Home All Back to School Resilience – Harry Potter Style

Back to School Resilience – Harry Potter Style

written by John Yeager 11 September 2009

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

The new school year brings renewed hopes and aspirations for both students and teachers. It is an opportune time for teachers to appeal to the strengths of their students to help them make wise choices as they navigate their academic and social journeys.

Boggarts are Shapeshifters. They take the shape of whatever a particular person fears the most. That’s what makes them so terrifying. Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban

“Character excellence is a state of character concerned with choice, as observed. In one of those key moments of illumination that Harry Potter experiences in the counsel of Dumbledore, the wise old Headmaster explains, ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’” Steven S. Tigner essay, Harry Potter and the Good Life

Teachers can help young people with their choices by helping them to become more resilient by actively exercising their self-control muscles.

Strengthening the Self-Control Muscle

Self-regulation is the ability for an individual to control a constellation of factors through integrating the physical, emotional, and mental dimensions of behavior. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues state that a person may strengthen the self-control muscle by exercising willful attention. One way to do this is through the process of systematic desensitization. First, a student can be taught ways to lessen the anxiety that accompanies certain fears. By being gradually exposed to certain fears, a student learns to tolerate the original anxiety provoking situation and eventually change the avoidance pattern. Muraven and Baumeister report that the exercise helps to “interrupt the stream of behavior and alter it.”

Shapeshifting and The Boggart in Wardrobe

The practice of systematic desensitization, a positive intervention, parallels nicely with the teachings of Harry Potter’s Professor Lupin, in his Defense of the Dark Arts class. The lesson is about boggarts, or self-talk “gremlins.” Lupin begins the class by talking about the irrational fears that contribute to Neville Longbottom’s intense aversion to Professor Snape. Lupin acknowledges that Neville’s overwhelming allostatic load – the physiological responses to chronic stress exposure – is bordering on phobia.

Lupin asks the meek student and other Griffindors to “take a moment to think of the thing that scares you most, (and) imagine how you might force it to look comical . . .”

Neville thinks of his grandmother. As Lupin then waves his wand, Professor Snape appears from the wardrobe dressed in foreboding “dark side black tunic.” Neville’s breathing, heart rate, and skin conductance (sweat gland activity) responses elevate. With another wand wave, Neville pictures Snape in his grandmother’s clothes, including a radiant chapeau. Everybody in the class laughs, including Neville, whose vital signs begin to return to normal. Lupin is helping his student to “Shape shift.”

This type of mindful attention is a powerful tool for cognitively reframing and restructuring through systematic desensitization. This helps to strengthen the self-regulation muscle and prevent ego depletion by bringing the individual’s stream of attention from a negative to a positive state — from a -10 thinking about Snape to a +10 thinking about Snape in his grandmother’s clothes.

Harry Potter is then asked to provide his boggart, and the wardrobe opens up with Dementors – ghostlike apparitions that “suck the hope out of people.” Harry can’t handle the onslaught of Dementors, and his physiological parameters go through the roof. Lupin immediately intercedes with his magic wand to send the Dementors on their way. Harry has not yet been fully systematically desensitized to his greatest fears. However, if you follow the Harry Potter story, you will see that Harry eventually develops more self-regulation.

Self Acceptance

Lupin’s ultimate goal is to provide Neville, Harry, and the other Hogwarts students with an ability to strengthen their self-control muscles by aspiring to what Ryff and Singer consider to be one of the prerequisite dimensions of psychological well-being: self-acceptance of present and past life.

Self-regulation is an essential ability that should be cultivated in the formation of the fully functioning person. By addressing willful attention to mindfulness qualities and physiological parameters, the biofeedback loop strengthens the self-control muscle, which gives Ron Weasley reason to claim at the end of Lupin’s lesson, “That was the best Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson we’ve ever had, wasn’t it?”



Baumeister, R.F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C.N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74, 1773-1801.

Muraven, M. & Baumeister, R.F. (2000). Self-Regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126(2), 247-259. Click here to request PDF file.

Rowling, J. K. (1999). The Boggart in the Wardrobe. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book 3). London: Bloomsbury. The story of the boggarts in the closet can be found in pp. 123-139 hardcover, pp. 94-106 paperback.

Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (2002). From social structure to biology: Integrative science in pursuit of human health and well-being. In Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, (pp. 541-555). New York: Oxford University Press.

Tigner, S.S. (2002). Harry Potter and the Good Life. Speech delivered at the Boston University Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character. Manuscript can be found here.


Snape sees Alan courtesy of red_sunshinegirl
This is my hat … I mean, my wife (tall grandmother hat) courtesy of anyjazz65
Ron Weasley courtesy of John Griffiths

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