ERIC Identifier: ED412309
Publication Date: 1997-08-00
Author: Benard, Bonnie
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Turning It Around for All Youth: From Risk to Resilience.
ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 126.
For more than a decade public and educational discourse has focused on
"children and families at risk" (Swadener & Lubeck, 1995, p.1). Social
science research has identified poverty, a social problem, as the factor most
likely to put a person "at risk" for drug abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse,
violence, and school failure. Nonetheless, policy makers, the media, and often
researchers themselves have personalized "at-riskness," locating it in youth,
their families, and their cultures. Even though this approach sometimes succeeds
in getting needed services to children and families, it has led to stereotyping,
tracking, lowering expectations for many students in urban schools, and even
prejudice and discrimination. Looking at children and families through a deficit
lens obscures a recognition of their capacities and strengths, as well their
individuality and uniqueness.
Common sense cautions against this deficit approach, and new rigorous
research on resilience is disproving it scientifically. Studies demonstrate both
the ways that individuals develop successfully despite risk and adversity, and
the lack of predictive power of risk factors. Further, they articulate the
practices and attitudes that promote healthy development and successful learning
in students. Their findings are corroborated by research into the
characteristics of teachers and schools, families, organizations, and
communities that successfully motivate and engage youth from high-risk
environments, including urban poverty (Ianni, 1989; McLaughlin, Irby, &
Langman, 1994; Meier, 1995; Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, Ouston, & Smith,
1979). This digest briefly describes how educators and schools can foster
resiliency in all youth.
POSITIVE BELIEFS ABOUT ALL STUDENTS
The starting point for building on students' capacities is the belief by all
adults in their lives, particularly in their school, that every youth has innate
resilience. To develop this belief, educators and administrators need to
recognize the source of their own resilience.
INDIVIDUALS HAVE THE POWER TO TRANSFORM AND CHANGE
Lifton (1994) identifies resilience as the human capacity of all individuals
to transform and change, no matter what their risks; it is an innate
"self-righting mechanism" (Werner & Smith, 1992, p.202). "Resilience skills"
include the ability to form relationships (social competence), to problem solve
(metacognition), to develop a sense of identity (autonomy), and to plan and hope
(a sense of purpose and future). While many social and life skills programs have
been developed to teach these skills, the strong message in resilience research
is, however, that these attitudes and competencies are outcomes--not causes--of
Long-term developmental studies have followed children born into extremely
high-risk environments, such as poverty-stricken or wart-torn communities; and
families with alcoholism, drug abuse, physical and sexual abuse, and mental
illness. Researchers have found--remarkably--that at least 50 percent and
usually closer to 70 percent of these children grow up to be not only successful
by societal indicators but "confidant, competent, and caring" persons (Werner
& Smith, 1992).
AND SCHOOLS HAVE THE POWER TO TRANSFORM LIVES
A common finding in resilience research is the power of teachers, often
unbeknownst, to tip the scale from risk to resilience. Turnaround
teachers/mentors provide and model three protective factors that buffer risk and
enable positive development by meeting youth's basic needs for safety, love and
belonging, respect, power, accomplishment and learning, and, ultimately, for
meaning (Benard, 1991). The factors are these:
CARING RELATIONSHIPS. Teachers can convey loving support to students by
listening to students and validating their feelings, and by demonstrating
kindness, compassion, and respect (Higgins, 1994; Meier, 1995). They refrain
from judging, and do not take students' behavior personally, understanding that
youth are doing the best they can, based on the way they perceive the world.
Teachers can also help meet the basic survival needs of overwhelmed families
through provision of supplies and referrals to social service agencies.
POSITIVE AND HIGH EXPECTATIONS. Teachers' high expectations can structure and
guide behavior, and can also challenge students beyond what they believe they
can do (Delpit, 1996). Turnaround teachers recognize students' strengths, mirror
them, and help students see where they are strong. They especially assist
overwhelmed youth, who have been labeled or oppressed by their families,
schools, and/or communities, in using their personal power to grow from damaged
victim to resilient survivor by helping them to: (1) not take personally the
adversity in their lives; (2) not see adversity as permanent; and (3) not see
setbacks as pervasive (adapted from Seligman, 1995). These teachers are
student-centered: they use the students' own strengths, interests, goals, and
dreams as the beginning point for learning, and they tap students' intrinsic
motivation for learning.
