Academic Buoyancy: Is there something missing?

There’s something that’s been bothering me for little while now. It’s been around seven or eight since I started writing about academic buoyancy (if you’re curious you can read my 2015 Psychologist article here) and I’ve said quite a bit about the 5Cs – the qualities that seem to be more prevalent in students who cope well with setbacks and the general ups and downs of student life (see below).

This thing that was bothering me was that the 5Cs relate to the individual and take little account for the environment in which students find themselves. It’s been established that academic buoyancy, while related to resilience, is fundamentally different in terms of the research base and outcome expectations, yet I can’t help thinking that some aspects of this research have to relate to both buoyancy and traditional aspects of resilience. Werner’s Kauai longitudinal study discovered that young people were more likely to thrive if they had support from family, the wider community and structure in their lives. Rutter’s work into inner city London schools in the 1970s highlighted school ethos and culture as vital to pupil outcomes. John Eggleston referred to this as the ecology of the school (although it’s not confined to school settings), the shared norms, values and purpose that bind people and communities together.

With it’s focus on the individual, academic buoyancy neglects the enviroment, the community in which we find ouselves. So as well as the 5Cs:

  • Confidence (self-efficacy)
  • Coordination (planning)
  • Control (low uncertain control)
  • Composure (low anxiety)
  • Commitment (persistence or conscientiousness)

we also need to take into account:

  • Student-teacher relationships
  • School culture and ethos
  • Rewards and sanctions

These can then be incorporated into a 6th C:

  • Community

This sixth C takes buoyancy out of the individual and recognises that individuals are part of much wider networks, from classrooms to whole schools. This is the case for both wider aspects of resilience and more specific targeted aspects such as academic buoyancy, supporting the view of Karen Hughes (professor of public health at Bangor University) that the characteristics of the systems around young people are what determine how resilient they are and how resilient they become (Hughes, Ford, Davies, Homolova, & Bellis, 2018).

By combining the nurture of certain personal traits with wider institutional policy, we accept that resilience and buoyancy don’t only inhabit the individual (as the current trend suggests) but operate holistically within wider school policies, attitudes and cultures, and that these are reciprocal, that is, school wide initiatives feed individual factors while nurturing these factors then solidify and enhance school ethos and culture – resilient schools are just that, whole communities that nurture and encourage the ability to keep going despite setbacks, and not just individual pupils who may or may not be resilient.

Individuals and Communities

Resilience is more than teaching resilient skills, although the teaching of generic skills can play an important role. The wider environment also has a major impact on how resilient people are, as studies of children raised in adverse conditions have discovered. This is the case for both major adverse events and for day-to-day hassles (academic buoyancy). However, due to the nature of academic buoyancy these skills are going to be different, as is the support required to help students get passed these seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Children and adults are not too dissimilar; in order to thrive they both need support from other people and cope better when their daily lives are somewhat routine and predictable. When change does occur and the body reacts to deal with it (the basic premise of stress), people need to know that they can cope psychologically with the pressure but also understand that they don’t need to try and cope alone. Societal institutions that are supportive and free from bullying, coercion and manipulation are more likely to thrive, in part because the workforce (or student body) feels safe, secure and part of a wider supportive community.

Stability versus uncertainty

At the same time, however, we face a somewhat paradoxical situation where predictability encourages uncertainty and risk aversion. This need for cognitive closure restricts the ability to cope when things don’t go according to plan. There is, therefore, a need to incorporate an element of uncertainty into any intervention. Similarly, ambiguity can lead to heightened levels of stress and anxiety but if experienced gradually and regularly within a supportive environment, individuals become better equipped to cope with uncertainly and find a way through it, often in highly creative ways.

Often our descriptions are based on statistical analysis of, for example, averages, trends and correlations. Such data is essential if we are to understand something about populations, be it certain school cohorts or much wider demographics such as the proportion of 18 to 24 year-old who voted for a particular political party. But we also need to consider individual differences, such as identifying students’ individual stress triggers and at what point these situations begin to overwhelm.

The introduction of the academic buoyancy construct into the educational sphere has allowed for the more precise examination of academic based resilience, that is, it has extracted from wider resilience literature those elements that are only relevant to educational settings. Together with the identification of the principle qualities at the foundation of the construct (the 5Cs) we are presented with the opportunity to disentangle one from the other and apply our efforts to specific and relevant areas. The 5C + 1 model takes the individual centred components of the academic buoyancy model and recognises the influence of factors within the wider environment. These factors are encapsulated into a sixth C – community.

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