Resilience: A Love-Hate Relationship

I think Nick Rose hit the nail on the head with his comments on resilience in What does this look like in the classroom? To paraphrase Nick, if you were to ask thirty teachers what resilience was, you would be likely to receive thirty different explanations. I’ve been mulling over the whole issue of resilience for the past seven or eight years (perhaps much longer if I include my interest in the concept of post-traumatic growth) and I have witnessed the waters becoming ever muddier as interventions arise and concepts are layered over existing notions until we’ve almost lost sight of what it is we wanted to target in the first place.

What, then, does resilience mean to you? What comes to mind when you read the word on a page? You might simply think fad, the buzzword of the moment that will be gone in a few years and replaced with something else. On the other hand, you might be thinking about the child, raised in poverty or with a highly dysfunctional home life who, despite such adversity, succeeds at school and goes on to live a fulfilling and successful life. Perhaps you’re thinking about a person who has battled with mental illness, addiction or some debilitating health problem? You might not be thinking about any of these scenarios, because you’re imagining that child who copes well with day-to-day difficulties, learns from her mistakes and failures and, because of these factors, is regarded as a highly successful student? How about the student who has honed his time management skills and, as result, effortlessly manages competing deadlines and hands all his work in on time?

How we view resilience, therefore, impacts our choices on how to raise it. Some interventions are intended to help protect children and young people from psychological difficulties, including depression and anxiety, while others are more concerned with raising levels of attainment. The former can be thought of as classic resilience, while the latter has been re-conceptualised as academic buoyancy. I wrote about academic buoyancy in both The Psychologist and TES. While feedback from The Psychologist (the official publication of the British Psychological Society) was wholly positive, the TES audience was a little more critical, with the vehement opponents of the article claiming that I was simply trying to use a new buzzword for something people already fully understood.

Both articles were as much to do with fine-tuning interventions than offering a brand new word to the already cluttered educational lexicon. Three years on from The Psychologist article, and little has changed. The systematic review of Hart and Heaver (2013) has been joined by other reviews into resilience interventions. Dray et al. (2017) indicate that resilience interventions are still relatively messy, with mixed results, varying techniques, competing definitions and little in the way of defined outcomes. Leppin (2014) had previously found a similar pattern of mixed results, along with a distinct lack of any agreed theoretical framework.

A model based on deficiency

Over the years I’ve come to dislike the term resilience and the way in which it has been very loosely defined. While early resilience research seemed to be more concerned with how young people cope, adapt and thrive within hostile environments, the contemporary view (especially in education) appears to see resilience as something that children and young people lack. This deficiency model of resilience implies that all that is needed to cure society’s ills is to make people more resilient, a proposal similar to that held by the self-esteem movement in the 1980’s, where raising levels of self-esteem was seen as an antidote to everything from academic failure to drug addiction and gang violence.

Human beings are resilient by nature, that is why we have survived for so long. Indeed, with the growing pressure placed on young people, it’s a wonder to me why the situation isn’t much worse. An added problem here, however, is that if we believe our interventions are effective (note: they are not) we are then given the green light to pile on more pressure because we believe young people have the added capacity to cope (note: they don’t).

Of course, young people can cope but, like all humans regardless of age, when external pressures surpass our ability to adapt in response to them, something will inevitably break. This pressure might be a major life-changing event but is much more likely to be an accumulation of minor stressors (termed daily hassles in the research literature).

What are resilience interventions for?

The short answer to this question is to raise levels of resilience – and I’ve had people genuinely offer this response. But, referring back to the comment from Nick Rose, is their notion of resilience the same as the other 29 or so? Probably not.

If our idea of resilience is tagged to mental health then we need to think about the techniques and approaches that are effective in combating levels of depression, anxiety and related behaviours. Evidence indicates that such techniques include cognitive behavioural strategies, stress education and relaxation. More widely we should also focus on the core determinants of mental health including metacognitive self-regulation (the ability to notice what happens to our thoughts and body in times of stress) and our sense of meaning and purpose.

On the other hand, if our notions of resilience are concerned with academic achievement (or buoyancy) then we should certainly include some of the strategies mentioned in the previous paragraph, but should also focus on planning, goal-setting, commitment, reduction of self-handicapping behaviours and the formation of more positive study habits (all related to the 5Cs of academic buoyancy).

There is, of course, a ripple effect, in that raising levels of wellbeing does have some impact on academic achievement.

Not just students

Rather than think about resilient students, a more adaptive approach would be to consider resilient schools. Teachers aren’t immune to the daily hassles that students face and teacher wellbeing is a major issue in today’s high stress, highly accountable profession. It seems curious, therefore, that interventions should focus on students and not teachers.

Micheal Rutter’s pioneering work in London schools during the 1970’s highlighted school culture and ethos as being vital to positive academic outcomes, or what John Eggleston called the ecology of the school (Eggleston, 1977). Policies, structures, reward systems and the like all play a part in nurturing resilience in schools (both teacher and student resilience), these would also include effective support mechanism. So resilience isn’t just about the individual, it’s also about the structures within which the individual operates.

Perhaps I’m being too critical, too picky. There exists the possibility that schools are implementing highly effective resilience interventions and, of course, none of these schools sees the need to systematically measure effectiveness or publish their results. Then again, with several competing resilience measures available, it might be difficult to find one that suits their needs.

My own son attends one such school and they’ve been keen to promote resilience for more than five years. Students are given a resilience score at the end of each term (attached to their tracking information) although nobody seems to be able to explain exactly how this score is arrived at and I doubt it would be possible to give an even vaguely accurate indication anyway.

Resilience in schools is a curious thing. Even though the research base is vast, incorporating a plethora of psychological theories and techniques, from attachment and coping to cognitive behavioural interventions, it appears to play a minor role on the ground. Definitions rarely go beyond the ‘bouncing back’, ignoring the positive adaptations that emerge through adversity and it’s clear that some interventions have developed in the absence of any understanding of past research.

An important and useful concept appears to have become one of those buzzwords we all love to hate.     

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