OPPORTUNITIES TO PARTICIPATE AND CONTRIBUTE. As an outgrowth of a
strengths-based perspective, turnaround teachers let students express their
opinions and imagination, make choices, problem solve, work with and help
others, and give their gifts back to the community in a physically and
psychologically safe and structured environment. They treat students as
responsible individuals, allowing them to participate in all aspects of the
school's functioning (Rutter et al., 1979; Rutter, 1984; Kohn, 1993).
FOR BUILDING RESILIENCE
A key finding from resilience research is that successful development and
transformative power exist not in programmatic approaches per se but at the
deeper level of relationships, beliefs, and expectations, and willingness to
share power. Schools need to develop caring relationships not only between
educator-student but also between student-student, educator-educator, and
educator-parent. Certain programmatic approaches, however, can provide the
structure for developing these relationships, and for providing opportunities
for active student involvement: small group process, cooperative learning, peer
helping, cross-age mentoring, and community service. Overall, schooling that has
been a turnaround experience for stressed young people is described by them as
being like "a family," "a home," "a community," and even "a sanctuary"
(Children's Express, 1993).
TEACHER SUPPORT. Just as teachers can create a nurturing classroom climate,
administrators can create a school environment that supports teachers'
resilience. They can promote caring relationships among colleagues; demonstrate
positive beliefs, expectations, and trust; provide ongoing opportunities and
time, in small groups, to reflect, dialogue, and make decisions together
(McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993).
STAFF DEVELOPMENT. Teachers should reflect personally on their beliefs about
resilience, and also, as a staff, exchange experiences--both personal and
literary--about overcoming the odds. They can read and discuss the research on
resilience, including the studies of successful city schools (Polakow, 1994).
Reaching a staff consensus about innate resilience is the first step in creating
a classroom or school that fosters resilience.
Fostering the development of the whole child necessitates school, family, and
community collaboration. Schools can develop a list of community agencies and
match the needs of families with the services they provide.
TEACH TO STUDENTS' STRENGTHS. Starting with students' strengths, instead of
their deficiencies, enlists their intrinsic motivation and positive momentum. It
also keeps them in a hopeful frame of mind to learn and work on problems.
TEACH STUDENTS THAT THEY HAVE INNATE RESILIENCE.
Show students that they have the power to construct the meaning theygive to
everything that happens to them. Help them recognize howtheir own conditioned
thinking--internalized environmentalmessages, such as they are not good enough
or smart enough--blocksaccess to their innate resilience (Mills, 1991).
PROVIDE GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES FOR STUDENTS. This includes asking questions
that encourage self-reflection, critical thinking and consciousness, and
dialogue (especially around salient social and personal issues); making learning
more experiential, as in service learning; providing opportunities for creative
expression in art, music, writing, theater, video production, and for helping
others (community service, peer helping, cooperative learning); involving
students in curriculum planning and choosing learning experiences; using
participatory evaluation strategies; and involving students in creating the
governing rules of the classroom.
SELF-ASSESS. Create an assessment tool from the best practices describing
turnaround teachers and schools. Assess the classroom and school and ask
students to do the same. Identify both areas of strength and challenge.
USE THE RESILIENCY APPROACH IN AN EXPERIMENT. Choose one of the most
challenging students. Identify all personal strengths, and mirror them back.
Teach that the student has innate resilience and the power to create a personal
reality. Create opportunities for the student to participate and contribute
personal strengths. Be patient. Focus on small victories because they often grow
into major transformations.
Working from their own innate resilience and
well-being, teachers engage those qualities in their students. If they can let
go of their tight control, be patient, and trust the process, teaching will
become more effortless and enjoyable, and will be responding to recommendations
from the research on resilience and on nurturing teachers and successful
schools. It is important that teachers realize they are making a difference.
When teachers care, believe in, and embrace the "city kids," they are not only
enabling their healthy development and successful learning, but creating
inside-out social change; they are building a creative and compassionate
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