Fostering resiliency in children

Many children growing up under adverse conditions find their way out of such conditions by the time they reach adulthood. One-third of the children at risk during their childhood are found to be doing fine by adolescence. Two-thirds of the children who had developed problems during adolescence were leading successful lives by age 32. Determining why some children are more resilient and able to overcome great adversity and what schools can do to help them, is the subject of a report by Bonnie Benard, Western Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities at Far West Laboratory for

The resilient child

A resilient child, Benard reports, is one who “works well, plays well, loves well, and expects well.” Resilient children can usually be identified by their social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and future.

Researchers define social competence as responsiveness (especially the ability to elicit a positive response from others), flexibility, empathy, caring, communication skills and a sense of humor. Socially competent children tend to have positive relationships with both adults and peers in their family, school and community.

Problem-solving skills include the abilities to think abstractly and reflectively and to be able to attempt alternative solutions to both cognitive and social problems. Benard reports that two problem-solving skills are especially important: planning, which facilitates seeing oneself in control and resourcefulness in seeking help from others.

Autonomy is having a sense of one’s own identity and the ability to act independently and exert control over one1s environment. This can mean having the ability to separate oneself from a dysfunctional family environment and finding satisfying experiences outside the home.

A sense of purpose entails having goals, educational aspirations, persistence and a sense of a bright future.

Protective environments

Studies, Benard reports, have identified some conditions and factors that can be introduced in the school environment to facilitate resiliency. In general, she writes, educators should not focus on factors that put children at risk. Instead they should focus on creating an environment that facilitates healthy development of children.

Families, schools and communities that have succeeded in providing protective environments for children growing up in adversity are characterized by (1) caring and support, (2) positive expectations, and (3) ongoing opportunities for participation. One researcher reports that despite overwhelming pressures in the environment, 75 to 80 percent of children are able to take advantage of school activities to support healthy adjustment and achievement when schools are sensitive to them and their burdens. Schools can also provide role models. Indeed, research has shown that the most common role model, outside of family members, was a favorite teacher.

A favorite teacher is not just an instructor

For these children a favorite teacher is not just their instructor, but also a confidant and an important source of personal identification. In a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching, the need for caring teachers was found to be a major concern of high school students. They concluded that the number of student references to wanting caring teachers is so great that we believe it speaks to the quiet desperation and loneliness of many adolescents in today’s society.

Research confirms that schools that establish high expectations for all kids — and give them the support necessary to live up to the expectations — have very high rates of academic success. One study in London found that schools in poverty-stricken areas of the city showed considerable differences in rates of delinquency, behavior problems, attendance and academic attainment.

The successful schools, the study found, had in common: an academic emphasis, clear expectations and regulations by teachers, a high level of student participation and alternative resources such as library facilities, vocational work opportunities, art, music and extracurricular activities. A rich and varied curriculum that provides opportunities for children to be successful in areas other than academics is important. Schools successful at promoting resiliency build on students’ intrinsic motivation and interests and encourage cooperation instead of competition. Teachers who convey the message that “this work is important, I know you can do it and I won’t give up on you” can exert a powerful motivating influence.

Benard also reports that schools that encourage young people do not rely on standardized tests that assess only one or two types of intelligence. Supportive schools use multiple approaches and authentic assessments that promote self-reflection and validate different kinds of abilities and learning styles.

Segregating students does more harm than good

Benard believes that no matter how well-meaning programs that single out at-risk students may be, they do more harm than good. By virtue of segregating these students, these programs label them as a problem. Instead, she writes, providing youth with opportunities for meaningful involvement and responsibility within the school as well as maintaining high expectations are more effective.

Creating opportunities for active participation from an early age appears to be especially important. Students need these opportunities to learn to make plans and decisions. They need more opportunities to respond to questions and express their opinions as well as more hands-on learning. Involving students in curricular planning and using cooperative learning, peer helping, cross-age mentoring and community service fosters social competence, problem solving, autonomy and a sense of a bright future.

Research clearly demonstrates, Benard concludes, that a nurturing school environment helps overcome the most daunting risk factors in the lives of children. She reminds us, however, that creating such an environment for students is impossible if it does not exist for school personnel. It is difficult to be caring and supportive, to have high expectations and to involve students in decision making if teachers do not have support, respect, and opportunities to work collegially with others.


“Fostering Resiliency in Kids”, Educational Leadership, Volume 51, Number 3, pp. 44-48.

Published in ERN, January/February 1994, Volume 7, Number 1.

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