The Higher Ed Podcast Series: The Four S’s of Resilience

This week on The Higher Ed Podcast, George and Kamaar speak with Donna Volpitta, Founder and Director of Education at Pathways to Empower. Pathways to Empower uses courses to teach students, parents, and educators how to build resilience to foster mental health. Volpitta has used her experience raising 4 adolescents to author a book on resilience, advise on education boards, and ultimately found Pathways to Empower. Donna speaks about mental health this week on The Higher Ed Podcast and how to use the Four S’s of Resilience to build resilience and foster mental health in children, adolescents, and adults.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to recover from difficulties, both physical and emotional. While many Americans (87%, in fact) perceive themselves to have high levels of mental and emotional resilience, only 57% tested as resilient. Donna Volpitta believes building resilience in children will help them deal with psychological difficulties on their own and foster mental health as adults. When studying how to build resilience, a big question she asked was, “How can we teach kids social language?” Volpitta used her children, who she deems her “guinea pigs” to create the The Resilient Mindset Model and use the four S’s to build resilience.


The first S in The Resilient Mindset Model is the Self. Donna describes this part of The Resilient Mindset Model, posing questions such as “Who am I? What do I stand for? What are my strengths and weaknesses? [What are] all the things I think about myself?” The answers to these questions will vary depending on the age and emotional maturity of the person answering but having a basic sense of self is the first step to building resilience.


After assessing oneself, you should look at the situation you find yourself in. Donna says at this point you should “put the challenge into perspective and break it down into doable parts.” Once you know about your Self and can identify your strengths, weaknesses, and what is important to you, you can look at difficult situations and begin to decide what approach you should take in solving the problem.

This step is important because you can choose to look at the situation and then react instead of reacting before thinking. When you have a shared vocabulary, as Pathways to Empower teaches in their courses, you can communicate effectively. In the podcast, Donna tells a story about her child, saying “there was one day that I was really mad at my son. He was really mad at me. And when I went to speak to him, he said – he was six at the time. And he said, Mom, I can’t talk to you right now, I’m in grasshopper mode.” The “grasshopper” in The Resilient Mindset Model is in charge of short-term decision making and reacts with either fight, flight, or freeze. By creating this shared vocabulary, Donna’s son was able to assess the situation and decide that he wasn’t ready to talk in a healthy way yet.  

The third S in The Resilient Mindset Model is Support. Support can mean many different things, from having a support system to having tools needed to support yourself. During this stage, Donna says you should ask, “Who and what to I go to to ask for help?” Too often, people think resilience requires you to solve problems by yourself, when it Is really your capability to ask others for help and utilize tools that will help you solve a problem.


The final S in The Resilient Mindset Model is Strategy. Developing the ability to strategize when you’re placed into difficult situations is a valuable skill to have. On top of being able to utilize a strategy, Volpitta notes that you should be able to tell when your strategy is not working and have a back up plan. This is how people build up “pathways” to resilience. She says that “I could have 50 supports to go to, but if I don’t think I have them, and I don’t know how to access them, it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant.” Knowing how to use the four S’s as pathways to resilience and problem solving is a major skill to learn as an adolescent.

Another part of Strategy is the responsibility of parents to allow their children to use the four S’s to problem solve. As Donna notes in the episode, many parents have instincts to jump in and solve problems for their children. However, an important part of building resilience is allowing them to “use those four S’s as a questioning tool to help them build that resilience, because it’s only through struggle, that kids are going to learn how to handle challenges.”

Higher Ed

So, what does all of this have to do with higher education? Higher ed has seeing a rising rate of anxiety and depression among students, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Teaching these tools to students might help them build resilience and approach emotional problems head on. While children have the ability to learn these skills at a young age, studies have shown that “the adolescent brain period has extended. It used to start at about age 13 and ended about age 23. Now it starts at about age 10 or 11 and moves to about 25 to 28.” While teaching the tools of resilience benefits young children to create healthy habits, it is also beneficial to teach these skills at an older age.

Donna Volpitta brought a wealth of knowledge to this week’s episode of The Higher Ed Podcast. In addition to discussing the four S’s of The Resilient Mindset Model, she speaks to George and Kamaar about the need for mental health in higher education and how supporting mental health will lead to higher student retention and graduation rates. Listen to the full podcast for more and don’t forget to subscribe to The Higher Ed Podcast.


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