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April 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Adult and Young Language Learners’ Resilience in Times of COVID-19

Emmanuelle Betham, M Ed (Applied Linguistics), former trainer at Pilgrims, is an Educator/Coach (NLP, CBT), Company Director, and author of: An Introduction to Coaching For Language Learning, 2018, Amazon Publishing; the I realise series 2019, 2020 (illustrated stories for coaching all ages); and numerous articles on Linguistics and Education.


Resilience, defined as the ability to bounce back in adversity and the willingness to face challenges, is particularly relevant in times of change and uncertainty, such as those brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. New regulations and procedures imposed on us in our work and learning environments feel like a hardship many of us think we could have done without.

In ‘normal’ circumstances, developing resilience would involve coaching language learners to trust their own abilities and not be too impatient to get there, which is key to professional and personal success in life. However, in present times, most of us are now faced with extra daily challenges which make our work and learning more difficult.

Many teachers are to follow new, time-consuming protocols that make their job harder. And looking at the situation from the language learners’ perspective, we need to consider at least two additional important factors: First of all, any challenge we face as we operate in our first language is at best hugely magnified when we have to deal with it in a second language. Secondly, when times are difficult, learning a second language may not be on the priority list and therefore perceived as a rather futile exercise. However, if done right, it could instead be a welcome distraction as well as a perfect chance to develop resilience.

Clearly, trying to carry on ‘as normal’ (when life is not) – ignoring ‘the elephant in the room’, as we say – will not work. More than ever, language learners need to be invited to use language to explore and express their beliefs, thoughts and feelings and to understand how they perceive the situation. They will therefore greatly benefit from a teacher-coach (as described in An Introduction to Coaching For Language Learning, E. Betham, 2018) helping them create a context in which they feel safe and able to grow as a person, and not just as a language learner.

There is a child in each of us, one that we recognize in our deepest parts, maybe in some playful, impulsive, innocent or vulnerable sides of us. Language coaching addresses that child when it doesn’t allow the person to be or behave how they would choose to, in other words in an age-appropriate way. And because a language learner operates in a younger language, coaching is a very accessible, relevant and helpful exercise that allows the person to develop language as a cognitive and ontological skill. Likewise, coaching young language learners makes a lot of sense.

This article is about adult and young learners for the following reason:

Paying close attention to the children around us

is a great way of understanding the child within each of us

Consider for example that children, especially young ones (but adolescents and adults too) can experience big challenges in what may appear to others as small things. Well actually, everyone’s experience is their own, different to others’, even though we may appear to be in the same situation. Today, we may all be in the same COVID storm, but we are not always in the same boat. Some people may be lonely, unhealthy, jobless and/or penniless, while others will have different struggles.

Furthermore, even though children are not in charge of their lives in the way that adults are, adults can still recognise the following types of experience, even if at different scale.

When a child is unprepared, taken by surprise, and therefore given little chance to control the situation, their stress level is more likely to rise, even in ‘normal times’- for example in these instances:

  • Saying goodbye to mum/dad or a good friend;
  • Waiting for their turn;
  • Dealing with disappointment when they aren’t allowed to do something;
  • Being told that their favourite activity is over;
  • Needing attention when adults are busy;
  • Dealing with sadness when something is broken or lost;
  • Accepting not being able to do something straight away and needing practice (like completing a new puzzle).

In addition to the above, young children in particular, may be further unsettled by the big current changes, when for example:

  • Having their routine changed;
  • Being in a new environment;
  • Being picked up or dropped off by someone else;
  • Dealing with inconstancies imposed by adults they trust and rely on;
  • Feeling their teachers are less confident and perhaps less happy than usual;
  • Needing to change norms and protocols they were only just getting comfortable with;
  • Not fully understanding the reason for all these changes.

However, the good news is that if handled well, these are all great opportunities to develop resilience. For this to happen, adults and young learners will need to be given more time than usual to express themselves.

Drawing, reading, and discussing texts and pictures are great ways to engage learners so as to obtain their perspective on situations. For example, you can ask a young learner, or a learner with young language, or a learner who finds it hard to put their thoughts into words, to draw themselves and explain their drawing to you. This should already give you an insight into how they feel or see themselves. They may offer relevant details around them that will help you understand how they perceive the situation, what they are comfortable with and what they are not. And if they don’t spontaneously share this additional information, you may prompt them to do so by asking questions like: “and where are you?”, “can you draw what’s around you?”, “what is it like?”.

Reading and discussing stories, such as the illustrated I realise series (E. Betham, 2019, 2020) is another great way to explore a learner’s beliefs and apprehensions. Some learners prefer to comment on a given scenario, and then expand on how it applies to them or not. Other find it easier to talk about themselves in the third person. Click here to see suggestions of reading activities you can do to enhance intra- and inter-personal communication:

Encouraging self-expression in these ways will not only raise learners’ interest and help develop their critical thinking skills in the target language, but it will also likely help alleviate the weight of many struggles, some of them subconscious. This supposes a ‘Content and Language Integrated Learning’ type of approach in which the subject is the learner, an approach which focuses on helping learners understand themselves better and overcome obstacles that are in the way of their learning.

When an issue is raised and you can identify a particular difficulty from the learner’s perspective, the first thing to do may seem counter-intuitive but it often works well, and that is for the teacher-coach to welcome the problem, and present it as an exciting challenge, an opportunity for play (and for learning). For instance, you could dare them to do something. You could suggest to look for the ‘difficult’ as if it were a thing – to lead the learner to understand that it is in fact a thought. Or, if a learner says they ‘can’t’ do something, break the task down and ask them to prove you that they ‘can’t’ – this often motivates them to make the first step.

When possible, help prepare young learners to anticipated challenges by talking reassuringly and in detail about what will happen, explaining what is planned for the day, including any out-of-the ordinary details and mentioning events they can look forward to.

When things happen unexpectedly, always start by acknowledging the feeling the learner is expressing: sadness/disappointment, anger/impatience, or fear. Tell them their feeling is normal and okay, and without dwelling on it, help them process, and then move on and notice other things. Depending on their age, you may hand over their favourite toy, or use a calming anchor you have already installed together, like them taking a deep breath with their hand on their tummy to feel it expand like a balloon. You could invite them to use their other senses by asking them what they can see, hear or smell, immediately around them and far away too. Even if they do not respond, this will introduce them to mindfulness so that they can tackle the perceived problem differently.

If a learner is frustrated, help them break the problem down into manageable size goals. For example, as you would suggest a young child look for and put down the corner pieces to a puzzle first, then the sides, etc., you could guide language learners’ attention on to one piece of learning at a time.

When a learner seems to give up too fast, encourage them to measure their progress so that they can surpass themselves each time. With young ones, you may use a counting approach and say something like “let’s do it to 5” and the following time to 7, to 10, etc. 

Using these nurturing techniques should help your learners feel safe, able, proud and motivated, and thereby develop resilience.


Please check the NLP and Coaching skills for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Advanced NLP and Coaching Skills for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Creating a Motivating Environment course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • The Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education
    Azzeddine Bencherab , Algeria

  • Adult and Young Language Learners’ Resilience in Times of COVID-19
    Emmanuelle Betham, UK