Nurturing Resilience and School Success in American
Indian and Alaska Native Students. ERIC Digest.
by Strand, Joyce A. - Peacock, Thomas D.
This Digest examines recent literature on factors related to resilience,
well-being, and school success for American Indian and Alaska Native students.
The characteristics of resilient Native youth; traditional Native ways
of fostering resilience; and connections within family, community, and
school that foster resilience are considered. Although there are tribal
differences in traditional Native ways among the 554 Native American (U.S.)
tribes, the focus here is on some commonalities that exist in "shared core
values, beliefs, and behaviors" (HeavyRunner & Morris, 1997, p. 1).
The authors review findings of a recent study on what Native youth believe
parents, teachers, and schools can do to foster resilience. Additional
studies that make connections between resilience and Native spirituality
and biculturalism are briefly reviewed.
Resilience is a term used to describe a set of qualities that foster
a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite risk and
adversity (Benard, 1995). Persons who are resilient have the capacity to
withstand, overcome, or recover from serious threat (Masten, 2001). Simply
put, resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity.
As it relates to American Indian and Alaska Native youth, resilience
is exemplified by certain qualities possessed by these children and youth
who, though subjected to undue stress and adversity, do not give way to
school failure, substance abuse, mental health problems, or juvenile delinquency
(Peacock, 2002). These youth benefit from "protective factors" provided
through family (including extended tribal family who share the responsibility
of child care), schools, and the community. These protective factors enable
children to alter or reverse negative outcomes that might have been predicted
for them, fostering instead the long-term development of resilience (HeavyRunner
& Morris, 1997; Wenzlaff & Biewer, 1996).
WAYS TRADITIONAL NATIVE CULTURES FOSTERED RESILIENCE
The Indigenous people of North America were nearly obliterated by disease,
war, and genocide during the period of European colonialism. Their numbers
were reduced from an estimated 10 million to fewer than a million people
(Zinn, 2000). Many of the survivors and their descendants struggled to
resist federal efforts to terminate their special status and limited sovereignty.
They endured the boarding school era, during which the federal government
overtly worked to eradicate tribal languages and culture and "Americanize"
Native young people by removing them from elders, family, and community.
American Indians and Alaska Natives also experienced grinding poverty and
the social ills that accompany it.
Through all this adversity, they survived with much of their traditional
cultures still intact. One explanation for their survival is that fostering
resilience in young people is not a new concept for Native people. HeavyRunner
and Morris (1997) explain that, traditionally, resilience has been cultivated
by focusing on four developmental areas:
1. "spirituality"--living according to the belief in the interrelatedness
of all things
2. "mental well-being"--having clear thoughts
3. "emotional well-being"--balancing all emotions
4. "physical well-being"--attending to the physical self
Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern (1990) described Native ways of
building self-esteem as fostering resilience in young people. In traditional
cultures, there were four bases of self-esteem:
1. "Belonging." From the time they were born, children were looked after
by caring adults. Everyone in the community treated others as related,
so children developed a sense of respect and concern for others and experienced
a minimum of friction. All of this fostered good will.
2. "Mastery." American Indian and Alaska Native families told stories,
provided nurture, and acted as role models to foster balance in spiritual,
mental, emotional, and physical competence.
3. "Independence." Many traditional Native cultures placed a high value
on individual freedom, and young people were given training in self-management.
Young people were never offered rewards for doing well. Practicing appropriate
self-management was seen as the reward in itself.
4. "Generosity." Giving to others and giving back to the community were
fundamental core values in many Native cultures, where adults stressed
generosity and unselfishness to young people.
CONNECTIONS THAT FOSTER ADOLESCENT WELL-BEING
Today, a common misconception about young people is that their race,
ethnicity, family structure, or economic status are the major factors affecting
their success or failure in school and, ultimately, in life. This misconception
can lead some educators and others to view Native youth as coming from
such deficient circumstances that they cannot be expected to succeed.
However, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (NLSAH),
which analyzed a nationally representative sample of more than 90,000 young
people of all ethnicities, came to different conclusions. The NLSAH explored
the social settings of adolescent lives, the ways in which youth connect
with their social worlds, and the influence of these settings and connections
on health and behavior. The study produced insights into the role of (1)
families, (2) schools, and (3) the personal characteristics of individual
youth in protecting adolescents from harm (Blum & Rinehart, 1997).
The findings may influence our understanding of adolescent resilience.
Some of the factors that protect youth from engaging in risky behaviors
and harmful health practices may also help them develop the ability to
bounce back when they encounter adversity.
