The Adaptability Advantage

We need more than just resilience

November 28, 2021

Today, I’ve asked Andrew Martin to share his Tip of the Week. 

When I was 14, I switched to a new school across town.  

From the moment I opened my front door, I was overwhelmed. Instead of walking to school, I now took two buses and a train. Instead of having lunch with kids I’d grown up with, I ate alone. And multitudes of students were ahead of me academically, a situation made worse by what seemed like an entirely different curriculum.

I was lonely, out of my depth, and miserable.

Over the course of a few semesters, I settled in. But for years, I chalked up my difficulties to a lack of resilience. I blamed myself for not being able to navigate adversity.

But I now realize resilience wasn’t the whole story. Not everything I faced was a failure, setback, or threat. In eighth grade, my issue was more about navigating change, novelty, and uncertainty. In other words, I struggled with adaptability.

There are three key components of adaptability: acting, thinking, and feeling. All three can be practiced and improved. For a new student, this might mean sitting with other kids at lunch, being intrigued by the possibility of joining clubs, or shifting their focus from the fear of unfamiliar teachers to the excitement of learning new subjects.

Recently, my colleagues and I surveyed high school students learning math online during the pandemic. We asked them about barriers to learning, like unreliable Internet access, and the resources they used, like asking parents for help. We also asked them to rate their own adaptability (e.g., “In mathematics, to assist me in a new situation, I am able to change the way I do things”). And we found that adaptable high school students were more confident online learners and achieved more than their less-adaptable classmates. 

In uncertain times, adaptability can be the difference between treading water and swimming.   

Don’t tell young people that resilience is everything. Sure, hanging in when the going gets tough is sometimes what you need to do, but it’s also important to learn to adjust when circumstances change.

Do help young people recognize when a situation is new or uncertain and discuss how to adapt. For example, you might talk about how online learning during the pandemic offered unexpected opportunities and skills important for the future. Resilience is a virtue—and so is adaptability. 

With hope and gratitude,


About the author

Andrew Martin is a professor and chair of the educational psychology research group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia.