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Teaching Adaptability as a Life Skill

Opinion by Andrew Martin*  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' behaviours 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.