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Resilience in young people

Research has shown that overcoming adversity is something that all children will do, to a greater or lesser extent. Those who are most resilient share similar characteristics and provide insight into how resilience can be cultivated in our young people.

'The development of resiliency is none other than the process of healthy human development'.' Bonnie Benard,  2004.

 
Even for the best-cared for child, the world can seem full of adversity. Think back to some of the big challenges in your young life: your first day at school, establishing friendships, your performance for the sports team, your role in the Christmas panto, sitting tests, graduation to secondary school, then it starts all over again. Other major challenges for young people include coping with introductions to alcohol, drugs, sex and crime.
 
We've all made mistakes in some or all of these areas, but those who bounce back, dust themselves off and start all over again are the ones with resilience. 'Getting it right' and appearing 'cool' are very important to young people and any form of failure can be a major set-back. 
 
Research reveals that young people who have most resilience often share certain characteristics such as having:
 
  • A support network in the shape of family, friends, colleagues, teachers etc
  • Confidence that they can face up to new and challenging situations
  • Enjoyed previous successes on which they can fall back on to remind them that they have overcome adversity in the past.
Bonnie Benard, of the University of Minnesota's National Resilience Resource Center ,is a resilience expert who focussed on how substance abuse can be prevented or reduced among young people. Her positive attitude, her strategies for improving the lives of young people and her conviction that adults have a duty to do more for our children, have made her a popular figure among professionals and volunteers who are working to reduce substance abuse in the USA.
 
She believes that there is a critical need for the prevention and education fields to change the framework from which they often view youth, to see children and youth, not as problems which need to be fixed but as 'resources who can contribute to their families, schools and communities'. (Benard 1990)
 
According to Bernard, resilient children display the following characteristics:
 
Social competence 
They are more responsive than non-resilient children;  they can elicit more positive responses from others; they are more active and adaptable than other children, even in infancy. Other attributes include a sense of humour (including the ability to laugh at themselves), empathy, caring, communication skills etc. As a result, they find it easier to form friendships. Studies on young people who face problems with drugs, alcohol, crime etc reveal that they often lack social competence.
 
Problem solving skills
The capacity for abstract thought, reflection, flexibility and a willingness to attempt alternative solutions are all signs of resilience. Research into some of the most disadvantaged youngsters in the world ' street children ' reveals strong planning skills if they are to survive the daily dangers, hassles and setbacks that life throws at them. 
 
Autonomy
This about the ability to have a sense of your own identity, the capacity to act independently, and to exert some control over your environment. This is especially important for children living in dysfunctional families where drug addiction, alcohol abuse, mental illness etc make life very tough. The ability to separate themselves psychologically from their dysfunctional family, to see themselves as separate from their parents illnesses or addictions, or behaviours, gives such children a buffer that can allow them to continue their own development. Psychologists call this 'adaptive distancing.'
 
A sense of purpose and future
Ambitions, goals, a desire for achievement, motivation, a desire for educational success, a belief that things will be better in the future, all of these are part of the make-up of the resilient child. Children with a strong ambition, such as achieving sporting excellence, are more able to resist peer pressure to experiment with drugs and alcohol etc. 
 
Werner & Smith, who carried out a 35-year study into resilience in children, summed up their findings by saying: 'The central component of effective coping with the multiplicity of inevitable life stresses appears to be a sense of coherence, a feeling of confidence that one's internal and external environment is predictable and that things will probably work out as well as can be reasonably expected.' (1982). 
 
And they point out that the above attributes are the direct opposite of the 'learned helplessness' so often found in people suffering from mental illness or social problems. Other factors linked to resilience include being healthy and being female, since girls generally are more likely to show resilience than boys. 
 
Our resilience level can be significantly enhanced, or depressed, by the attitudes of the people around us. As a result, research has been seeking 'protective factors' that can build resilience in young people,  ways of helping them to face up to, and even thrive in, times of adversity, including when coping with peer pressure. 
According to Bonnie Benard,  'The challenge is the implementation of prevention strategies that strengthen protective factors in our families, schools and communities.'
 
