Fostering Resilience in Children. ERIC Digest.
by Benard, Bonnie
This digest summarizes a growing body of international, cross-cultural,
longitudinal studies that provide scientific evidence that many youth--even
those with multiple and severe risks in their lives--can develop into "confident,
competent, and caring adults" (Werner & Smith, 1992); and discusses
the critical role schools can play in this process.
THE NATURE OF RESILIENCE
Some longitudinal studies, several of which follow individuals over
the course of a lifespan, have consistently documented that between half
and two-thirds of children growing up in families with mentally ill, alcoholic,
abusive, or criminally involved parents or in poverty-stricken or war-torn
communities do overcome the odds and turn a life trajectory of risk into
one that manifests "resilience," the term used to describe a set of qualities
that foster a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite
risk and adversity. Resilience research validates prior research and theory
in human development that has clearly established the biological imperative
for growth and development that exists in the human organism and that unfolds
naturally in the presence of certain environmental characteristics. We
are all born with an innate capacity for resilience, by which we are able
to develop social competence, problem-solving skills, a critical consciousness,
autonomy, and a sense of purpose.
SOCIAL COMPETENCE includes qualities such as responsiveness, especially
the ability to elicit positive responses from others; flexibility, including
the ability to move between different cultures; empathy; communication
skills; and a sense of humor. PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS encompass the ability
to plan; to be resourceful in seeking help from others; and to think critically,
creatively, and reflectively. In the development of a CRITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS,
a reflective awareness of the structures of oppression (be it from an alcoholic
parent, an insensitive school, or a racist society) and creating strategies
for overcoming them has been key.
AUTONOMY is having a sense of one's own identity and an ability to act
independently and to exert some control over one's environment, including
a sense of task mastery, internal locus of control, and self-efficacy.
The development of resistance (refusing to accept negative messages about
oneself) and of detachment (distancing oneself from dysfunction) serves
as a powerful protector of autonomy. Lastly, resilience is manifested in
having a SENSE OF PURPOSE and a belief in a bright future, including goal
direction, educational aspirations, achievement motivation, persistence,
hopefulness, optimism, and spiritual connectedness.
From this research on resilience, from the literature on school effectiveness
(Comer, 1984; Edmonds, 1986; Rutter et al., 1979), and from a rich body
of ethnographic studies in which we hear the voices of youth, families,
and teachers explaining their successes and failures (Heath & McLaughlin,
1993; Weis & Fine, 1993), a clear picture emerges of those characteristics
of the family, school, and community environments that may alter or even
reverse expected negative outcomes and enable individuals to circumvent
life stressors and manifest resilience despite risk. These "protective
factors" or "protective processes" can be grouped into three major categories:
caring and supportive relationships, positive and high expectations, and
opportunities for meaningful participation.
The presence of at least one caring person--someone who conveys an attitude
of compassion, who understands that no matter how awful a child's behavior,
the child is doing the best he or she can given his or her experience--provides
support for healthy development and learning. Werner and Smith's (1989)
study, covering more than 40 years, found that, among the most frequently
encountered positive role models in the lives of resilient children, outside
of the family circle, was a favorite teacher who was not just an instructor
for academic skills for the youngsters but also a confidant and positive
model for personal identification. Furthermore, as the research of Noddings
(1988) has articulated, a caring relationship with a teacher gives youth
the motivation for wanting to succeed: "At a time when the traditional
structures of caring have deteriorated, schools must become places where
teachers and students live together, talk with each other, take delight
in each other's company....It is obvious that children will work harder
and do things...for people they love and trust." Even beyond the teacher-student
relationship, creating a schoolwide ethos of caring creates the opportunities
for caring student-to-student, teacher-to-teacher, and teacher-to-parent
relationships. An ethic of caring is obviously not a "program" or "strategy"
per se, but rather a way of being in the world, a way of relating to youth,
their families, and each other that conveys compassion, understanding,
respect, and interest. It is also the wellspring from which flow the two
other protective factors.
Research has indicated that schools that establish high expectations
for all youth--and give them the support necessary to achieve them--have
high rates of academic success. They also have lower rates of problem behaviors
such as dropping out, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and delinquency than
other schools (Rutter et al., 1979). The conveying of positive and high
expectations in a classroom and school occurs at several levels. The most
obvious and powerful is at the relationship level in which the teacher
and other school staff communicate the message that the student has everything
he or she needs to be successful. As Tracy Kidder (1990) writes, "For children
who are used to thinking of themselves as stupid or not worth talking to...a
good teacher can provide an astonishing revelation. A good teacher can
give a child at least a chance to feel, She thinks I'm worth something;
maybe I am'." Through relationships that convey high expectations, students
learn to believe in themselves and in their futures, developing the critical
resilience traits of self-esteem, self-efficacy, autonomy, and optimism.
