by Bonnie Benard, M.S.W.
In the strictest sense, resiliency research refers to a body of international cross-cultural, lifespan developmental studies that followed children born into seriously high-risk conditions such as families where parents were mentally ill, alcoholic, abusive, or criminal, or in communities that were poverty-stricken or war-torn. The astounding finding from these long term studies was that at least 50% — and often closer to 70% — of youth growing up in these high-risk conditions did develop social competence despite exposure to severe stress and did overcome the odds to lead successful lives. Furthermore, these studies not only identified the characteristics of these “resilient” youth, several documented the characteristics of the environments — of the families, schools, and communities — that facilitated the manifestation of resilience.
At the most fundamental level, resiliency research validates prior research and theory in human development that has clearly established the biological imperative for growth and development that exists in the human organism — that is part of our genetic makeup — and which unfolds naturally in the presence of certain environmental attributes. We are all born with innate resiliency, with the capacity to develop the traits commonly found in resilient survivors: social competence (responsiveness, cultural flexibility, empathy, caring, communication skills, and a sense of humor); problem-solving (planning, help-seeking, critical and creative thinking); autonomy (sense of identity, self-efficacy, self-awareness, task-mastery, and adaptive distancing from negative messages and conditions); and a sense of purpose and belief in a bright future (goal direction, educational aspirations, optimism, faith, and spiritual connectedness) (Benard, 1991). The major point here is that resilience is not a genetic trait that only a few “superkids” possess, as some journalistic accounts (and even several researchers!) would have us believe. Rather, it is our inborn capacity for self-righting (Werner and Smith, 1992) and for transformation and change (Lifton, 1993).
Environmental Protective Factors
Resiliency research, supported by research on child development, family dynamics, school effectiveness, community development, and ethnographic studies capturing the voices of youth themselves, documents clearly the characteristics of family, school, and community environments that elicit and foster the natural resiliency in children. These “protective factors,” the term referring to the characteristics of environments that appear to alter — or even reverse — potential negative outcomes and enable individuals to transform adversity and develop resilience despite risk, comprise three broad categories. Caring relationships convey compassion, understanding, respect, and interest, are grounded in listening, and establish safety and basic trust. High expectation messages communicate not only firm guidance, structure, and challenge but, and most importantly, convey a belief in the youth’s innate resilience and look for strengths and assets as opposed to problems and deficits. Lastly, opportunities for meaningful participation and contribution include having opportunities for valued responsibilities, for making decisions, for giving voice and being heard, and for contributing one’s talents to the community (Benard, 1991).
Knowledge Base For Practice
Resiliency research clearly provides the prevention, education, and youth development fields with nothing less than a fundamentally different knowledge base and paradigm for research and practice, one offering the promise of transforming interventions in the human arena. It situates risk in the broadersocial context of racism, war, and poverty — not in individuals, families, and communities — and asks how it is that youth successfully develop in the face of such stressors. It provides a powerful rationale for moving our narrow focus in the social and behavioral sciences from a risk, deficit, and pathology focus to an examination of the strengths youths, their families, their schools, and their communities have brought to bear in promoting healing and health.
The examination of these strengths and the acknowledgment that everyone has strengths and the capacity for transformation gives the prevention, education, and youth development fields not only a clear sense of direction — informing us about “what works!” — but also mandates we move beyond our obsession with risk identification, a statistically weaker practice that has harmfully labeled and stigmatized youth, their families, and their com-munities as at-risk and high-risk, a practice that perpetuates stereotyping and racism. Most importantly, the knowledge that everyone has innate resilience grounds practice in optimism and possibility, essential components in building motivation. Not only does this prevent the burn-out of practitioners working with seriously troubled youth but it provides one of the major protective factors — positive expectations — that when internalized by youth motivate and enable them to overcome risks and adversity.
Focus on Human Development
Resiliency research also offers the prevention, education, and youth development fields solid research evidence for placing human development at the center of everything we do. “Studies of resilience suggest that nature has provided powerful protective mechanisms for human development” (Maston, 1994) that “appear to transcend ethnic, social class, geographical, and historical boundaries” (Werner and Smith, 1992). This is precisely because they address our common, shared humanity. They meet our basic human needs for love and connectedness; for respect, challenge, and structure; and for meaningful involvement, belonging, power, and, ultimately, meaning. The development of resilience is none other than the process of healthy human development — a dynamic process in which personality and environmental influences interact in a reciprocal, transactional relationship. Resiliency research validates prior theoretical models of human development, including those of Erik Erikson, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Rudolf Steiner, Abraham Maslow, and Joseph Chilton Pierce. While focused on different components of human development — psycho/social, moral, spiritual, and cognitive — at the core of each of these approaches is an assumption of the biological imperative for growth and development (i.e., the self-righting nature of the human organism) which unfolds naturally in the presence of certain environmental attributes. Stated simply by Maston, “When adversity is relieved and basic human needs are restored, then resilience has a chance to emerge” (1994). The major implication from resiliency research for practice is that if we hope to create socially competent people who have a sense of their own identity and efficacy, who are able to make decisions, set goals, and believe in their future, then meeting their basic human needs for caring, connectedness, respect, challenge, power, and meaning must be the primary focus of any prevention, education, and youth development effort.
Emphasis on Process — Not Program!
Resiliency research has clearly shown that fostering resilience, i.e., promoting human development, is a process and not a program. In fact, Rutter encourages the use of the term protective processes which captures the dynamic nature of resilience instead of the commonly used protective factors: “The search is not for broadly defined factors but, rather, for the developmental and situational mechanisms involved in protective processes” (1987). Resiliency research thus promises to move the prevention, education, and youth development fields beyond their focus on program and what we do, to an emphasis on process and how we do what we do; to move beyond our fixation with content to a focus on context.
