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Resilience and adaptability: The differences and similarities

Resilience and adaptability: The differences and similarities

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • Stress management & well-being

At InnerDrive, we’re aware of how exciting new and useful psychological theories and concepts can be. But sometimes, in the rush to embrace those, the subject can become over-discussed and distorted.

“Resilience and adaptability” is one of those cases, where the lines have become blurred and both concepts get used interchangeably. And although connected, they are not the same thing. There’s not much point in students knowing that they need to be resilient, or in teachers trying to improve student adaptability, if they don’t actually know what these things mean. So, we should clarify: what is resilience? what is adaptability? And more importantly, how do you tell them apart?

What is Resilience?

Resilience is all about being able to cope in unexpected or difficult circumstances. It’s the ability to persevere in the face of challenges, overcoming barriers and bouncing back after setbacks. It also involves learning from those setbacks, to help you better deal with them next time. 

For example, students sometimes don’t do as well in a test as they had hoped. Resilient students can accept this setback, learn from their mistakes, stay positive and work on how to do better next time. Or, when suffering from the stress of exams, resilient students can recognise their feelings, and attempt to manage their stress using effective coping mechanisms. Without resilience, students might instead get frustrated, believe that they can’t get better, and give up trying.

What is adaptability?

Adaptability, on the other hand, is being willing and able to adjust to changing conditions. This involves two elements: 

  • Being able to notice change;
  • Being able to find new approaches and alternatives to respond to this change.

It’s just like what Darwin said about ‘survival of the fittest’. He did not mean the ‘fittest’ necessarily as the quickest, cleverest, or strongest. Instead, he referred to the ‘fittest’ as those most capable of adapting to changes in their environment.

Take, for example, the current situation with the Covid-19 crisis, in which students have been subjected to many changes. The ‘fittest’ students, those who will thrive through this period and continue to achieve well at school, will be those who have adapted to changes in their learning. This might include motivating themselves to study independently when working from home, and changing their study habits to suit this better. 

So, what’s the difference?

While adaptability involves changing to manage under new conditions, resilience, through ‘bouncing back’, implies the ability to revert to a previous, more positive state, after experiencing some difficulty or challenge. 

This is what, by definition, separates adaptability from resilience. However, we can break this down further into some specific differences between the two skills…

Adversity vs Change

 While resilience tends to be in response to some kind of adversity, stress or pressure, adaptability does not necessarily involve any kind of negative situation. For example, a student might be moved up to a higher class in a particular subject. This change is not a bad thing, but will still require the student to adapt in some way, having to work harder to understand the class material for example.

Emotion vs Behaviour

 Resilience is primarily an emotional and psychological concept. Showing resilience requires a certain level of emotional intelligence, since it involves being able to recognise your feelings, and understanding how to harness them to help you cope well with a challenge. In contrast, adaptability is more behavioural, since it is about adopting certain behaviours in response to change. 

Improving Resilience vs Adversity

 Research suggests that helping students to develop a sense of perspective, encouraging them to stay physically and mentally healthy, and offering them social support, will help to foster their resilience. Meanwhile, adaptability can be improved by developing students’ creative thinking and problem solving skills, as this will help them to quickly find alternative approaches to respond and adapt to change. 

Develop resilient, self-aware students ready to overcome setbacks thanks to Teacher CPD training.

But, how are they connected?

Although it’s important to distinguish between resilience and adaptability, we can’t ignore that they are intricately connected. Here are some ways:

They’re both important

Being able to persevere through challenges (resilience) and adapt to change (adaptability) are both key skills that will help students to learn and thrive now and in the future. 

They interact in a feedback loop

Demonstrating resilience by bouncing back from setbacks often helps students to perform better in the future. This includes being able to adapt well to change. Similarly, when students experience change, they can find alternative approaches to respond to it. Adapting to change in this way will make them feel better about themselves, allowing them to be more resilient. In practicing this resilience, students then prepare themselves to be more adaptable to future change. Notice the feedback loop? Therefore, the real value comes from students being able to combine the two skills.

They’re both related to mindset

 Both skills are closely related to one unifying factor: mindset. Research suggests that having a growth mindset makes you more adaptable, and as such able to deal better with change and transitions, as well as promoting resilience. So, to improve both resilience and adaptability in students, schools can start by working on their growth mindset.

Final thoughts

Resilience and adaptability are distinct and separate concepts, and should be recognised in this way. However, the two do interact and, to have the most impact on student learning and development, we should aim to foster both skills in students. Schools can do this by developing a growth mindset in their students. Master growth mindset, and adaptability and resilience should follow…

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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