Category Archives: Buoyancy

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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Sisu: Is this the word I’ve been looking for?

I was recently made aware of a most remarkable word. In my quest to understand the different ways in which learners cope with adversity and setback, I have used many words – some of them interchangeably. When I first began my PhD there was a tendency for me to use the word ‘resilience’, but that word didn’t really serve my purpose because it refers primarily to the way people cope with severe adversity – I am interested in the slightly more mundane variety (the everyday stuff that our pupils have to deal with). I dallied with ‘grit’ but, again, it never really hit the mark – it was a bit like resilience but significantly different in many ways (see my previous post). I finally adopted the term ‘academic buoyancy’ from Australian educational psychologist Andrew Martin and this is essentially what I’m sticking with. However….

Jon Sutton (editor of The Psychologist) drew my attention to a new word, one that he pointed out overlapped with a an article I wrote (to appear in The Psychologist in September)…

…Sisu…

Sisu is a Finnish word that doesn’t really translate into English. Roughly speaking it means stoic determination, bravery, guts, resilience, perseverance and hardiness… It’s a tough word for a tough people and has been at the heart of Finish culture for hundreds of years.

It also fits well into the positive psychology paradigm and this is where research has focussed. Emilia Lahti (who seems to be the main ‘go to’ person on this), has described sisu as the “enigmatic power that enables individuals to push though unbearable challenges” and as “a reserve of power, which enables extraordinary action to overcome mentally or physically challenging situations (rather than being the ability to pursue long-term goals and be persistent)” and views it as life philosophy.

I’ll let Emilia explain…

Certainly sisu goes beyond resilience and far beyond what I am looking into. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a fascinating area for personal development and personal growth.

Researching the ‘emotional learner’

To what extent do emotions impact on academic achievement? This is a question I’ve been grappling with for nearly two years. More specifically, can positive emotions help students to cope more appropriately with day-to-day setbacks (daily resilience/academic buoyancy) and, if so, how can we nurture such emotions?

American psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has proposed that positive emotions help us in a number of ways. Specifically, while negative emotions such as fear narrow our cognitive processes by triggering our survival instincts, positive emotions work in the opposite direction. Interest, for example, triggers our desire to explore and encourages us to re-frame failure and setbacks in a more positive way. Furthermore, Reinhard Pekrun and his colleagues at the University of Munich have found that positive emotions are positively associated with engagement while negative emotions such as boredom, anxiety and hopelessness predict negative academic outcomes.

What I’ve quite rapidly begun to realise is that emotions are slippery things – they just won’t keep still – especially in teenagers! Another problem is that there are just too many emotions to measure, so you have to narrow it down to specifics. I initially decided to look at the role of boredom in academic buoyancy but then decided it might be more positive to look at interest. I finally settled on the exploration of interest and how it relates to the way pupils cope with daily setbacks (e.g. does intrinsic interest in a particular subject lead to a more positive response to, say, failing a test in that subject?).

Measuring emotions.

I’m now attempting to work out how I can measure all of this. On a very simple level I’m trying to identify a correlation between interest and academic buoyancy – both of which can be measured using previous validated and widely used scales. I’ve decided to recruit a sample of year 12 students embarking on a course in psychology for the first time. They’ll be asked to complete an on-line questionnaire each week for around eight weeks (see below if you’d like to be involved).

Yes, I can already hear the objections. Not only am I looking for a correlation (which doesn’t necessarily imply causation) but also I’m using self-completion questionnaires that are prone to social desirability factors and demand characteristics. The longitudinal nature of the study should help here, so long as the sample is significantly large (although this will result in huge data sets – this is both a positive thing in terms of the data but negative in terms of the time needed to collate and analyse).

Of course, I could add weight to any results (and, let’s be honest, there is no guarantee that I will support my hypothesis) by conducting a second study within a laboratory environment – I’ll lose some ecological validity but I’ll gain some control. If the results of my (as yet undefined) study 2 correlate with the results of the first study then I might be on to something.

Why bother?

Each year we are told that more and more young people are seeking help for stress and anxiety caused by the proliferation of high stakes testing. Teachers are in a position to identify possible psychological problems but should not be expected to become amateur counsellors. If help is needed professionals should provide it and it’s becoming clear that external agencies will become more involved in pupil wellbeing over the next few years. As the stakes get higher so will the psychological problems experienced by young people and I suspect there will be a huge number of ‘consultants’ offering interventions that have been neither tested nor validated in any meaningful way. The more data we have on aspects beyond the classroom the more we are able to target useful interventions. Viewing pupils as ‘emotional learners’ could perhaps be just one way of providing evidence based programs that nurture both wellbeing and academic achievement.

[Could your school help with my research? I’m looking for Year 12 Psychology students new to the subject in September 2015 (NB have not studied GCSE Psychology) who would be prepared to complete a weekly online ‘diary’ for around 8 weeks. Contact via Twitter in the first instance @psychologymarc – more details to follow].

Perceptions of Failure: Is there a role for Positive Psychological Capital?