The fostering of resilience operates at a deep structural, systemic, human level: at the level of relationships, beliefs, and opportunities for participation and power that are a part of every interaction, every intervention no matter what the focus. As McLaughlin and her colleagues found in their extensive study of inner-city youth-serving neighborhood organizations, the organizations that engaged youth and facilitated their successful development had total diversity in program focus and content, organizational structure, andphysical environment. What they shared was an emphasis on meeting the needs of the youth — over programmatic concerns — a belief in the potential of each youth, a focus on listening, and providing opportunities for real responsibility and real work. These researchers state, “We questioned the assumption that what works has to be a particular program. Our research shows that a variety of neighborhood-based programs work as long as there is an interaction between the program and its youth that results in those youths treating the program as a personal resource and a bridge to a hopeful future” (1994). Schorr’s earlier exploration of successful prevention programs came to similar conclusions: child-centered programs based on the establishment of mutual relationships of care, respect, and trust between clients and professionals were the critical components in program effectiveness (1988).
The voices of those who have overcome adversity — be they in longitudinal studies or some of the more recent ethnographic explorations — tell us loud and clear that ultimately resilience is a process of connectedness, of linking to people, to interests, and ultimately to life itself. Rutter states that, “Development is a question of linkages that happen within you as a person and also in the environment in which you live… Our hope lies in doing something to alter these linkages, to see that kids who start in a bad environment don’t go on having bad environments and develop a sense of impotency” (in Pines, 1984). Similarly, James Coleman claims the most fundamental task for parents, educators, and policy makers is linking children into our social fabric. Our task is “to look at the whole fabric of our society and say, OWhere and how can children be lodged in this society? Where can we find a stable psychological home for children where people will pay attention to them?’” (in Olson, 1987). Resiliency research shows the field that the blueprint for building this sense of home and place in the cosmos lies in relationships. To Werner and Smith, effective interventions must reinforce within every arena, the natural social bonds — between young and old, between siblings, between friends — “that give meaning to one’s life and a reason for commitment and caring” (1982). Ultimately, research on resilience challenges the field to build this connectedness, this sense of belonging, by transforming our families, schools, and communities to become “psychological homes” wherein youth can find mutually caring and respectful relationships and opportunities for meaningful involvement. Ex-gang member Tito sums up most insightfully the message of resiliency research: “Kids can walk around trouble, if there is some place to walk to, and someone to walk with” (McLaughlin et al, 1994).
To create these places and to be that “someone,” we must, first and foremost, support our own resilience. Building community and creating belonging for youth means we must also do this for ourselves. As Sergiovanni writes, “The need for community is universal. A sense of belonging, of continuity, of being connected to others and to ideas and values that make ourselves meaningful and significant — these needs are shared by all of us” (1993). We, too, need the protective factors of caring and respectful relationships and opportunities to make decisions; without these, we cannot create them for youth.
We see learning as primarily a process of modeling; thus walking our talk is a basic operating principle of resilience work. We acknowledge this is a major challenge for educators and youth workers given we live in a society that doesn’t place a high priority on children and youth nor on meeting the basic human needs of its people. This makes our work as caregivers of youth not only a challenge but a vital necessity.
Ultimately, resiliency research provides a mandate for social change — it is a clarion call for creating these relationships and opportunities in all human systems throughout the lifespan. Changing the status quo in our society means changing paradigms, both personally and professionally, from risk to resilience, from control to participation, from problem-solving to positive development, from Eurocentrism to multi-culturalism, from seeing youth as problems to seeing them as resources, from institution-building to community-building, and so on. Personally, fostering resilience is an inside-out, deep structure process of changing our own belief systems to see resources and not problems in youth, their families, and their cultures. However, fostering resilience also requires working on the policy level for educational, social, and economic justice.
Ultimately, it means transforming not only our families, schools, and communities but creating a society premised on meeting the needs of its citizens, young and old. Our greatest hope for doing just this lies with our youth and begins with our belief in them. We must know in our hearts that when we create communities wherever we are with youth that respect and care for them as individuals and invite their participation — their critical inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and action — we are creating the conditions that allow their innate potential for social competence, problem-solving, sense of identity and efficacy, and hope for the future to unfold. And, in the process, we are building a critical mass of future citizens who will, indeed, rescind the mean-spirited, greed-based, control-driven social policies we now have and recreate a social covenant grounded in social and economic justice.
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Lifton, R. J. (1993). The Protean Self: Human Resilience in An Age of Transformation. New York: Basic Books.
Maston, A. (1994). Resilience in individual development: Successful adaptation despite risk and adversity. In Wang, M. and Gordon, E. (eds. ). Educational Resilience in Inner-City America: Challenges and Prospects. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
McLaughlin, M. et al. (1994). Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood Organizations in the Lives and Futures of Inner-City Youth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Olson, L. (1987). A prominent boat rocker rejoins the fray. Education Week, January 14, 14-17.
Pines, M. (1984). Resilient children: Why some disadvantaged children overcome their environments, and how we can help. Psychology Today, March.
Rutter, M. (1987). Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 57, 316-331.
Schorr, L. (1988). Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage. New York: Doubleday.
Sergiovanni, T. (1993). Building Community in Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Werner, E. and Smith, R. (1982, 1989). Vulnerable but Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth. New York: Adams, Bannister, and Cox.
Werner, E. and Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the Odds: High-Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. New York: Cornell University Press.