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How we can foster resiliency in children

Bethann Berliner and Bonnie Bernard

One of our greatest challenges today is helping our youth avoid adverse outcomes such as school failure, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and delinquency. In this article the authors, from the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, offer a conceptual tool for rethinking the way solutions are framed – and thus how these problems are best addressed. At its heart is the notion of resiliency: the potential for youth to develop into healthy, productive, competent adults despite experiences of severe stress and adversity.

Traditional prevention efforts have focused almost exclusively on identifying the so-called risk factors in a child's life (poverty, abuse, and community violence, for example) and then attempting to provide services that would eliminate or mitigate those conditions.

While no one disputes the urgent need to improve conditions for many of our children, the approach has inherent limitations, chief among them the labeling of children as “at risk" which often results in lowered expectations based on a child's perceived deficits. Moreover, identifying the risks in a child's environment does not necessarily result in the introduction of appropriate services or in successful mitigation.

By contrast, the notion of resiliency emerges from a focus on the positive aspects of a child's life rather than the negatives.

Resiliency has long been associated with surviving trauma and other stressful life events. To better understand the phenomenon, a number of researchers have chosen to look not at why some children succumb to the negative influences of their environments, but why other children thrive despite the same general conditions. Rather than identifying the “risk factors" contributing to failure, researchers have identified some common “protective factors" that help youth survive risky environments. Their findings argue for the development of policies and programs that aim by design to foster resiliency in children and youth.

In the realm of education, there is emerging consensus that this can best be achieved by enacting policies that build upon the strengths and life experiences of children and youth, their families, and their communities.

For decades, scholars and practitioners from psychiatry, anthropology, education, sociology, psychology and, more recently, prevention, have described the successful adaptation and transformation of children and youth who confronted high-risk situations and extreme adversity. Their studies, many of them cross-cultural, have looked at children and youth who have grown up in a variety of adverse conditions, including concentration camp internment; abusive, criminal, or substance-abusing parents; poverty; and gang participation.

From these studies several of which followed youth well into their adult years emerges one consistent finding: nearly two-thirds of those studied did nor develop high-risk behaviours.

Qualities of resilience
What was unique about these individuals? Collectively, these studies yield an understanding both of the personal traits possessed by these resilient children and youth and of the environmental characteristics that fostered or reinforced those traits well into their adult lives. The personal traits commonly associated with children and youth who overcome risks in their lives are:

The research shows that these traits, which make up an individual's resilient nature, are fostered or reinforced by:

The rationale for formulating educational policy with an eye on resiliency is compelling. Research shows that the link between the protective factors in a child's environment and the child's healthy development, social success, and good academic outcomes, is stronger than the link between specific risk factors and negative outcomes.

Moreover, risk-focused policies label children and youth as deficient, tracking them as consumers of needed services rather than as producers of their own well-being. The emerging understanding of resiliency offers educational policymakers a new paradigm for formulating policies rich in possibilities for our youth.

Clearly, the greater the number of positive relationships or experiences in children's lives, the greater their chances of overcoming adversity. Yet resiliency research reveals that just one positive relationship, whether at home, in the community, or at school, can make a major difference for a child whose life is otherwise traumatic. So while local policymakers may have little influence on what goes on in a child's home or in the larger community, they can adopt policies ensuring that a child's school relationships and experiences contribute to his or her resiliency.

Educational practices
What follows is a discussion of some of the many research-based educational practices that foster resiliency. As shown in the table at the end of this article, a new environment is created when schools move from a risk focus to a resiliency focus in teaching, learning, and leadership practices, as well as in the nature of relationships among and between students, parents, and teachers.

There are five central factors:

1. Foremost in this type of learning environment is educators recognition that schooling is about caring and respectful relationships.

Students motivation to participate actively in learning activities and to achieve academic success is clearly linked to strong support from teachers, involvement by parents, and co-operative activities among students. Schools in your district can foster resilience through relationships by:

2. Curriculum should be designed with an understanding of the various ways children and youth learn, and it should build upon what they already know and are interested in.

