Category Archives: Resilience

The Other Side of Resilience.

camusDespite the plethora of interventions designed to raise levels of resilience (and the accompanying publications) we rarely stop to ask ourselves if attempts to make young people more resilient is even a good idea, let alone necessary. Can resilience ever be a bad thing? One would think not, after all, being more resilient allows us to bounce back from adversity and to keep going when things get tough, right?

Research into resilience has a short but rather intensive history, ranging from investigations into the way people recover from extreme trauma to how children from deprived backgrounds overcome their problems and flourish despite adversity.

One such series of studies, conducted in the 1970’s by Lawrence Hinkle, investigated the susceptibility of individuals to coronary heart disease. Hinkle found that there were a small number of individuals who could live through major changes in relationships, deprivations and dislocations and display little if any overt evidence of illness. The resilience they displayed was associated with two factors:

1. They had no history of pre-existing susceptibilities

2. They displayed certain personality characteristics that ‘insulated’ them from detrimental life experiences

In particular,

The healthiest members of the samples displayed little psychological reaction to events and situations which caused profound negative reactions in other members of the group. Life events such as the loss of a spouse produced no profound lasting reaction.

More importantly, many:

Displayed a distinct awareness of their own limitations and their psychological needs

Avoided situations that would make demands on them if they felt that they could not, or did not want to meet, these demands

For example, they might refuse a promotion because they didn’t want the extra responsibility and because money and prestige were of little importance to them.

Hinkle described many of the these individuals as having…

an almost sociopathic flavour… typical of so-called ‘invulnerables’… displaying characteristics of some kind of narcissistic disorder.

E. James Anthony calls this type of behaviour as the ‘Meursault Phenomenon’ after the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel ‘The Outsider’. Meursault is a passive and detached observer of life who displays a flat level of affect even in response to the death of his mother; relationships mean nothing to him, nothing is either better or worse than anything else and his strategic selfishness is based on his convenience and the comfort of his ‘self’ (what psychologists of the psychodynamic persuasion would call ‘rational egoism’).

Meursault sustains his resilience by not engaging himself in the wider world and appears, according to Anthony, to be employing a strategy of defensive distancing that insulates him from all the ‘disturbing psychosocial impingements’ that exist in the environment, resulting in a kind of ‘psychoimmunization’.

From where such characteristics might arise is unclear but there is certainly a biological component. For example, highly resilient members of the US Special Forces have been found to have unusually high levels of a chemical known as neuropeptide Y that appears to protect them against PTSD and bestows higher levels of psychological resilience. However, like many studies of this kind, the direction of causality is more difficult to establish.

Increasing resilience in individuals is certainly a positive move, but resilience in the absence of human values and a strong moral compass could do more harm than good. Furthermore, the jury is still out on the whether or not resilience can be taught or if it arises through life experience or exists innately at a biological level. Ultimately, resilience exists in all of us and this is why we survive. Tinkering with the unknown on such a large scale and involving so many potentially vulnerable young people in often highly unregulated pseudo-scientific experiments could prove damaging at worse and pointless at best.      

The Myth of the Invulnerable Child

Somewhere there exists a paper by an M. Pines entitled ‘In Praise of the Invulnerables’. It was published in the APA Monitor in 1975 and is probably sitting silently on some dusty shelf in some darkBroken-Doll corner of an academic library. I know it exists because pretty much every academic paper I’ve read on resilience cites it (and I’ve read a great many papers of this kind). The interesting thing about this paper is that both the title and the content appear to suggest that early resilience researchers saw the ability to thrive in the face of severe adversity as something almost magical; a superhuman quality that only the most blessed are bestowed with. It’s an interesting paper because decades of research into resilience have found such claims to be false.

Another of these early researchers was a British psychoanalyst named Elwyn James Anthony (or just James Anthony). Anthony was very much old school psychology, having worked with the likes of Jean Piaget, Anna Freud and John Bowlby – all highly influential in their own right and within their own time.

