Published Online:

Schools Gleaning Lessons From Children Who 'Defy the Odds'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Almost every education conference these days features at least one speaker who expounds on the vast and growing number of children whose lives have been touched by adversity.

The statistics they reel off tally the pernicious effects of violence, gangs, crime, drugs, and AIDS, and they chronicle the consequences of child abuse, teenage pregnancy, homelessness, broken homes, and single-parent families.

The conference presenters note that an increasing number of children are not even living with either parent; some are cared for by relatives, but others are navigating the foster-care system, and some are on the streets.

The implicit message in these conference topics is that these "at risk'' children are substantially less likely than their peers to succeed in school or lead productive lives.

But what that term fails to capture, a growing body of research from the social sciences suggests, is that for every child who lives out what one inner-city principal calls "the pathetic fallacy,'' examples can be found of others who achieve some measure of success.

Identifying what makes these children "resilient''--able to bounce back in the face of major and multiple life stresses--could hold the key to better serving less advantaged youngsters, experts in child-serving fields agree.

"The whole rationale for the study of resilience is the idea that children and families who are successful despite adversity ... are the keys to how success occurs in disadvantage,'' says Ann S. Masten, the associate director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. "These people can teach us the best strategies for boosting success.''

While scientific theories for what makes some children more resilient than others have not been well developed, psychologists have identified a range of coping skills; personality traits; and supports in the home, school, and community that appear to help children overcome adversity.

Efforts to apply research on resilience in schools include a range of reforms designed to make learning more meaningful and schools more supportive for all students. Tying school assignments to children's strengths and interests and offering peer tutoring, mentoring programs, community-service activities, and school-based social services are often cited as examples.

Other educational programs targeted at high-risk groups--such as children of alcoholics or those whose parents are divorcing--are geared to help teach children "affective'' skills to improve their outlook, confidence, and self-esteem.

But the "resilience movement'' does not come without its skeptics. Because no one knows exactly how to foster such attributes and because many of the practices it has spawned are not new, some experts fear the resilience theme could become popularized without promoting real change.

Others fear it will be used as an excuse to diminish the role of government and other institutions in insuring that all children can fulfill their potential.

But the concept can make a major contribution, its champions say, if it alters the way educators regard and build on children's strengths.

Notes Marilyn Colby Rivkin, a health educator with the Minneapolis public schools: "It's a shift from just thinking about kids as being at risk to really looking at them as having the capacity to be successful.''

Defying the Odds

While noting that most children exposed to profound stress are "at serious risk of maladaptive outcomes,'' a recent article on the Rochester Child Resilience Project--an ongoing study of urban children in stressed environments--highlights the "small but visible minority who somehow come to cope and adapt well, land on their feet, and move on to constructive life trajectories.''

The thesis of the project--which is headed by Emory L. Cowen, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester--is that "identifying the protective elements that underlie such 'odds defying' outcomes is central for developing both effective preventive interventions ... and a richer psychology of wellness.''

A small but growing number of studies, mainly in the field of developmental psychology, have followed children over time to determine the attributes of a resilient child.

The studies explore the phenomenon of resilience in children who have thrived under a wide range of adverse conditions, from living with physical handicaps or psychotic parents to surviving a concentration camp.

One of the most influential studies, headed by Emmy E. Werner, a professor of human development and a research child psychologist at the University of California at Davis, involved some 700 children born on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai in 1955. Tracking their lives through their early 30's, Ms. Werner found that of about 200 children who had four or more risk factors in their early lives, about one-third "turned out to be fairly unscathed.''

She also found that some of those who had early school or social problems had "recovered'' and were faring as well as the resilient and nonrisk groups.

The outcomes of the Kauai children at various stages in the study have been detailed in several books. The most recent, Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children From Birth to Adulthood, was co-authored by Ms. Werner and Ruth S. Smith and published in 1992 by Cornell University Press.

Schools Take Notice

The work of Ms. Werner and others marked a significant "turnaround'' in highlighting "adaptive behavior in children under stress instead of maladaptive behavior,'' notes Norman Garmezy, a professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Garmezy helped launch another study, now nearing completion under the direction of Ms. Masten of the University of Minnesota, tracking 200 children from a working-class section of Minneapolis at various points over a 13-year span.

"Our research was somewhat unique when we began, because of the recognition--based on the proportion of people known to be disordered--that there are more resilient children than there are nonresilient children,'' Mr. Garmezy says.

Educators "resonate to the ideas,'' Ms. Masten notes, "because they know children or have friends who know children who are doing well under difficult circumstances.''

As the idea has gained increasing currency, several federally funded education-research centers and laboratories, as well as the National Elementary School Center, have held conferences on the topic or highlighted it in publications.

Schools and communities have begun taking steps to incorporate what is known about resiliency in children into their programs. For example:

  • As part of an effort to provide services to at-risk students, the Minneapolis schools in 1991 issued a handbook and started offering training for teachers on resilience. The effort focuses on increasing students' sense of mastery, building social skills, helping cultivate relationships with adults, reducing stress, and generating resources.
  • The District of Columbia schools have incorporated resilience concepts into student report cards, adding such categories as "finds humor in situations'' and "persists with task until it is completed.''

