Monday 6 March 2023

Compassion, Resilience, and the Gymnasium


Author: Astrid Kendrick, EdD

As a former physical educator, I know that students might need an additional push to try something difficult or a gentle pull to help them through it. Deciding whether to focus on resilience (the push) or compassion (the pull) – or both – was a key pedagogical decision for me.

Resilience, in its truest sense, is developed through an individual’s response to a traumatic or difficult event. Rather than waiting for post-traumatic growth, an everyday resiliency can be crafted every time a student tries a new skill, succeeds in lifting heavier weights, runs a faster time, or beats a personal goal. These daily wins can positively impact an individual’s willingness and ability to push through more difficult experiences, but, some challenges can really challenge an individual’s fortitude.

These harder challenges may need the physical education teacher or coach to be compassionate - to notice, feel, and act to relieve the suffering of their students and athletes. Words of encouragement, well-timed skills coaching, or encouraging physical rest or nourishment can be the pull that gets an individual through a difficult task or activity.  

So, how can teachers use compassion to build resilience? Each part of compassion – noticing, feeling, and acting can be a part of building positive relationships with students. The below scenarios are simplified illustrations of the relationship between compassion, resilience, and the gymnasium.

Scenario A: Student Refusal to Engage in Class

Compassion: In the past, if I’ve noticed that a student is disengaged, I’ve had to check my feelings of frustration, and ask the student “What do you need to participate?”.

The answers I have gotten to this question include: better shoes because a student had to wear hand-me-downs that were a size too big; a tampon because the student just got her period and was embarrassed; new clothes because the student had outgrown their gym strip; and a life jacket because the student didn’t know how to swim.

The action I took was to have a stash of clothes, menstrual products, and gear to provide to students as needed.

Resilience: By removing the student’s real reason for refusal, the student no longer has barriers to participation, and they may attempt, and actually enjoy, the activity.

Scenario B: Student does not enjoy the planned activity

Compassion: If I’ve heard a student complaining about the activity, I’ve considered how I felt the last time I tried the activity, and asked the question, “What don’t you like about this activity?”.

 My former students have said that they didn’t want to get sweaty because they didn’t have a change of clothes; they didn’t feel confident because they lacked the requisite skills; the activity was too easy and therefore boring; or it was too hard (usually related to own cardiovascular fitness or muscular strength).

My action was to design skills-based activities in every lesson to review the fundamental skills including upskill opportunities related to the activity and to have a stash of extra shirts so students could change for class (gross, but effective).

Resilience: If a student admits they genuinely do not enjoy the planned activity, resilience built when they at least attempt the activity. Finding a way through unpleasant games or activities in PE can help them face other physical tasks in the future.

Scenario C: Student lacks the skills or competencies to enjoy the activity.

Compassion: If I’ve noticed that fundamental skills are lacking, I can remember feeling inadequate when I’ve tried something new, so I have asked “How can I help you learn?”.

Students have asked for tips and tricks to improve; private time to practice specialized skills; and opportunities to build their cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

Resilience: The student gains confidence to try new activities after improving their fundamental movement skills and overall physical health.

A fine line exists between pushing a student through difficulty to build their resilience and pulling a student over the finish line by being compassionate. An individual’s resilience generates the will to grind through difficult times, and compassion is the outstretched hand that helps them out. Both can be built and diminished through seemingly small actions in the gymnasium.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

PHE Canada Teach Resiliency:

Centre for Compassionate Leadership:

Compassion Research Lab:

HEARTcare Planning for Educators:

Coaching with Compassion: