The art of resiliency

Excerpt from “Emotional Safety: Personal and Character Development,” from chapter 15 of Creating Emotionally Safe Schools by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2001, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL. This excerpt was extracted from the manuscript for this book and may be slightly different from the actual printed copy. The entire bibliography of Creating Emotionally Safe Schools is available on this site for more details about the references listed in this excerpt.

resilient plantResiliency is what happens when one regains functioning after adversity.
—Norman Garmezy[1]

Resilience is not an exclusively interior quality. Its existence, growth and survival depend significantly on what and who fills the space around us and the nature of the balance that exists between ourselves and the outer world.
—Frederic Flach[2]

Learning lessons in the school of life is the antidote to feeling victimized.
—Al Siebert[3]

Fall seven times, stand up eight.
—Japanese proverb[4]

Seligman’s work has shown that people can learn to be more optimistic by setting and achieving goals for increasingly challenging tasks. The benefits of this approach include increased confidence, a stronger sense of personal control and competence, lowered anxiety, improved relationships and increased productivity. Being—or becoming—more optimistic is also considered a protective factor when it comes to kids’ ability to cope and bounce back from adversity,[5] and many of the characteristics of resilient children are identical to those of optimistic kids. (Author Linda Winfield cites Garmezy’s work, which also includes among the characteristics of resilient kids positive interactions with peers and adults, low degrees of defensiveness and aggressiveness, and high levels of cooperation, participation and emotional stability.)[6]

Resilience is about our response to stress. When you come right down to it, in predicting a person’s capacity for resiliency, the math is pretty simple. It works out to a highly individualized balance between the risk factors in a child’s life and the supports available, both externally and internally. Counselor and resiliency expert Tim Burns suggests that children are at risk when they face inner obstacles of unmet developmental needs and outer obstacles of increasing environmental stress.[7]

Add to this equation the fact that during adolescence, the architecture of the brain changes, encouraging, among other things, greater risk-taking and exploration of the unknown as part of the evolutionary process toward independence and adulthood.[8] Unfortunately, surveys of young people for a number of risk factors (such as tobacco use, alcohol and substance abuse, antisocial behavior, sexual activity, vehicle safety, and depression and suicide) found that “students who exhibit at-risk behavior in one area often have a greater probability of being at risk in other areas as well.”[9]

However, not all kids succumb to high-risk behaviors, even when they are experiencing a great deal of stress or trauma in their lives, and resilience could well be a factor in their resistence. But resiliency does not evolve in a vacuum and resilient children have the benefit of some combination of “assets” or protective factors behind them. As with so many other aspects of a child’s life, for many kids, the influence of one important adult is crucial to their resiliency.

An extensive study by Werner and Smith found that children who were at risk for school failure actually thrived when valued and supported by an important, caring adult.[10] Sociologist Troy Duster remarks on the American phenomenon by which we tend to view success and achievement with an image of a strong, rugged individual standing alone against all odds. “But if you look closer, what appears to be highly individualized achievement is often really about social support, a complex matrix, whether a family member, teacher or community, that assumes a kid is going to make it and taps them on the shoulder to say, ‘Kid, you’ve got it.’”[11]

Other assets may include external factors such as support from family and others, extracurricular and community activities, positive peer influence and parental standards, monitoring, school involvement and support, and internal factors such as achievement motivation, empathy, sexual restraint, a concern with helping others, and skills in assertiveness, decision making, friendship making, planning and hope.[12] Flach further identifies external factors such as respectfulness, recognition, acceptance, tolerance of change, realistic limits, open communications, respect for privacy and a sense of community among the elements necessary to facilitate resilience.[13]

Prevention specialist and resiliency researcher Bonnie Benard notes that resilient individuals are characterized by traits such as social competency, well-developed problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and future.[14] And Siebert recognizes the importance of internal attributes such as curiosity, playfulness, adaptability and strong self-esteem, as well as the ability to learn from unpleasant experiences, value paradoxes within the self, trust and use intuitive hunches, form good friendships and loving relationships, practice empathy for difficult people and expect good outcomes.[15] The more of these “assets” or protective factors in children’s lives, the better their shot making choices which allow them to avoid, minimize or overcome the impact or allure of high-risk behaviors. Even better news is the positive correlation between the number of protective factors in a child’s life and that child’s ability to resist danger, maintain good health, help others, value diversity, succeed in school and delay gratification.[16]