In order to explain the nature of resilience, Anthony used the metaphor of the three dolls that goes something like this:

I have three dolls: One is made of glass, one of plastic and another of steel. I also have a hammer. If I strike the glass doll with my hammer it will shatter; if I strike the plastic doll it will be severely scarred but not broken, but if I strike the steel doll with my hammer it will emerge relatively unscathed.

The suggestion here is that it is something about the individual that ‘makes’ them invulnerable, something innate and trait-like, something superhero-like that resides deep inside the strands of DNA. However, subsequent investigations have also found this metaphor to be lacking.

The language we use has also changed. Researchers now use the term resilience rather the ‘invulnerable’ because scientific research, by its very nature, leads to greater understanding which, in turn, leads to the casting aside of that which was once deemed ‘true’. To be a good researcher one needs to be able to understand that what is deemed correct today faces the possibility of being overturned tomorrow.

Indeed, Michael Rutter found that resistance to stress is relative, not absolute and that the basis of resistance is both constitutional and environmental – no child (or person) is invulnerable, but they are more or less resilient dependant upon the circumstances. The degree of resistance varies over time and according to life circumstances. Such advancements in research led Ann Masten to describe this ability as ‘Ordinary Magic’ – as simply a natural response to changing circumstances where several factors (both internal and external) combine to produce the illusion of invulnerability.

There is little we can do regarding constitutional factors (and those who say we can have grossly misunderstood the process or are trying to sell you snake oil). Viewing resilience as a trait is problematic as it suggests that we can’t make someone more resilient. Nevertheless, if resilience is both constitutional and environmental then we should be able to manipulate the environment in order to encourage and nurture resilience. The bottom line is that to encourage resilience, look to the environment not to the individual.

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 

Nurturing resilience in schools – The whole school approach.

You can’t seem to get away from the whole resilience thing at the moment. The government seems obsessed with it and I’ve noticed more private organisations popping up with some wild claims about producing resilient pupils (as if it were a thing you can instil). I’ve been investigating resilience in young people for a number of years now (and have read more academic papers on the subject than I can count.), and if I’ve come away with just one thing, it’s that the concept is far more complex than many seem to claim.

Some children are certainly more resilient than others – it takes a lot to knock them down, they just keep bouncing back up like Bandura’s bobo doll – the harder they get hit, the faster they rise. This is often the case with young people from high-risk and vulnerable backgrounds and this is where much of the early research into resilience was concentrated. Our views of resilience are often dependent on desired outcomes and I tend to describe resilience as more of an umbrella term (beneath which related concepts such as buoyancy and grit reside). Traditional resilience research goes back several decades and I’ve written about this research before, however, I haven’t written very much about the ways in which schools can provide environments that allow resilience to develop, and how the right environment can help our most vulnerable young people.

One thing we need to be clear about is that there is still some disagreement over the psychological nature of resilience as a construct: some researchers say resilience is a trait (a part of our personality) while others believe it to be an emergent process, often formed through the experience of adversity. What we do know is that no matter how harsh the environment in which young people are raised; no matter how high their vulnerability to debilitating psychological illness, many will survive without any long lasting adverse consequences and many well thrive within the harshest conditions.

Professor Sir Michael Rutter conducted research in London schools in the 1970’s that highlight the vital role school plays in protecting our most vulnerable children from extreme adversity. Rutter found that some schools were better than others at getting the most out of vulnerable children, especially those from dysfunctional and chaotic home lives.

The most successful schools:

  • Maintained appropriately high academic standards
  • Used effective incentives and rewards
  • Gave effective feedback, along with adequate praise from teachers
  • Ensured that all pupils were given the opportunity to be awarded positions of trust and responsibility

Children who attended schools displaying these characteristics were much less likely to develop emotional and behavioural problems despite severe deprivation and discord at home. There was also found to be a similarity in the characteristics of both home and school environments that were associated with greater resilience in children of divorced parents. Characteristics such as a responsive atmosphere and organised and predictable environment as well as clearly defined and consistently reinforced standards, rules and responsibilities appear to be common with the school and home lives of resilient children. For boys the most important factors were likely to be structure and control while for girls the most important factors were nurturing and assumption of responsibility.