Consider the following two scenarios:

Matilda has just been given an essay back from her teacher and it’s not the result she hoped for. The teacher has given her lots of feedback and advice on how to improve on her essay and she reads it thoroughly and pledges to correct her errors and re-submit it in a few days time. She is disappointed but understands that if she acts on the feedback her grade should increase.

Matty has completed the same essay and, just like Matilda, didn’t get the result he wanted. With Matty this always seems to be the case and constant poor grades have left him demoralised. Again, there is lots of feedback and advice on how to improve but Matty doesn’t read it – he’s a failure, he always fails and there seems to be very little he can do to fix the problem.

There are several psychological factors at play here. We could say that Matilda is displaying a Growth Mindset while Matty is surely a Fixed Mindset. We could also suggest that Matty is displaying a certain degree of learned helplessness (he has become so fixated on failure that he can’t see a way out) as well as showing self-handicapping tendencies. These can be viewed as both cognitive and emotional responses to failure – I see it all the time in my Sixth Form students.

As well as the established reasons for Matty’s behaviour explained above, we could also view Matilda’s and Matty’s responses in terms of Positive Psychological Capital (or PsyCap). Although PsyCap is a concept rarely applied to education, its related components of high self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resiliency have been found to be important motivational components in academic success and, although these components might need revising in terms of education, the general framework seems suitably relevant.

The Role of Academic Buoyancy.

It’s highly likely that Matilda would test higher for levels of academic buoyancy than Matty as, on the surface, it would appear that she is more able to ‘bounce back’ from minor (yet personally significant) setbacks such as a disappointing grade on an essay. From his own research, Dave Putwain at Edge Hill University has speculated that buoyant individuals may not view academic failure as threatening to either personal aspirations or self-worth due to their belief in the ability to bounce back from failure. (Putwain et al., 2012) Putwain further suggests that buoyant individuals do not hold an expectation of failure because of a belief in their ability to respond positively to the challenge of evaluative-performance events, suggesting further that academic buoyancy is based on positive ways of approaching academic setbacks rather than attempting to cope with them. Another way to put this would be to say that Matilda has accumulated more positive psychological capital while Matty views failure as an end result due to his lack of positive psychological capital.

For teachers, this creates interesting opportunities. In a society so obsessed with success and failure how do we promote a more positive view to failure within our students? Boys appear particularly prone to this (although the evidence is mostly anecdotal) which would explain why my male students are less likely to hand in homework than my female students – they fear failure, partly due to their difficulties in dealing with it.

References:
Putwain, D.W., Connors, L., Symes, W. & Douglas-Osborn, E. (2012). Is academic buoyancy anything more than adaptive coping? Anxiety, stress, and coping. [Online]. 25 (3). p.pp. 349–58. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21644112. [Accessed: 10 December 2013].

Resilience, Buoyancy and Grit: Are they the same?

I’ve attempted to explain the way I view these terms before, while at the same time trying to conceal my frustration at the way they are often used interchangeably. Definitions are important to researchers because you need to know what you are researching and how it relates to similar issues – ‘jargon’ is sometimes necessary.

Last year I heard Tristram Hunt describe ‘grit’ as an American term for ‘resilience’. While they may be related, they are not necessarily the same, in fact ‘grit’ is a term coined by Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania (you can watch her TED talk here).

Of ‘resilience’, Duckworth states:

The word resilience is used differently by different people. And to add to the confusion, the ways people use it often have a lot of overlap. To give you an example, Martin Seligman, my advisor and now my colleague here at Penn, has a program called the “Penn Resiliency Program.” It’s all about one specific definition of resilience, which is optimism—appraising situations without distorting them, thinking about changes that are possible to make in your life. But I’ve heard other people use resilience to mean bouncing back from adversity, cognitive or otherwise. And some people use resilient specifically to refer to kids who come from at-risk environments who thrive nevertheless.

Duckworth is aware of the confusion, and this confusion was my starting point when I began my research at PERC. I overcame the first hurdle by adopting the term ‘academic buoyancy’ (the ability to bounce back from daily setbacks) from psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh. On the other hand, I view resilience as a way of overcoming major adversity or “…kids who come from at-risk environments who thrive nevertheless”.

Of ‘grit’, Duckworth states:

Grit is related [to resilience] because part of what it means to be gritty is to be resilient in the face of failure or adversity. But that’s not the only trait you need to be gritty.

So Duckworth states that resilience is a ‘trait’ contained within a wider ‘grit’ construct (although arguments continue as to whether resilience is actually a trait).

Duckworth continues:

In the scale that we developed in research studies to measure grit, only half of the questions are about responding resiliently to situations of failure and adversity or being a hard worker. The other half of the questionnaire is about having consistent interests—focused passions—over a long time. That doesn’t have anything to do with failure and adversity. It means that you choose to do a particular thing in life and choose to give up a lot of other things in order to do it. And you stick with those interests and goals over the long term.

She concludes:

So grit is not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years.