The importance of family. The NLSAH reported that healthy youth who
avoided risky behavior felt strongly connected with their families. They
felt they were understood, loved, wanted, and paid attention to by family
members. They did not have access at home to guns, cigarettes, alcohol,
or illegal drugs. None of their family members had attempted or committed
suicide in the preceding year. Their parents disapproved of them having
intercourse and using contraception at an early age and had high expectations
for high school and college completion (Blum & Rinehart, 1997).
School connections. The NLSAH also found school-related factors in adolescent
health and avoidance of harmful behaviors. Youth tended to do well when
* felt teachers at their school treated students fairly
* felt close to people at school
* got along with teachers and other students
* felt their fellow students were not prejudiced
The schools, which were of several different types (comprehensive public,
magnet, or parochial schools), had high daily attendance, a strong parent-teacher
organization, low drop-out rates, a high percentage of teachers with master's-level
degrees or higher, and a high percentage of college bound students (Blum
& Rinehart, 1997; Resnick et al., 1997).
Individual factors. Adolescents' well-being was affected by whether
they believed they had good qualities, liked themselves, and felt loved
and wanted (Resnick et al., 1997). Practices of spirituality, religion,
and prayer were important. Probably because of the way society treats homosexuals,
youth who had same-sex attraction tended to be more at risk. Students who
didn't perceive a risk of their own untimely death, those who didn't work
too many hours per week after school or on weekends, and those who physically
looked their age (neither appearing too young nor too old for their age)
tended to experience lower levels of distress and engaged less frequently
in risky behaviors. The same was true of students who kept up their grades
in the basic subjects and avoided repeating a grade level.
FACTORS THAT FOSTER RESILIENCE IN NATIVE YOUTH
The family, school, and individual factors identified in the NLSAH study
as promoting adolescent well-being have parallels in a recent study by
Bergstrom, Cleary, and Peacock (2003) involving in-depth interviews with
120 Native students from across the United States and Canada. This study
identified connections to parents, communities, teachers, and schools as
major contributors to the resilience of Native youth. But students in this
study identified another important factor: They reported that being well
grounded and connected to their tribal culture was a big reason they stayed
in school. The students in the study who were doing well (often after experiencing
serious adversity) shared three positive characteristics in particular:
good self-concept, a strong sense of direction, and tenacity. Feeling good
about their tribal culture was a consistent theme among these students,
who talked about their ability to feel comfortable living in both worlds
(the Native community and mainstream schools); participation in cultural
activities; strong positive feelings of belonging to a Native community
and family; appreciation of the influences of elders, grandparents, and
parents; and participation in a school curriculum that included Native
history, language, and culture.
Other studies. Other recent research has identified spiritual and cultural
factors as important in fostering Native student resilience that leads
to school success.
Whitbeck, Hoyt, Stubben, and LaFromboise (2001) found in interviews
with 196 American Indian children in grades 5-8 that the degree to which
children were embedded in traditional culture positively affected their
school performance. According to its authors, this study provided empirical
evidence that "enculturation is a resiliency factor in the development
of [American Indian] children" (p. 57).
Graham (2001) investigated the role of spirituality in promoting resilience,
which, in turn, supported school-based competence. Using a sample of 56
Native students identified by their principal as being both high-risk and
resilient, she found that spirituality reported by adolescent students
was related to competence in the school context.
Using retrospective qualitative study design, Evans (1997) interviewed
26 individuals of various ages who had successfully met the challenges
and adversities of living on the Great Basin Indian reservation. Study
participants said they strived throughout their lives to follow the "right
path," a process made easier through the support of others, a belief in
God or the Creator, and self-caring.
A study of 117 American Indian adults living in San Diego, which classified
participants according to their cultural identities, found that individuals
classified as "bicultural" were least likely to suffer depression. This
group was followed by the "assimilating," "traditional," and "marginal"
groups (Byron, 1997). Other qualitative studies, each focused on a small
sample, produced findings showing similar links between spirituality and/or
enculturation and wellness and/or resilience (Klassen, 1996; Montgomery,
Miville, Winterowd, Jeffries, & Baysden, 2000; Ness, 2001).
A growing collection of studies is beginning to shed light on what qualities
make for resilience in American Indian and Alaska Native children and youth,
and on what factors are necessary to develop those qualities. However,
even taken together, current research on these issues remains more suggestive
than definitive, and thus they remain a fruitful and necessary area of
inquiry (Trimble & Beauvais, 2001).
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