It’s interesting how some schools have always managed to get the most out of their most vulnerable pupils without the need for ‘failure days’ or ‘resilience scorecards’. That’s not to say that targeted interventions aren’t useful, only that a whole school approach is more likely to be beneficial in the long-term. Coping with daily setbacks is another matter entirely (a resilience-related construct known as ‘academic buoyancy’), for which directed interventions are more appropriate.

Resilience, therefore, isn’t a thing you impose (or a box you tick); it’s a strength you encourage and nurture.

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 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.

Banging on about Grit and Resilience.


For use by professionals only

The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has announced that ex-soldiers will be on hand to teach children about ‘grit’ along with programs designed to increase their levels of resilience. Her opposite number, Tristram Hunt, has been banging on about this for a while now, both appearing to announce interventions for things of which they understand little.

I can only assume that both Morgan and Hunt have adopted the term ‘grit’ from psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, whose research appears to have identified certain traits that result in individuals striving to complete tasks and having a passion for long-term goals. If Morgan and Hunt aren’t referring to this research, then I’m not sure that they are in agreement on what they are banging on about. I have heard Hunt use the terms resilience and grit interchangeably and even referring to grit as an American term for resilience – which it isn’t, by the way.

So do children need ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ training and are former service personnel the best suited to provide it? That all depends on what we mean by the terms we are using.

Morgan has stated:

For pupils who may have faced challenges or difficulties in their personal life, these initiatives run by former armed services personnel can offer a sense of greater aspiration and can help build the skills and confidence they need to go on to good jobs and successful futures

Here, Morgan is suggesting that resilience training would help those children who have experienced adversity in their lives – the ‘traditional’ view of resilience. The problem is that many children who have faced such challenges, and have come through them, have already displayed considerable resilience. Ann Masten, in her now classic article ‘Ordinary Magic’ rejects the view that resilient children are in some way special, claiming that resilience arises from ‘normative functions of the adaptational system’ (Masten, 2001 p.227). Is resilience something that can be taught directly or is it something that emerges through life’s inevitable ups and downs? Furthermore, is this the kind of resilience that students need to develop? If resilience arises through life experience then this would suggest that the ability to cope with adversity emerges naturally – it is not something that can be taught. A more realistic approach would be to concentrate on those day-to-day problems encountered at school that can zap self-confidence and lead to self-handicapping strategies. These problems might be minor but personally significant.

Indeed, some schools have already introduced ‘resilience’ building programs into their curriculum. However, 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 (Hart & Heaver, 2013)

So what about ‘grit’? Research into the grit construct is at the very early stages, so much so that defining it becomes a difficult challenge. Critics claim that the way in which it overlaps with other constructs (including resilience) means that we are still a long way off when it comes to training a person to become more ‘gritty’, never mind identifying those who have increased their ‘grittyness’ post intervention.

If we assume that we are all agreed on what represents these two related constructs, are ex-soldiers the best people to train young people in how to become more resilient and grittier? I suppose that depends, but my gut says ‘no’. Resilience and grit involve a number of other skills, like self-efficacy and emotional self-regulation). Positive emotions are more often present in resilient individuals and those students who are better at regulating their emotions respond more constructively to feedback and view themselves as having more control over their environment are better able to bounce back from challenging situations. Many former soldiers might also display such characteristics, but so do many others, including teachers and students.

My instinct tells me that Morgan and Hunt are more interested in the terms and the images such terms conjure up, rather than being aware of (or even interested in) the concepts themselves or, indeed, the outcome measures involved.

They certainly haven’t read the literature.


Hart, A. & Heaver, B. (2013). Evaluating resilience-based programs for schools using a systematic consultative review . Journal of child and youth development. 1 (1). p.pp. 27–53.

Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary Magic.pdf. American psychologist. 56 (3). p.pp. 227–238.

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.

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: [Accessed: 10 December 2013].