Resilience: How Design Thinking Can Help

Using an experimental ideology to upskill our students in one of the most crucial capabilities.

Iona Chamberlain-Clark

Associate Consultant

We often describe resilience as a trait that certain people have, and others do not. This deterministic approach encourages the status quo, where we do not train our young people to be resilient, despite the necessity of resilience in the workplace and life in general. Those who undergo therapy or counselling are taught how to manage their emotions, their stress, how to better articulate their emotions and behave appropriately in emotionally charged situations. Why should this upskilling be limited to these people

In the wider world, the ability to be resilient is how we ensure that we can give constructive feedback, that we can learn and grow, produce better outcomes and become better, more capable people. Particularly when encountering change, resilience and adaptability are paramount to success.

Within the global pandemic, the mental health crisis in the UK has become apparent, particularly within our youth. Various statistics show how vulnerable our school aged children are, from the influence of social media on self-esteem to the worrying rise in eating disorders, anxiety and self-harming especially during 2020. Clinically significant mental health conditions amongst children have risen by 50% compared to 2017 (Longfield, 2021), and there has been a 46% rise in under-18 NHS mental health referrals for eating disorders compared to 2019 (Jayanetti, 2021).

During my final year at Secondary school, I undertook a research project (EPQ) in teenage resilience. This involved exploring growth mindset, vulnerability, and techniques to prevent burnout.

My survey analysis of seventy-nine Year 12 students found that 54% struggled with motivation, 62% felt ‘the need to escape’ and 39% of the cohort felt unable to ‘talk openly about their feelings’. It was also evident that up to 20% of the cohort favoured behaviours indicative of a fixed mindset (Chamberlain-Clark, 2017).

These results demonstrated that these students in the lead up to their mock exams were experiencing considerable pressure and were struggling to cope, suggesting poor resilience.

A second survey, delivered four weeks after the first one, showed some improvement in resilience. Students felt more motivated and better able to talk about their feelings. Contrastingly, students also felt less emotionally and academically supported at home and more in need of escape.

Whilst this project’s results cannot be considered representative of the resilience of young people across the UK, it does show that the academic pressures experienced by students do appear to have significant impact on their resilience.

Resilience, as a concept to be upskilled in, cannot reverse long term mental health conditions, but it can help our youth better adapt and cope with the frequency of change they are bound to encounter in the fast-changing, unpredictable world we live in. It is essential that young people are learning how to manage their own emotional well-being, for themselves, and for their capabilities when they enter the wider world of work too.

Before the benefits of using Design Thinking for the building of resilience are explored in detail, it is important to properly define what is meant by Resilience: it is not the avoidance of challenge, or the ability to never struggle, but the capacity to fall and get back up having learnt something that might make the journey back up shorter, easier or unnecessary next time. It encompasses the ability to manage emotions, stress, motivation, energy, and handle setbacks and failure positively.

Whilst one might expect the development of resilience to sit within the responsibilities of the family unit, schools may be the only resource many young people have to grow in this area. This is why the approach of Big Education, and their commitment to instilling a learning culture in schools that supports the head, heart and hand is so important. This culture will support academic, practical and interpersonal excellence, giving young people the intellectual, teamworking, emotional management and problem-solving skills they need.

So how can Design Thinking help schools support the resilience upskilling of their students?

Firstly, Design Thinking is a human-centred practice, focusing on creating solutions that are best suited for the community involved. Therefore, a Design Thinking approach to building resilience will involve students from start to finish, starting with understanding their needs surrounding resilience, and utilising them within the solution design process, either within testing ideas, or even collaboratively creating with the school. This opportunity for collaboration with students could be powerful and transformative. With an engaged community of students actively involved in finding resilience solutions for themselves and their peers, you will create solutions that are best suited to the student cohort, and provide the students with opportunities to upskill themselves in problem-solving and teamwork. You will also streamline the process of these young people building resilience by raising their awareness of resilience as a skill, and devoting their attention to it through the design process.

A key part of the human-centred design process is understanding your community. A school within the Big Education family and ImpactEd did just this during the early stages of the pandemic. The school made the decision to focus their attention on monitoring and supporting their student’s mental health. Using surveys designed by ImpactEd, the school was able to monitor anxiety levels in their student cohorts. They also introduced journaling to their students, providing them with a tool to process their emotions. The collection of human-centred data in this way allowed the school to provide interventions where they were most needed.

Secondly, Design Thinking encourages practitioners to spot opportunities for innovation and act on ideas to see whether they work. For example, within the aforementioned EPQ project into teenage resilience, an intervention lesson was planned, including three games-based activities to try and improve aspects of the students’ resilience. Two games improved articulation and discussion of emotions, and the other encouraged students to evaluate their support networks. All of these games were experimental, having never been tested before. The intervention lessons’ aim was two-fold: see if the games work to improve resilience and see whether students actually like the games as a method of building resilience. Results suggested that the games were effective at somewhat improving resilience, but were poorly liked by students. The ability to test ideas in real time with the people you are trying to create solutions for, allows practitioners to weed out weak approaches quickly.

Which bring us to how the core philosophy of Design Thinking can help build resilience. When prototyping and testing, practitioners are encouraged to ‘fail fast and cheaply’. Finding out an idea doesn’t work is more valuable when you have invested less time and energy into it. Students are not often given opportunities to fail in psychologically safe situations. Yet failure is a key skill, and without it we would not learn how to succeed. Through engaging students in the Design Thinking process, or role modelling this growth mindset philosophy, where failure is actually advantageous, we can help young people get comfortable with set-backs and failure, and therefore improve their resilience.

Design Thinking as a core approach for school problem solving could be integral to the success of building a culture of head, heart and hand. This approach allows for repeated testing and experimentation with solutions, and encourages within that process the continual collection and development upon feedback. Trends have long predicted that the future of education will be personalised, and Design Thinking, done right, allows young people to take some ownership and be part of the journey towards finding the right solutions.

I cannot speak yet of the necessity of resilience in the workplace, although I suspect it is one of the most important, unadvertised skills that employers would want. However, within Higher Education, a post-school pathway many young people aspire to, I can attest to the importance of building resilience.

Higher Education Institutions are routinely challenged on their ability to provide adequate mental health support for their students, and whilst work is ongoing, many students find they must fend for themselves. The University experience requires young people to acclimatise to vast amounts of change all at once. Without the development of help-seeking behaviours, stress management skills and the ability to recover positively from failure, University can be emotionally exhausting. If we cannot trust our Higher Education Institutions to upskill our young people to manage the challenges they create, then perhaps it is the responsibility of our schools to do so instead.

Big Education and the Big Leadership Adventure have wisely recognised the need for Design Thinking within our schools, and I am excited to see the transformation they bring about as a result of their work.


Jayanetti, C. (2021) NHS sees surge in referrals for eating disorders among under-18s during Covid , The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 2 July 2021).

Longfield, A. (2021) Damage to children’s mental health caused by Covid crisis could last for years without a large-scale increase for children’s mental health services | Children’s Commissioner for EnglandChildren’s Commissioner for England, Children’s Commissioner. Available at: (Accessed: 2 July 2021).

Chamberlain-Clark, I (2017) What Cultural Pressures Affect the Resilience of 21st Century Sixth From Students and How Might Their Resilience be Improved?

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