Getting Real About Resilience.

When I first began investigating the role of resilience in education the concept was only just beginning to grab the attention of government and schools. Now it seems to have become part of the wider educational landscape, along with related concepts such as character and grit (so-called non-cognitive skills).

What hasn’t changed, however, is the confusion surrounding related and competing definitions and the assumptions that we all know what resilience is and how best we can make young people more resilient. During the early days of my work I also thought I knew the answers, but rapidly discovered that my preconceived ideas about resilience were dreadfully naïve.

I’ve written extensively about resilience before, but several specific points keep arising that still need clarification. It’s tempting to claim that schools and government have misunderstood constructs, concepts and definitions but in fairness the research base is highly complex, so the implementation of successful strategies is even more so. There is also the battle against those who believe that resilience doesn’t matter or that interventions are unnecessary.

Resilience does matter because it has been shown to:

  • Protect at-risk young people from developing severe mental illness (even if there is evidence of it in the family)
  • Help young people with social relationships
  • Prevent vulnerable groups from ending up within the criminal justice system
  • Help young people cope with major trauma, including bereavement and abuse

The above conclusions have been drawn from decades of longitudinal studies investigating the lives of our most vulnerable young people. While those displaying high levels of resilience are able to successfully deal with major adversity and significant setbacks, low levels of resilience are associated with a number of negative outcomes, including:

  • Chronic underachievement
  • Being overwhelmed and incapacitated
  • Debilitation in the face of chronic failure and anxiety
  • Clinical affect such as anxiety and depression
  • Disaffection and truancy from school
  • Comprehensive and consistent alienation from school or opposition to teachers

Unfortunately we can’t say for sure if resilience is part of our personality or something that arises over time, nevertheless, there is enough empirical support to make the claim that there is an important role played by environmental factors such as parenting style and external support mechanisms.

Resilience and Buoyancy: Related but conceptually different constructs.

If resilience concerns the ability to thrive despite severe adversity, academic buoyancy is about the day-to-day setbacks that plague all students. The majority of students don’t have to face severe adversity but they do have to deal with other seemingly minor issues related to the school day. How they cope with such setbacks is important because they also have a detrimental impact on both academic attainment and general wellbeing

Academic buoyancy is therefore associated with the following factors:

  • The process of dealing with isolated poor grades
  • The process of dealing with patches of poor performance
  • Typical stress levels and daily pressure
  • Threats to confidence due to poor grades
  • Low-level stress and confidence
  • Dips in motivation and engagement
  • The process of dealing with negative feedback

Research has shown that resilience and buoyancy are conceptually different (although they do feed into one another). This has resulted in the failure of some interventions because there is confusion about what is to be measured and what exactly the intervention is meant to achieve.  A recent systematic consultative review found that many resilience programs within schools used the term ‘resilience’ is such a vague and conceptually weak manner that the authors found it difficult to identify those which could be realistically described as resilience-based (see Hart & Heaver, 2013). This would suggest that interventions have been implemented with very little understanding of the desired outcome measures or, indeed, any specific measures at all.

Getting real about resilience is concerned with the accurate implementation of research findings, as it would appear that often the research doesn’t match the real-world application. If this is the case then there is a real possibility that an intervention will be costly yet fruitless or (in some circumstances) damaging.

I’m currently in the process of putting together a number of workshops that will hopefully demystify the research and offer some useful interventions to nurture both resilience and buoyancy.

If you think this would be useful to you or your school, then you can email:

marcsmithrs (at) Gmail (dot) com

Or send me a Direct Message via Twitter: @psychologymarc 

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