The Whole Child Is a Resilient Child
Post written by Bonnie Benard
To build the resilience of students who face adversity, we need to nurture the whole spectrum of their developmental needs.
Forty years of resilience research following children who face multiple challenges into adulthood has yielded a surprising but consistent finding: Most children and youth—even those coming from highly stressed or abusive families or from resource-deprived communities—do somehow manage to overcome their often overwhelming odds and become "competent, confident, and caring" adults (Werner & Smith, 2001).
How do these children "make it?" The answer is simpler than we may think. The research has identified certain strengths that enable youth to succeed and offers guidance on how families, schools, and communities can nurture these assets. This research has lent support to many strengths-based movements—for example, asset building, health promotion, positive psychology, and social and emotional intelligence and literacy—that are gaining in popularity among researchers and practitioners alike. What unites all these movements is the commonsense tenet that we can learn much more from examining what nurtures and protects children on their life journeys than from dwelling on their risk factors.
A simple way to think of resilience is as an inborn wisdom driving social, emotional, cognitive, and moral/spiritual development.1 In my review of the resilience research (Benard, 1991), I connected each of these aspects of development to a specific "resilience strength." Thus, we can view the need for love and belonging as driving social development, which results in the resilience strength of social competence; the need for respect and power as driving emotional development, which results in autonomy; the need for challenge and mastery as driving cognitive development, which results in problem solving; and the need for meaning as driving moral/spiritual development, which leads to a sense of purpose and focus on the future.
Together, these resilience strengths make the child whole. And everyone—parent, teacher, administrator, youth worker, or community member—has the power to foster these strengths. Leading resilience researcher Ann Masten eloquently captures this idea:
Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities but from the everyday magic of the ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities. (2001, p. 235)
The "everyday magic" of resilience is that each person is intrinsically motivated to fulfill his or her developmental needs and thus build these holistic competencies. But school communities need to activate that motivation if we want to nurture these capacities in our young people.
The genetic drive for love and belonging leads humans to develop social communication skills that enable them to connect to others in reciprocal relationships. Socially competent people are responsive to others and are able to elicit positive responses from others—in some children's cases, to recruit mentors and surrogate caregivers. A fundamental attribute of social and emotional intelligence is empathy—the ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes. Empathy is a hallmark of resilience (Werner & Smith, 2001), building morality, compassion, and forgiveness—attributes that are associated with healthy development and life success, as well as the ability to heal from trauma.
It is essential that educators tap our young people's capacities for such a vital competence. Fortunately, schools don't need to rush out and invest in a new social skills curriculum. One of the strongest messages from resilience research is that students learn this crucial life skill by engaging in caring relationships with adults who model prosocial skills and mirror them back to students who demonstrate these attitudes. When asked what it means to experience caring at school, hundreds of students in focus groups have told me that it is having teachers and other adults in the school notice them, listen to them, and take an interest in their lives. Making a one-to-one connection with a student, even if for a few seconds, can make a big difference. Caring teachers offer extra help, show respect for students' feelings, and never give up on them. They also teach students of color the "codes of power" and how to adapt to the dominant culture without losing their sense of cultural identity.
A caring classroom community in which students experience a sense of belonging and connection to their peers is a powerful force in students' social development. Effective practices include creating classroom community circles for group problem solving and forming cooperative learning groups in which students can practice the social skills modeled by adults. Programs like the Tribes Learning Community, the Caring School Community, and the Responsive Classroom are well-respected tools for creating a caring education community.
When the adults in a school model empathy and compassion—when they collaborate with students to create classroom agreements that prohibit disrespect and put-downs, when they intervene in antisocial behaviors like bullying and harassment, when they discuss ethical issues with students, when they provide students with service learning opportunities to help others in their community—students learn potent life lessons in social development.
Even forgiveness, that pinnacle of social development, is a gift that educators can nurture in young people. One of the most famous examples of forgiveness is the story that child psychologist Robert Coles (1986) recounts of Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old African American girl who was instrumental in integrating the New Orleans public schools in 1960. Despite being spit on, cursed, and jeered, Ruby—through the love and support of her teacher, her family, and her spiritual community, all of whom taught her not to take personally her tormentors' ignorance and racism—was able to forgive and move on.
The human need for respect and power propels the development of autonomy. Autonomy involves the ability to act independently, to feel a sense of self-efficacy, and to exert control over our environment. Autonomous people possess such qualities as task mastery, or the sense of doing something well; internal locus of control, or the belief that our own characteristics and actions determine our life experiences; adaptive distancing, or the ability to detach ourselves from family, school, or community dysfunction; resistance, or the refusal to accept negative messages about ourselves; mindfulness, the ability to observe our thoughts, feelings, strengths, and needs without getting caught up in emotion; and a sense of humor, which helps us gain distance from pain and adversity by transforming anger and sadness into laughter.
Educators can cultivate autonomy by conveying high expectations that reflect our beliefs in students' ability to be successful and competent individuals. We need to give students messages of challenge and support, such as, "I know you can do this, and I will be here to support you," or "You are capable of so much; I won't accept any excuses for your low achievement." These messages of belief are powerful motivators for learning.