Other strategies for creating a more supportive atmosphere include modeling caring behaviors and holding daily classroom meetings that give children a chance to talk informally about their lives.

  • The McCosh School in Chicago, working with the city's largest private social-service agency, runs a support group to help grandparents who have become surrogate parents with child-rearing issues.
  • Some schools involved in the Adaptive Learning Environments Model, a project first launched by Margaret Wang, who is now the director of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities at Temple University, are implementing many resilience-related reforms. (See story, page 17.)

Approaches in Drug Prevention

  • The U.S. Health and Human Services Department's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention has produced kits for community organizations, available from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, on teaching resiliency skills. The Education Department is preparing similar kits for schools.
  • The Southeast Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities has developed a training program for school-community teams based on research about "risk and protective factors'' for tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.

The strategies used in drug-abuse prevention generally offer emotional support, help children see beyond their current circumstances, and engage them in activities to boost their sense of competence.

That approach is advocated in The Resilient Self: How Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity, a book by Dr. Steven J. Wolin, a clinicial professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University medical school, and Sybil Wolin, a child-development expert who works with children and families.

The Wolins--who are also the co-directors of Project Resilience, a Washington-based consulting and training project--propose a shift in emphasis from the "damage model'' that focuses on the negative consequences of bad experiences to a "challenge model'' that aims to tap strengths fostered by adversity.

Protective Scaffolding

Urban educators have taken a particularly keen interest in research on resiliency.

"Throughout urban schools, there has been a 'deficit model' of looking at urban youths as poor, culturally deprived, lacking in achievement, or having cultural or social patterns that are at odds with mainstream America,'' says Lynn Stinnette, the director of urban education for the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Viewing children through that lens "might contribute to students' failure by overlooking the strengths, knowledge, and skills they bring to the door,'' she says.

The resilience model, she points out, "challenges urban educators to say how can we organize our business differently to build this protective scaffolding around children and help them do better.''

Personality traits are part of the resiliency puzzle, studies suggest. For example, Ms. Werner found in the Kauai study that children who fared well in adversity tended to be sociable and active as infants.

Ms. Masten of the University of Minnesota also notes that good intellectual skills, physical attractiveness, and an appealling personality are also "individual attributes that give you a boost.''

Family support--especially mother-child bonds--and the presence of "concerned government'' and strong community support systems also figure prominently in boosting resilience, Mr. Garmezy observes.

'Respected Talents'

But even when children in high-risk situations lack such advantages, studies highlight the role of other "protective factors'' for resilient children:

  • When a parent is psychologically or physically unavailable, resilient youngsters seek support--and find it--in other family members or care providers. Among the resilient children in the Kauai study, Ms. Werner notes, "every one had at least one person who unconditionally accepted them as they were.''
  • In school, resilient children have a teacher who takes an interest in their circumstances and acts as a counselor, confidant, or role model.
  • While they may not be academically gifted, Ms. Werner adds, resilient children often have extracurricular interests or skills that offer "a sense of pride, acceptance in a peer group, and respected talents.''

That view ties in with the "multiple intelligences'' theory of Howard Gardner, the Harvard University psychologist who developed the concept that learning has different dimensions in which children excel to varying degrees.

When a child "labeled a total loser'' shows a particular talent, he notes, "it shakes up the people labeling the kids and lets the kid know there is something he can do well.''

  • Resilient children tend to have an intrinsic faith--which may or may not be linked with organized religion--that things will work out.

In a project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health that examined family functioning after divorce, Irwin Sandler, the director of the Program for Prevention Research at Arizona State University, found that children who fare well, besides being more adaptable, "have a sense that they understand why things happen.''

  • Resilient children are often pressed into having to care for younger or older family members, giving them a sense of responsibility.

Roles for Schools

In studying school factors that help mitigate the effects of family stress, the British child psychologist Michael Rutter found schools that were more successful with high-risk children set high standards and had teachers who set positive examples, offered encouraging feedback, and placed trust and responsibility in students.

A key goal for schools, says Linda F. Winfield, a visiting professor at the graduate school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, should be to "examine their beliefs, programs, policies, and structures'' for their value in protecting and helping children overcome risk.

"This is not something I view as a dramatically radical curriculum, but a dramatic new way of thinking about kids coming from these circumstances,'' Ms. Winfield says.

Saundra Nettles, a principal research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, has studied factors salient in helping black children overcome adversity.

For younger children, she cites good preschool experiences, efforts to build social competence and improve family functioning, parental involvement in school, "successful cross-race peer relations,'' and culturally compatible classrooms.

For young adults, Ms. Nettles also highlights the support roles played by peers who value education, the religious community, and historically black colleges.

Cultural, Social Support

Schools must take care, she and others warn, not to turn cultural customs and norms into risks.

