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.