Beating the Odds
Poor, black, and a product of an inner-city East St. Louis neighborhood, Evelyn Strode was born with the odds against her.
She was raised in a family that was, in her words, "dysfunctional." When her parents eventually divorced, Evelyn tried to commit suicide by swallowing some aspirin she found in the medicine cabinet. She was in 6th grade.
According to the professional literature, this young woman's unpromising beginnings should have pointed to an unpromising future. That did not, however, turn out to be true.
Evelyn bounced back after her mother assured her the divorce was not her fault. She stayed out of trouble in high school and graduated with honors. Now 19, she is a sophomore at Southern Illinois University and plans to go into public relations after graduation. Many of the high school friends who joined her at college have since either dropped out, transferred to a community college, or joined the Army. But Evelyn perseveres at S.I.U.
What's more, she appears to have broken a chain of teenage pregnancies that spanned two generations in her family. Her mother and grandmother both bore children as teenagers.
Young people like Evelyn, who seem to manage despite adversity, are holding an increasing fascination for education researchers and experts on child development. They represent an enigma: Why do some children succeed in the face of adversity while others--growing up in the same circumstances and sometimes the same family--fail?
"It really means you turn around the coin," says Norman Garmezy, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota. "You don't suggest that, because there is economic deprivation or a single-parent family therefore this child must be disturbed." Rather than look at what went wrong in the child's life, the new thinking among this group of researchers is to examine what went right.
In fact, a growing body of literature suggests, a fair number of children touched by adversity fare reasonably well. According to one often-quoted statistic, for example, only one out of every four children of an alcoholic grows up to become an alcoholic.
For more than two decades, psychologists like Garmezy have been studying these children who beat the odds. In their stories, the psychologists hope to find clues to help their less fortunate peers manage their own lives. Education researchers have more recently joined in that search.
By one estimate, the combined efforts have produced more than 250 studies over the years. Researchers have studied the children of schizophrenics, homeless and poor children, survivors of the Holocaust, women raised in orphanages, and adults raised during the Depression, among others. The resulting data are beginning to piece together a fairly consistent picture of the characteristics and circumstances that seem to contribute to odds-defying behavior in children.
These patterns of resiliency don't look the same in all successful children. But experts say a handful of common factors do tend to build on one another in multiple and complex ways throughout the course of a lifetime.
Evelyn Strode's struggle against adversity earned her a "Beat the Odds" scholarship from the Children's Defense Fund two years ago. She can easily name one of the most important factors in her own climb upward: supportive adults.
Despite the discord in her family, Evelyn's parents separately encouraged her to succeed. Her aunt, a former schoolteacher with whom Evelyn, her mother, and her brother live, preached the importance of studying hard in school.
Experts say study after study have reached a similar conclusion. Nurturing, competent adults can buffer children from the stresses in their lives. That key adult figure, however, does not necessarily have to be a parent. Teachers, mentors, coaches, and aunts like Evelyn's can also play that role.
"The important thing is to find someone who can be a substitute parent or a positive role model, who can say 'yes' to that idiosyncratic kid from a poor family who comes along," says Emmy E. Werner, a professor and child psychologist at the University of California at Davis.
Werner and her colleague, Ruth S. Smith, conducted what has become the classic study of children overcoming great odds. They followed 505 children born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai from their birth in 1955 until they reached age 31 or 32. The children's parents or grandparents were immigrants from Southeast Asia who came to work as laborers on the island's pineapple and sugar plantations.
Within this group, one out of every three children was born with the odds against successful development. The strikes against them included perinatal stress, chronic poverty, parents with little schooling, and disorganized family environments.
"Their homes were troubled by discord, desertion, or divorce or marred by parental alcoholism or mental illness," Werner writes in her 1992 book on the study, Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children From Birth to Adulthood. Nevertheless, she adds, one of every three of these high-risk children had developed into a "competent, confident, and caring adult" by age 18.
Besides having a nurturing adult figure in their lives, Werner found, children in the resilient group also tended to have "easy" temperaments as infants.
"Resilient children often have a quality about them that's appealing to adults in their culture," agrees Ann S. Masten, the associate director of the University of Minnesota's Institute for Child Development. "I've seen films of Romanian orphanages where there is always one child running around looking happy," she adds. "Although there is not much adult attention in the place, that child gets all of it."
At the Institute for Child Development, Masten has followed 205 poor Minneapolis children from elementary school into their late adolescence. She has also found that the more successful children also have good intellectual and problem-solving skills.
"Among older children, there is also a knack for finding an environment that's good for your own development," she adds. That might mean joining a church group or some other kind of prosocial organization, such as a youth group. Resilient children may also seek out a home of a friend or relative--a home that offers more support and stability than their own.
In one 1991 study, researchers from Johns Hopkins and Syracuse universities suggest that participating in sports may foster resilience in young black males. Using data from the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study, Jomills Henry Braddock 2nd, Deidre Royster, Linda F. Winfield, and Randolph Hawkins found that 8th-grade black boys who participated in either intramural or interscholastic sports had higher educational aspirations than peers who did not take part in such programs.
