What Is Our New Normal? COVID-19 as an Opportunity to Build Resilience

April 13, 2020 Meghan Brenneman, Ed.D.

It goes without saying that we are living through exceptional times, a kind of medieval experience in a time of technological wonder. We’re advised to avoid other people like the lepers of antiquity but encouraged to stay in touch with miraculous technology. There’s a kind of dissonance in all this. It’s not easy to get used to. And the hardest part, for a lot of us, is the uncertainty of it all. How long will this go on? Will we ever return to “normal”?

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that this experience could be a watershed moment in history or, as some put it, a historical hinge. In which case, no, we will never return to “normal.” Assumptions that have dominated our paradigm for decades, if not centuries, are up for challenge, re-evaluation, and possibly demise, whether it has to do with the economy, our systems of governance, our religious orientations, our social normsand of course, assumptions of how we learn and pass learning on to our children.

Rahm Emanuel, former presidential chief of staff and mayor of Chicago, has famously said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” This is interesting advice. New and difficult times also offer opportunities for re-evaluation and constructive change. As we struggle to deal with the moment, we should also think of the longer term. Think in generational terms, not simply in terms of momentary expediency.

I’m sure we have all been deluged with comments, proposals, and advice about how to best deal with our current situation. One I would like to offer is thinking of the global pandemic as an exercise to build resilience. By definition, resilience is:

  • The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness (1) 
  • The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape, elasticity (2)

In physics, resilience is the ability of an elastic material (such as rubber or animal tissue) to absorb energy (such as from a blow) and release that energy as it springs back to its original shape. The recovery that occurs in this phenomenon can be viewed as analogous to a person's ability to bounce back after a jarring setback. Author P. G. Wodehouse took note of this when he wrote: "There is in certain [humans] … a quality of resilience, a sturdy refusal to acknowledge defeat, which aids them as effectively in affairs of the heart as in encounters of a sterner and more practical kind."(3)

From the physical to metaphysical, the literal to the figurative, the definition of "resilience" includes terms such as:

  • Absorb energy 
  • Bounce back 
  • Refuse defeat
  • Recover quickly
  • Develop toughness
  • Spring back

So are we all born with this innate quality to bounce back, recover quickly, or refuse defeat? The good news is research suggests that if you are not a naturally resilient person, resilience, and other character skills, can be practiced, learned, and developed. (4)

One approach to building resilience comes from Kenneth Ginsburg, in his book, A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings. (5) Dr. Ginsburg suggests there are 7 C’s of resilience. Breaking down resilience in this fashion can help facilitate conversations with students and the families you serve as a way to consider this pandemic and how they can control, contribute, and cope with their situation.

It can be as simple as starting a conversation, asking students to reflect on what is going on around then and their place in the world.

As the title of this blog asks, What is our new normal? We may not know that answer yet, but we can use this time to create as many opportunities as possible. Building resilience is just one example.

Stay well, healthy, and resilient.

1 Source: Merlyn Clark. My dear friend and colleague on the Stroudsburg School Board for his opening prose on this blog post.
2 ​Source: ​https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/resilience
3 Source: ​https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resilience
4 Sources: ​https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140916-how-to-train-a-tougher-mind​, https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience​, https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resilience
5 Source: https://www.amazon.com/Building-Resilience-Children-Teens-Giving-ebook/dp/B00N01VL ZE

About the Author

Meghan Brenneman, Ed.D.

Director of Character Assessment Programs As director of character assessment programs, Meghan uses her background in research, K—12 education, and project management to lead our character assessment programs. She develops items, designs research studies, interacts with schools, and works with thought leaders in the field to create robust opportunities for enhanced character skills measurement.

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