Developing career resilience
Developing career resilience

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5 Resilience in learning

You will now look at Heather’s case study, which illustrates a common issue – a difficulty in learning maths. The case study shows how a coaching course helped Heather to set aside her own mathematical fears and to support her daughter to become a resilient learner rather than trying to act as an expert providing mathematical expertise or solutions. Academics at Warwick University and The Open University, the authors of this research, describe this as developing ‘mathematical resilience’ – a ‘can do’ attitude to approaching mathematical problems (Johnston-Wilder et al., 2013).

Activity 7 Developing mathematical resilience

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

This activity presents a case study of ‘Heather’, a mother who had taken a course on how to develop mathematical resilience. It is in three parts: Heather’s experience as a child, her feelings as a mother and her increasing confidence in behaving differently following her attendance on a course for parents.

Part 1 Heather’s childhood

Read the following brief outline of Heather’s childhood experience.

I remember sitting in my Year 6 classroom. My teacher was Miss Jackson. We were doing maths, we were working on long division. I got a red cross on some of my work but when I checked on the calculator the answer was correct.

This puzzled me, so when I questioned my teacher she said it was because my working out was wrong. She made me feel stupid in front of my peers when I explained my methods.

In Section 1 we saw that resilient children showed confidence, intelligence, problem solving, a positive outlook, and forward thinking. Which of these traits to you see in this example?


Heather, as a child, had been willing to ‘have a go’. She had reached a correct answer and asked for clarification when she was puzzled by the teacher marking her answer wrong. The teacher’s response undermined Heather’s existing mathematical resilience, and contributed to Heather feeling embarrassed in class and losing confidence. This led to less willingness to ask questions in the future and loss of mathematical confidence.

Part 2 ‘I just can’t do maths’ – Heather as a mother

Now consider Heather’s description of her experience as a mother, wanting to support her daughter despite her own mathematical anxiety.

Throughout the years, when I've worked with my daughter on maths homework it’s been a combination of falling out, shouting, tears, avoidance, feeling stupid on both parts, her putting herself down, me trying to restore her confidence, but both of us to[o] tense and stressed for it to make any difference. In recent years she began laughing at me for using a calculator and not understanding, pointing out what year she is in and [saying] that I need to go back to school.

Consider which of the personal resilience factors in Section 1 Heather is able to draw upon, and which she does not put to use:

  • strong and supportive family relationships
  • good communication skills
  • empathy
  • family social networks that extend into the community
  • sociability (a liking for developing new social relationships).


In this account, Heather describes a desperately stressful situation in which her attempts to help, as she believes she should, lead to further embarrassment and undermine her role as mother, and further her perception of herself as hopeless with mathematics.

Heather’s stress involves several factors, including her expectations and self-beliefs. Heather had the expectation that, as a mother, she should be able to help as she did with other subjects, and yet saw herself as a failure in mathematics.

Although Heather shows empathy with her daughter’s mathematical struggles, communication has become difficult and Heather is not drawing on extended networks or relationships.

Part 3 ‘A can-do approach’ – Heather supporting mathematical resilience in her daughter

In the next extract Heather has changed her approach following a course at her daughter’s school to develop ‘coaches for mathematical resilience’. In this programme, which aims to train people to become effective coaches, an individual begins by working through their own anxieties towards mathematics in a safe and collaborative environment alongside other parents.

One day after she came home from school she curiously asked me for the text book they had been working from that day in school. She confidently flicked the page open to an angles section, where there was a page full of lines in all directions. She said: ‘We were doing this today but I don’t get it.’

So I said, ‘Well let’s have a look then!’

Within a few minutes she understood. It turned out that all that really confused her was the layout of the page as it was full of lines set up in twos connecting at one point and they were heading in all sorts of directions.

Identify which of the resilience characteristics Heather is now drawing on to support her daughter:

  • strong and supportive family relationships
  • good communication skills
  • empathy
  • family social networks that extend into the community
  • sociability (a liking for developing new social relationships).


Heather’s response was getting out the home copy of the school text, being curious and supportive, and listening. There was no need for her to input any mathematics.

Her daughter expected Heather to be helpful and supportive without knowing current school mathematics. If she needed any maths help, the daughter would contact a maths expert with her mother’s support and encouragement.

Heather is now dealing with a request for help with confidence, showing good communication skills as she allows her daughter to talk through her problem and she uses the school resources effectively. She isn’t letting her own negative experiences cloud the current situation. In taking the course, Heather has drawn upon wider community networks with the school and developed new friendships with other parents in a similar situation. Heather shows empathy and a strong, supportive family relationship with her daughter and recognises the level of help that she is able to give.

What did Heather do as mathematical resilience coach for her daughter?

Traditionally, a coach will support, respect, listen, be compassionate, validate, model resilience and refrain from judging, helping the other person to feel safe in taking risks.

Is there anyone in your life who does this for you now? Or do you take on this role for others?

Coaches use a language that allows learners to describe what degree of challenge they are facing. Coaches recognise and listen to learners’ anxieties and support enthusiasm and curiosity for the end goal.

This is something you can do independently too. Speaking to yourself in a compassionate way, having positive self-talk, can make a big difference.

How do you talk to yourself when things go adrift? Are you harsher on yourself than you would be on others?

You will be looking at this further in Week 5, and subsequent weeks.

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