Setting educational goals is also critical to children's success, says Winfield, a professor of education policy at the University of Southern California. But, she admits, "most adolescents are shortsighted about what they want to do."
Planning for the future is a factor that Evelyn credits with her own success. "When I was little, I always wanted to go to college," she says. "Basically, I guess it was knowing what I wanted out of life."
In fact, experts say, schools in general may play a large role in helping these children overcome their adverse conditions. Besides offering a source of potentially caring adults, schools provide children with the critical skills they'll need later in life. In Werner's study, for example, strong reading abilities at grade 4 turned out to be a potent predictor for later success.
"I think effective schools are a basic requirement for creating protective factors for children who are not doing very well," says Margaret C. Wang, the director of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Wang and her colleagues at the center have cast the research questions that surround this group of children in a different light. Using economists, sociologists, urban planners, and criminologists, center researchers are trying to ferret out characteristics of schools and communities that tend to promote resiliency in children--and continue to do so even after new principals and teachers have come and gone.
"Developmental psychologists are really looking at children, but the context is so important," she says.
According to Wang, schools that foster self-sufficiency in children offer differentiated instruction within classrooms to accommodate varying ability levels and try to maximize the time students spend learning. They are also able to mobilize community resources to provide an additional network of support for their most needy students. Wang is currently piloting a model for schools that exhibit these characteristics. Known as the Comprehensive Approach to Schooling Success, the program blends the philosophy of James P. Comer, a psychiatrist at Yale University, with an academic approach called the Adaptive Learning Environments Model, which Wang developed. The program is being tested in schools in Philadelphia, Houston, and Los Angeles.
The British psychologist Michael Rutter adds that schools that foster disadvantaged children's competence tend to have high expectations for students.
Experts also say that teachers can help by giving students tasks that promote a sense of competence that experts call self-efficacy. But this is different, Winfield cautions, from just making children feel good about themselves. "We find a lot of teachers will purchase a kit out of a box to help children develop self-esteem," she says. "But self-esteem and self-efficacy come from interacting positively with adults and accomplishing tasks."
In Werner's study, for example, the more competent adults had in their teenage years taken on responsible, needed positions, including paid, part-time work, caring for siblings, or managing a household for an incapacitated parent. Such "acts of required helpfulness," Werner says, are also key elements of intervention programs that involve troubled youngsters in community service.
A resilient child, however, is not an invulnerable one.
Recent longitudinal studies have begun to suggest that as these children enter their third decade of life, they may be disproportionately prone to stress-related ailments, such as backaches and migraines.
They also tend to "detach themselves from parents and siblings whose domestic and emotional problems still threaten to engulf them" and to maintain "a certain aloofness in interpersonal relationships," according to Werner's study.
"It may be that there's a price to pay," concurs the University of Minnesota's Masten.
However, Werner's long-term work shows a more positive side to these life trajectories, too. Many children--particularly girls--who seemed beaten by the odds against them as teenagers had turned their lives around by their early 30's. They often credited their transformations to a stint in the military, community college, joining a church group, or the birth of a child.
"If you just write them off at the endof adolescence," Werner cautions, "you may neglect some important points of opportunity."
Of the teenage mothers in the group, for example, 60 percent had completed additional schooling, and 90 percent were employed when researchers visited them in their 30's. Only one-fourth of the male juvenile offenders and 10 percent of their female counterparts had criminal records at age 32.
Some say part of the attraction of the new wave of resiliency studies is its romantic, Horatio Alger-like appeal. "Up from poverty has been the story of successive generations of Americans," says Garmezy at the University of Minnesota.
But Werner says she worries that the topic has become a fad. "I think the concept now has almost been seized by anyone who before maybe used other concepts to justify programs," she says. Indeed, a number of programs would seem to fit under the same philosophical tent: Head Start, mentoring programs, after-school clubs, and community-service efforts, to name a few.
"It's not enough just to have a program," says A. Wade Boykin, the co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, which is based at Howard and Johns Hopkins universities. "You have to document that a program is going to be effective over time."
Masten also worries that policymakers could see in the new research an excuse for eliminating or cutting programs targeted to children at risk.
"They might think if people are resilient, why worry?" she says. "What we've got to figure out is whom to worry about."
"One of the things we're losing with all these kids in poverty is what they could've produced given half a chance," she adds. "It's hard to measure what that might've been."
Further information on this topic is available from:
Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk
Johns Hopkins University
3505 North Charles St.
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Md. 21218
National Center on Education in the Inner Cities
933 Ritter Hall Annex
13th St. and Cecil B. Moore Ave.
Philadelphia, Pa. 19122
Garmezy, N., & Rutter, M. (1983). Stress, coping, and development in children. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Masten, A.S., Best, K.M., & Garmezy, N. (1991). Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2, 425-444.
Wang, M.C., & Gordon, E.W. (Eds.) (1994). Educational resilience in inner-city America: Challenges and prospects. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Werner, E.E., & Smith, R.S. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Winfield, L.F. (Ed.) (1991). Resilience, schooling, and development in African-American youth. Special issue of Education and Urban Society. 24(1) Newbury Park, Calif.: Corwin Press Inc.