Activities can be integrated across multiple subject areas and can allow students to discover answers through inquiry, experimentation, and discussion. Schools in your district can foster resiliency through curriculum by:

3. The instructional strategies teachers use, whether lecture, drill, discussion, or discovery, send powerful messages to students about how they are to learn the material and who possesses the knowledge.

Schools in your district can foster resilience through instruction by:

4. The way schools track and group students by perceived abilities tells students what's expected of them.

Educational practices such as remedial “pull-out" sections or homogeneous grouping can create negative labels for students assigned to low-ability group labels that often become self-fulfilling prophecies in terms of academic and developmental outcomes. Schools in your district can help foster resiliency through grouping practices that include:

5. Standardised tests usually assess only one or two areas of student knowledge, and they do so imperfectly, relying on test items that lack a meaningful context.

More authentic assessments link learning and acquisition of knowledge to contexts and experiences that are relevant to students lives. Schools in your district can foster resiliency through evaluation by:

Policymakers imperative
These are troubling times for policymakers. With society clamouring for solutions to seemingly intractable social problems, policy makers must find or develop effective tools for long-lasting solutions. And they must do so in exceptionally tight fiscal times.

As we approach the 21st century, demands upon national and regional budgets continue to outpace revenues, further stretching already thin discretionary budgets such as education.

To meet their imperative, educational policymakers need timely, accurate, objective, and research-based information. To be effective, educational policies must not only be comprehensive and practical to implement, but they also must promote a combination of strategies and must contribute to positive developmental and academic outcomes for children and youth.

The findings from resiliency research offer a new paradigm for defining problems and framing solutions. This paradigm emphasises caring, support, and high expectations for youth, as well as opportunities for meaningful participation in school and civic activities. It is also a paradigm that relies less on infusing more money into the educational system than on changing existing beliefs and practices.

The notion of resiliency brings more than a message of hope; it brings the real possibility for positive developmental and academic outcomes for all children and youth.

Focus on risk Focus on resiliency
Relationships are hierarchical, blaming, controlling Relationships are caring and promote positive expectations and participation
Curriculum is fragmented, non-experiential, limited, and exclusive of multiple perspectives Curriculum is thematic, experiential, challenging, comprehensive, and inclusive of multiple perspectives
Instruction focuses on a narrow range of learning styles, builds from perceptions of student deficits, and is authoritarian Instruction focuses on a broad range of learning styles, builds from perceptions of student strengths, interests, and experiences; and is participatory and facilitative
Grouping is tracked by perceptions of ability; promotes individual competition and a sense of alienation Grouping is not tracked by perceptions of ability; promotes co-operation, shared responsibility, and a sense of belonging
Evaluation focuses on a limited range of intelligence, utilises only standardised tests, and assumes only one correct answer Evaluation focuses on multiple intelligences, utilises authentic assessments, and fosters self-reflection


For additional background information, consult the following documents:

Benard, B. (1991). Fostering Resiliency in Kids: Protective Factors in the Family, School, and Community. San Francisco: Western Regional Centre for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, Far West Laboratory.

Garbarino, J. et al. (1992). Children in Danger: Coping with the Consequences of Community Violence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, H. (1985). The Frames of Mind: Theory of Multiple Intelligences. NY: Basic Books.

Garmezy, N. (1991). Resiliency and vulnerability to adverse developmental outcomes associated with poverty. American Behavioral Scientist, 34. 4, pp.416-430.

Haggerty, R. et al. (1994). Stress, Risk, and Resilience in Children and Adolescents. Rochester, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Meier, D. (1995). The Power of the Ideas. Boston: Beacon Press.

Noddings, N. (1992). The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education. NY: Teachers College Press.

Rutter, M., et al. (1979). Fifteen Thousand Hours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Wang, M., et al., eds. (1994). Educational Resilience in Inner-City America: Challenges and Prospects. Hillsdale, N1: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Werner, E. and Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the Odds: High-Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

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