Benson, Galbraith and Espeland’s study included positive school climate and the availability of adult resources other than parents as two important assets, or protective factors, in a child’s life.[17] “School administrators and teachers have the ability to change the structures, language and policies that affect individual belief systems,” observes Winfield. She suggests that the process of fostering resilience requires that we take a long-term, developmental approach and change schools and communities so that they nurture protective processes necessary for kids to succeed. She also recommends focusing on children’s strengths and assets rather than their deficits or the risk factors in their lives.[18]

Benson, et al, agree. They prefer an asset-building approach over a problem-centered approach because the former sees kids as resources (not problems), benefits all kids (not just those in trouble), relies on individuals for solutions (not public funding), stresses cooperation and collaboration, sees the process as a long-term, lifetime commitment and sends a message of hope.[19] Finally, Winfield notes that we can foster resilience by altering risks children may be experiencing (or minimizing their exposure to those risks), reducing the negative chain reaction that typically follows exposure to risk, helping kids establish and maintain self-esteem and self-efficacy and opening up opportunities for students to acquire skills and invest in prosocial activities.[20]

One more note on resiliency. In the spirit of oversimplified, all-or-nothing thinking, I’ve heard adults interpret resiliency research as a justification for everything from withholding interventions and support to dismissing the need to change destructive policies. “Kids will bounce back anyway,” they tell me. And to be sure, some will—by the grace of temperament, circumstance or dumb luck. But Burns cites research which provides “a sobering assessment about the limits of resilience when it comes to multiple risk children.” The more risk factors present in a child’s life, the worse the outcome is likely to be. “They cannot bounce back unless there are programs and people to supply the care and support that they are missing.”[21]

[1]“Resiliency and the Individual,” (no date). Available: The National Network for Family Resiliency, University of Maryland Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[2]Flach, 209.
[3]Al Siebert, “How Resilient Are You?” (1999). Available: Thrivenet Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[4]Quoted in Joshua Freedman, et al, 94.
[5]“Resiliency and the Individual.”
[6]Linda Winfield, “Developing Resilience in Urban Youth,” NCREL Monograph (1994). Available: NCREL (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Oak Brook, IL) Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:
[7]Burns, 13.
[8]Tom Siegfried, “Teen Behavior Linked to Brain,” Albuquerque Journal (Sept. 4, 2000).
[9]Penelope P. Soule and Joyce Sharp, “Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities,” Student Survey conducted by the Nevada Department of Education, February, 1997; Burns (referring to a report entitled “Patterns of Co-occurrence among At-Risk Behaviors,” published by the Search Institute in Minneapolis, 1990), 15.
[10]“Resiliency and the Individual.”
[11]Patricia Leigh Brown, “The Pomp of Graduation after Overcoming Difficult Circumstances.” (June 14, 2000) Available: New York Times Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:; also Greenspan, Growth of the Mind, 123; also Bluestein, Mentors; Benard.
[12]Benson, et al, “What Kids Need to Succeed,” 3-4; also Soule and Short. Note: Although geared more to building “success” than resiliency per se, the study by Benson, Galbraith and Espeland shows a remarkable similarity in outcomes when these protective factors are present.
[13]Flach, 213.
[14]“Resiliency;” Finley; Burns, 100.
[15]Al Siebert, “How to Develop Survivor Resiliency,” (1999). Available: Thrivenet Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address:; Siebert, “How Resilient Are You?”
[16]Peter L. Benson, Judy Galbraith and Pamela Espeland. What Teens Need to Succeed (Minneapolis: Free Spirit, Publishing, 1998), 13-17; Benson, Galbraith and Espeland, “What Kids Need to Succeed,” 5; Winfield; “Resiliency.”
[17]Benson, Galbraith and Espeland, 3-4.
[19]Benson, et al, “What Teens Need,” 2-3.
[21]Burns, 111.

Excerpt from “Emotional Safety: Personal and Character Development,” from chapter 15 of Creating Emotionally Safe Schools by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2001, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL. This excerpt was extracted from the manuscript for this book and may be slightly different from the actual printed copy. The entire bibliography of Creating Emotionally Safe Schools is available on this site for more details about the references listed above.

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