At a policy-making level, resilience in individuals and communities can be strengthened via factors such as: 
  • affordable housing
  • good nutrition
  • preventive healthcare
  • freedom from persecution or bigotry
  • equal opportunity for economic success
  • clean air 
In her 1991 book 'Fostering Resilience in Kids:  Protective Factors in the Family, School, and Communities', Benard reviewed existing research and outlined strategies for developing resilience in young people. She argued that the protective factors can be fostered in three vital ways, by:
  • giving young people caring and support
  • setting high expectations for them
  • creating opportunities for them to participate
Protective factors within the family
Children can be helped to manage stress points in their lives within the family if they are offered: 
 
Care and support 
Having a relationship with at least one adult. This need not necessarily be a parent (especially in a dysfunctional family), but could be a supportive teacher, neighbour, grandparent, aunt, uncle, sports coach etc.
 
High expectations
When children are growing up in poverty but still succeeding at school, the key factor is usually parental expectations. When high standards of moral behaviour are expected by parents, children tend to develop resilience and an understanding that we all fall short of best behaviour, but can pick ourselves and try harder next time.
 
Encouraging children's participation
Giving children responsibility sends a signal that they are worthy and capable of contributing positively to the family, school, youth club, community etc. Children who are assigned regular chores, or asked to look after younger siblings, or who do part-time work to support the family, develop strength and resilience, especially when these are associated with strong family ties. 
 
Protective factors within the school
Care and support
Just as a caring atmosphere at home is a powerful predictor for a positive development in a young person, so is the level of caring and support within the school. Werner maintains, 
'For the resilient youngster a special teacher was not just an instructor for academic skills, but also a confidant and positive model for personal identification.' (Werner 1990)
 
A 40-year follow-up study into a group of children who survived the Nazi concentration camps, and who were sent to a therapeutic nursery school in England, discovered that the resilient survivors considered one teacher to be 'among the most potent influences in their lives'. This teacher taught them warmth, caring  and compassion for others.
 
'Peer programmes' that encourage children to work together and cooperate in their learning is the single most effective strategy a school can use to reduce alcohol and drug use among pupils. Schools that provide opportunities for pupils to develop caring relationships with each other, and with teachers, are filling a vital gap for those pupils who don't get these things at home.
 
High Expectations 
Again, what works in the family, also works at school. Schools that establish high expectations for all of their pupils ? and give them support to achieve their goals ? have very high levels of academic success. Offering failing pupils a challenging, accelerated curriculum works better than watering down their expectations. High expectations of parents, teachers and the pupils themselves are enough to guarantee success for many disadvantaged youngsters, particularly if other forms of support are available, such as counselling.  
 
Participation and involvement
Giving youngsters responsible roles within the school heightens resilience and achievement, while reducing delinquency. Channeling the energy and potential of youngsters into positive activity gives them the feeling that they are accepted, that they are contributing of the community. Small interventions can make a big difference in the lives of young people. 'Shifting the balance or tripping the scales from vulnerability to resilience may happen as a result of one person or one opportunity,' says Benard.
 
In his book Fifteen Thousand Hours, UK psychiatrist Michael Rutter (acknowledged as being the person who developed the concept of 'school ethos') studied inner-city schools in London, looking at their impact on pupils in terms of achievement, attendance, behaviour and delinquency. Rutter concluded that the factors that indicate a positive school ethos, are often quite small but require a commitment at every level. They include:
  • the quantity of student artwork on display
  • the number of active roles and responsibilities given to pupils
  • pupils and teachers engaging together in extra-curricular activities
  • energetic lessons where time-wasting is minimized and where high performance is expected from the outset
  • regular and consistent homework
  • high grading standards (but grades shouldn?t be used for disciplinary purposes)
  • students receiving immediate and positive reactions to performance
 
The use of punishment, especially corporal punishment, was associated with poor behaviour and attendance. Rutter also argued that pupils perform better when the headteacher shows both firm leadership and teacher involvement, rather than either one or the other. 'Involving teachers' meant ensuring that the teaching staff felt represented and that their views were being taken into account. Strong heads of department, working effectively as middle management, are another vital ingredient in the creation of an effective school, he concluded.
 
Rutter recommended four 'protective processes' to foster resilience in youngsters. (American Journal of Orthopsychiatry,  July 1987):
  1. Reduce negative outcomes by altering the risk, or the child's exposure to the risk
  2. Reduce the negative chain reaction following risk exposure
  3. Establish and maintain self-esteem and self-efficacy
  4. Open up opportunities for youngsters.
The concept of resilience allows schools to move beyond simply labeling certain children as being 'at risk'. Going beyond crisis management involves identifying the protective factors and processes that reduce risk and foster resilience. Putting these processes into action, and constantly reinforcing them, can help schools and their communities to become supportive environments where resilience is fostered.
 
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