Against All Odds

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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 the case.

Evelyn bounced back. 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. What's more, she has 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--even excel--despite adversity, fascinate education researchers and experts on child development. Their experiences raise an important question: Why do some children succeed in the face of adversity while others--growing up in the same circumstances and sometimes in the same family--fail?

To answer the question, says Norman Garmezy, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, researchers need to examine what's gone right in a person's life instead of focusing on what went wrong. "It really means you turn the coin around,'' Garmezy says. "You don't suggest that because there is economic deprivation or a single-parent family therefore this child must be disturbed.''

In fact, a growing body of research suggests that a fair number of children touched by adversity fare reasonably well. And for more than two decades, psychologists like Garmezy have been studying them. They are looking for clues that might help other less fortunate children manage their own lives better. More recently, education researchers have joined in the search.

By one estimate, the combined efforts of these researchers have produced more than 250 studies over the years. They have studied children of schizophrenics, homeless and poor children, survivors of the Holocaust, women raised in orphanages, and adults raised during the Depression, to name just a few. And they 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 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, whose struggle against adversity earned her a "Beat the Odds'' scholarship from the Children's Defense Fund, 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.

Numerous studies have reached a similar conclusion: Nurturing, competent adults can buffer children from the stresses in their lives. That figure does not have to be a parent. Teachers, mentors, coaches, and aunts like Evelyn's can play a key 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 Werner, a professor and child psychologist at the University of California at Davis.

Werner and her colleague, Ruth Smith, conducted what has become the classic study of children overcoming great odds. They followed 505 Hawaiian children from their birth on the island of Kauai in 1955 into their early 30s. 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 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 home environments.

"Their homes were troubled by discord, desertion, or divorce or marred by parental alcoholism or mental illness,'' Werner writes in Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children From Birth to Adulthood, her 1992 book on the study. Nevertheless, one of every three of these high-risk children developed into a "competent, confident, and caring adult'' by age 18. In addition to having a nurturing adult figure in their lives, the successful children, Werner found, 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 Masten, 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. Although there is not much adult attention in the place, that child gets all of it.''

At the institute, Masten has followed 205 poor Minneapolis children from elementary school into late adolescence. She found that the most successful children have strong 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 says. They might join a church group or some other kind of pro-social organization, such as a youth club. Or they might spend a great deal of time at the home of a friend or relative that offers more support and stability than their own.

Of course, there may be other contributing factors, as well. A 1991 study out of Johns Hopkins and Syracuse universities suggests that participating in sports may foster resilience among young African-American males. Using data from the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study, the researchers found that 8th grade black boys who participated in either intramural or interscholastic athletics had higher educational aspirations than peers who did not take part in such sports programs.

Setting goals is critical to a child's success, says Linda Winfield, an education professor at the University of Southern California who took part in the sports study. But most adolescents, she admits, "are shortsighted about what they want to do.''

Evelyn Strode believes that planning for the future was a critical factor in 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.''

Researchers who have studied resiliency say schools can make an enormous difference. Besides offering a source of potentially caring adults, schools provide children with key skills they will need later in life. In Werner's study, strong reading skills by the 4th grade 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 Wang, director of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities, located at Temple University.

Wang has cast the research questions that surround this group of children in a different light. With the help of economists, sociologists, urban planners, and criminologists, Wang and her colleagues at the center are trying to ferret out characteristics of schools--and communities--that tend to promote resiliency in children.

The most successful schools, they have learned, tend to offer differentiated instruction within classrooms to accommodate children of varying abilities and try to maximize the time students spend learning. Moreover, these schools have mobilized 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 is currently being tested in schools in Philadelphia, Houston, and Los Angeles.

Teachers can help, researchers suggest, by giving students tasks that promote a sense of competence, something the experts call self-efficacy. They are quick to note, however, that this sense of competence is different 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,'' says Winfield of USC. "But self-esteem and self-efficacy come from interacting positively with adults and accomplishing tasks.''

In Werner's study, for example, the children who ultimately succeeded had assumed positions of responsibility--such as caring for siblings or managing a household for an incapacitated parent--during their teenage years. Such "acts of required helpfulness,'' she says, are often a key element of intervention programs that involve troubled youngsters.

While researchers have been able to identify factors that contribute to success among troubled youngsters, they have also learned that the resilient child is not an invulnerable one. Recent longitudinal studies have begun to suggest, for example, that as these children enter their third decade of life, they may be disproportionately prone to stress-related ailments, such as backaches and migraines. What's more, they tend to "detach themselves from parents and siblings whose domestic and emotional problems still threaten to engulf them,'' Werner writes, and to maintain "a certain aloofness in interpersonal relationships.''

But Werner's long-term work also shows that some individuals--particularly young women--who had not been able to surmount the odds against them as teenagers were able to turn their lives around by their early 30s. These people often credited their transformations to a stint in the military, a community college program, joining a church group, or the birth of a child. "If you just write them off at the end of adolescence,'' Werner cautions, "you may neglect some important points of opportunity.''

Some of those involved in the resiliency studies believe that people are drawn to their findings because it has a romantic, Horatio Alger-like appeal. As Garmezy of the University of Minnesota points out, "Up from poverty has been the story of successive generations of Americans.'' But Werner worries that the topic has become a fad and that people have latched on to it to justify various social and educational initiatives--mentoring programs, after-school clubs, and community service efforts, to name but a few.

Others have the opposite concern: that some policymakers could use their findings as an excuse for eliminating or cutting programs targeted to children at risk. "They might think if people are resilient, why worry?'' says Masten of the Institute for Child Development.

"What we've got to figure out is who to worry about,'' she explains. "One of the things we're losing with all these kids in poverty is what they could've produced given half a chance. It's hard to measure what that might've been.''

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 06, Issue 08, Page 1-24

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