Schools also communicate expectations in the way they are structured
and organized. The curriculum that supports resilience respects the way
humans learn. Such a curriculum is thematic, experiential, challenging,
comprehensive, and inclusive of multiple perspectives--especially those
of silenced groups. Instruction that supports resilience focuses on a broad
range of learning styles; builds from perceptions of student strengths,
interests, and experience; and is participatory and facilitative, creating
ongoing opportunities for self-reflection, critical inquiry, problem solving,
and dialogue. Grouping practices that support resilience promote heterogeneity
and inclusion, cooperation, shared responsibility, and a sense of belonging.
And, lastly, evaluation that supports resilience focuses on multiple intelligences,
utilizes authentic assessments, and fosters self-reflection.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR PARTICIPATION
Providing youth with opportunities for meaningful involvement and responsibility
within the school is a natural outcome in schools that have high expectations.
Participation, like caring and respect, is a fundamental human need. Several
educational reformers believe that when schools ignore these basic needs
of both students and teachers, schools become alienating places (Sarason,
1990). On the other hand, certain practices provide youth with opportunities
to give their gifts back to the school community and do indeed foster all
the traits of resilience. These practices include asking questions that
encourage critical thinking and dialogue (especially around current social
issues), making learning more hands-on, involving students in curriculum
planning, using participatory evaluation strategies, letting students create
the governing rules of the classroom, and employing cooperative approaches
(such as cooperative learning, peer helping, cross-age mentoring, and community
Along with other educational research, research on resilience gives
educators a blueprint for creating schools where all students can thrive
socially and academically. Research suggests that when schools are places
where the basic human needs for support, respect, and belonging are met,
motivation for learning is fostered. Reciprocal caring, respectful, and
participatory relationships are the critical determining factors in whether
a student learns; whether parents become and stay involved in the school;
whether a program or strategy is effective; whether an educational change
is sustained; and, ultimately, whether a youth feels he or she has a place
in this society. When a school redefines its culture by building a vision
and commitment on the part of the whole school community that is based
on these three critical factors of resilience, it has the power to serve
as a "protective shield" for all students and a beacon of light for youth
from troubled homes and impoverished communities.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Benard, B. (1991). FOSTERING RESILIENCY IN KIDS: PROTECTIVE FACTORS
IN THE FAMILY, SCHOOL, AND COMMUNITY. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory
for Educational Research and Development. ED 335 781.
Comer, J. (1984). Home-School Relationships as They Affect the Academic
Success of Children. EDUCATION AND URBAN SOCIETY 16: 323-337.
Edmonds, R. (1986). Characteristics of Effective Schools. In U. Neisser,
Ed., THE SCHOOL ACHIEVEMENT OF MINORITY CHILDREN: NEW PERSPECTIVES (pp.
93-104). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. ED 269 500.
Garmezy, N. (1991). Resiliency and Vulnerability to Adverse Developmental
Outcomes Associated with Poverty. AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST 34: 416-430.
EJ 430 590.
Heath, S.B., and M.W. McLaughlin, Eds. (1993). IDENTITY AND INNER-CITY
YOUTH: BEYOND ETHNICITY AND GENDER. New York: Teachers College Press. ED
Kidder, T. (1990). AMONG SCHOOL CHILDREN. New York: Avon. Noddings,
N. (1988). Schools Face Crisis in Caring. EDUCATION WEEK, December 7.
Rutter, M., B. Maughan, P. Mortimore, J. Ouston, and A. Smith. (1979).
FIFTEEN THOUSAND HOURS. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sarason, S. (1990). THE PREDICTABLE FAILURE OF EDUCATIONAL REFORM. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ED 354 587.
Weis, L., and M. Fine, Eds. (1993). BEYOND SILENCED VOICES: CLASS, RACE,
AND GENDER IN UNITED STATES SCHOOLS. New York: State University of New
York Press. ED 361 416.
Werner, E., and R. Smith. (1989). VULNERABLE BUT INVINCIBLE: A LONGITUDINAL
STUDY OF RESILIENT CHILDREN AND YOUTH. New York: Adams, Bannister, and
Werner, E., and R. Smith. (1992). OVERCOMING THE ODDS: HIGH-RISK CHILDREN
FROM BIRTH TO ADULTHOOD. New York: Cornell University Press, 1992. ED 344