Ms. Winfield notes, for example, that the way kinship patterns of African-American families prompt children to seek help in solving problems may be seen by schools as dependence or lack of competence, rather than tapped as a strength.

Jack Block, a professor of psychology at the University of California, also cites differences in the way boys and girls demonstrate resilience.

In a study that has tracked 130 children from two nursery schools in Berkeley since the late 1960's, Mr. Block found that in boys, certain characteristics of resilience could be identified and remained constant over 20 years.

But girls' coping strengths shift markedly at adolescence, he notes, meaning their childhood resilience "carries no implication for being [resilient] in adolescence and beyond.''

Research on divorce also suggests the emotional consequences for girls may not emerge until adulthood.

Data on gender differences, Mr. Block notes, suggest the need to offer girls special support at vulnerable ages.

A pivotal role schools can play for all children, experts say, is to cultivate caring adult-child relationships. Examples range from mentoring programs to dividing large schools into smaller ones where teacher-teams keep the same students for at least two years.

The idea is "to structure more opportunities for at-risk youths to connect'' with adults, says William Lowe Boyd, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University and a senior research associate with the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities.

Youth Organizations

School settings are not the only place to promote meaningful relationships with adults.

In a forthcoming book, Ducking the Bullet, to be published by Jossey-Bass, Shirley Brice Heath and Milbrey W. McLaughlin of Stanford University recount what they learned from a five-year study of youth organizations in urban areas.

A leading characteristic of resilient youths, Ms. McLaughlin concludes, "is their involvement in a particular kind of youth organization.''

The organizations that were best able to recruit youths and mobilize their strengths respected their ideas, gave them a clear sense of belonging, and helped show them they could "create something of value,'' Ms. McLaughlin says.

What vulnerable urban children often seek is "the organizational equivalent of a gang,'' she notes.

Ms. Werner says she worries that "formal intervention'' systems like welfare or foster care sometimes "bureaucratize and exclude natural sources of support in a neighborhood.''

"We need to find out what informal support is available in the community and back that up,'' she says.

One way to do that is to link school and community resources.

The school can be viewed as a "catalyst to pull resources in the community in'' to prevent or ameliorate risk, notes Ms. Wang of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities at Temple University.

Maurice Sykes, the director of the early-learning years for the District of Columbia schools, stresses that "there's no one mediating institution or individual'' that can turn lives around.

"Children who are susceptible or at greatest risk need as many mediating factors as possible,'' he says.

Latest Buzz Word?

But even those pursuing resilience strategies are troubled about how the theory will be translated.

"I'm real cautious of this becoming the latest buzz word or fad,'' Ms. Winfield of U.C.L.A. says. "I don't want people to come away with this notion that now we are asking teachers to teach resilience.''

"People need to understand the difference'' between "something you teach and something you foster,'' she adds.

She and others also argue that schools seeking to adopt a resilience perspective must address all facets of a child's development--mental, social, emotional, and intellectual.

"Unless school-reform efforts explicitly attend to the whole child, they are are not likely to find their way to resilience,'' says Lonnie Sherrod, the vice president for programs for the William T. Grant Foundation.

Some also warn that the research is not far enough along to warrant sweeping conclusions.

Because many of the differences in how resilient children are "stem from temperamental and physiological variations we don't understand very well,'' contends Nicholas Zill, a vice president of Westat Inc., "we're not in a real strong position to predict ahead of time which child will be resilient and which will not.''

Dr. Frederick Goodwin, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, cites a need to link biological and psychological research on individual differences.

Being able to detect which children by virtue of both innate and environmental factors are more apt to be resilient, he offers, might "contribute information as to how to allocate scarce intervention resources.''

Hits Rather Than Strikes

While supporting the use of resiliency research to target aid at children with multiple risk factors, Ms. Werner worries it could be used to unduly limit aid.

"Before, people put kids in a box and called them high risk,'' she says. "Now, we might put children in a box and say they are resilient and forget about them.''

It is important to avoid such labels, she says, "because even the most resilient children may temporarily fall apart, and a lot of high-risk children may turn out O.K.''

Others maintain it is premature to drop the term "at risk.''

"There is no question some children are going to get through those multi-risk environments,'' Mr. Zill says. But with so many in real jeopardy, he adds, resilience should not become a "euphemism'' for inaction.

"The most important policy thrust should be to prevent the formation of multi-risk families,'' he says.

"It is incumbent'' on schools and legislators, Mr. Garmezy says, "to identify these children and then try to give as much material assistance as they can.''

Citing research that indicates an abundance of risks tends to increase the danger that a child will have problems, Mr. Goodwin suggests that "there is a certain minimum floor any child needs to navigate and develop; when you start getting below that floor, you start seeing pathologies.''

Mr. Gardner of Harvard University characterizes resilience this way: "Every kid can have so many strikes against him and so many strikes for him. When there are too many strikes against him, the kid goes under, but sometimes one or two balls can tip the balance.''

What resilience theorists are aiming for, he notes, are "ways of getting hits rather than strikes.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories