teachable moments to help our students develop character and give them the chance to grow.”

Nancy van Arkel is a big fan of Wendy Mogel, New York Times best-selling author of “Blessings of a Skinned Knee” and “Blessings of a B Minus.” She frequently recommends Mogel’s books to parents of middle schoolers. A clinical psychologist, Mogel sees adolescents who are both anxious and entitled, and she describes a generation of overprotected children who haven’t had the chance to take the kinds of risks that lead to scrapes, bruises – and the ability to bounce back and keep going. Current research suggests that these qualities of resilience and perseverence, described as "Grit" by psychologists such as Angela Duckworth, are often better predictors of long-term success than intelligence and talent alone.

An intentional component of Westtown’s Middle School program is a series of overnight canoe trips, one at each grade level, that begin with relatively minor physical challenges in 6th grade and progress to a two-night, whitewater experience by 8th grade. Students and parents are allowed to opt out of the trips, but relatively few of them do, van Arkel says. That doesn’t mean both groups – children and adults – aren’t anxious. “The parents are concerned about safety. The kids are worried they won’t be up to the camping and canoeing, despite weeks of practice and preparation beforehand.”

And yet, she says, “When they come back to school – and they all do! – dirty and tired and sometimes wet because it’s rained or a canoe capsized, they are so proud of what they’ve accomplished. They’ve been leaders, they’ve taken on responsibilities and they’ve challenged themselves in all kinds of new ways. And they’ve learned they can push themselves to whatever their limits are because they have teachers and peers who are there to help if they run into trouble. On a canoe trip or a math test, in the science lab or on the playing fields, on stage or in a reflective essay, students take risks and grow from the experience. And it seems like a thousand times a day, a child's face lights up with 'Oh, I get it!' joy."

Westtown School, with students from pre-K to grade 12, describes itself as a community of learners, so teachers also challenge themselves, and they model risk-taking and the personal growth that comes from failure. “Imagine the power of having a teacher with a lesson that falls flat on its face because new technology didn’t work – and then she comes back to class the next day willing to try it again! This kind of thing happens often enough that the bigger lesson isn’t lost on our students. Fall down. Get back up. Brush off. Try again. These are the building blocks for success – and here at Westtown, they’re part of what we call a ‘life-size’ education.”

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Lynette Assarsson
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