We can also build autonomy by providing experiences through which students learn by doing—for example, cooperative, project-based, arts-based, or service-based learning. Giving students opportunities to be heard and to have a role in making decisions that affect their lives also promotes their sense of self. For example, educators can conduct focus groups in which students express their opinions and concerns, and then follow up on student suggestions or help implement student-led improvement projects.
We nurture adaptive distancing, self-awareness, and even a sense of humor when we help our students understand that they have the personal power to view any situation, including their lives, in a new and different way. Adults who have helped transform the lives of young people have usually helped them see that they have the power to reframe their problems as opportunities and transform their self-perception from damaged victim to resilient survivor.
Problem solving encompasses the cognitive abilities of critical thinking, planning, flexibility, resourcefulness, and insight. The glue that holds these skills together as a category is their intrapersonal quality. Werner and Smith found that
Among the high-risk individuals who succeeded against the odds, there was a significant association between ... a nonverbal measure of problem-solving skills at age 10 and successful adaptation in adulthood. (1992, p. 176)
How do we promote problem solving in classrooms and schools? Just as with the other resilience strengths, nature is on educators' side. Many psychologists believe that this crucial survival skill is intrinsically motivated by the human drive for challenge and mastery—the need to know, to learn, to figure things out. Developmental psychologist Marcel Schulman's research on children as young as 2 years old found that they are driven by four basic questions: "What's out there? What leads to what? What makes things happen? and What's controllable?" (2002, p. 322). He postulated that this drive often diminishes for children "if, during their school years, they are asked to learn a mass of facts and operations that do not appear to answer any of [these] four basic questions" (p. 322).
A constructivist perspective acknowledges that students are creators of their own learning. Constructivist classrooms provide students with ongoing opportunities to plan their learning, to solve problems on their own or in small groups, to take a deeper look at social and historical issues, and to be creative through writing, art, music, drama, and dance. Experiential learning in all forms is backed by solid scientific evidence showing that it promotes cognitive development as measured by grades and standardized test scores (Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1996; Melchior, 1996; Slavin, 1997).
Critical thinking is a crucial problem-solving skill. It enables at-risk students in particular to develop an awareness of oppression (be it from an alcoholic parent, an insensitive school, or a racist society) and create strategies to overcome oppression rather than internalize it and develop a permanent sense of victimhood. We can build students' critical thinking skills by encouraging them to look beyond surface impressions, traditional myths, and textbook opinions to gain a deeper understanding of the social context of subject matter. We can help our students develop cognitive flexibility by encouraging them to try alternative solutions to problems both intellectual and social. And we can foster students' analytic habits of thinking by asking questions that prompt them to examine their own thought processes and discover the deeper meaning of any event, statement, or situation.
Resourcefulness, often referred to as "street smarts," is a crucial survival skill that we can foster by helping students identify external resources and opportunities and surrogate sources of support. We can nurture insight—the awareness of environmental cues and the openness and willingness to come to realizations that transform one's perceived reality—by encouraging students to trust their gut, to listen to their inner voice. Resourcefulness and insight are essential competencies that early intervention programs and student assistance programs cultivate. Such programs should be part of every school.
Sense of Purpose and Focus on the Future
Having a sense of purpose in life reflects our deep human drive for morality and spiritual connectedness and is probably the most powerful asset propelling youth to healthy outcomes in the face of adversity. A strong sense of purpose and an optimistic focus on the future have consistently been correlated with academic success, a positive self-identity, and fewer health-risk behaviors. A sense of purpose grants us persistence, hopefulness, faith, spiritual connectedness, and, ultimately, a sense of coherence—a belief that our lives have meaning and that we have a place in the universe.
Educators are crucial in connecting young people to a sense of purpose. And conveniently enough, the best way to achieve this is to nurture the whole spectrum of students' resilience strengths. By creating caring relationships with students, conveying high expectations for their success, creating ongoing opportunities for them to pursue their interests and dreams, and encouraging them to be active participants in and contributors to their school and community, we are indeed connecting our students to their purpose and future. One practice that cultivates a sense of purpose is creating opportunities for students to experience flow—optimal experiences of total involvement that engage students' strengths, passion, and imagination. Such experiences enable students to envision a life beyond current challenges and stresses.
Caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation and contribution are the most powerful protective factors identified in resilience research. They not only link youth to a bright future, but also are the essential supports through which young people meet their developmental needs for love and belonging, respect and power, challenge and mastery, and meaning. They nurture the whole child.
Some may ask, "Why should we bother nurturing the whole child in this age of one-size-fits-all standards and high-stakes testing?" Besides the obvious fact that children are whole beings, whether policymakers like it or not, all of us in service to young people know intuitively that cognitive development does not happen in isolation from social, emotional, and moral/spiritual development. Research on resilience, brain science, and high-performing learning communities documents that grades and standardized test scores improve when schools provide a personalized, student-centered environment. If schools can learn to work with students' genetically programmed developmental forces instead of thwarting them, positive development—including healthy behaviors and successful learning—will unfold. As philosopher and child psychologist Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote in 1977, if we only
turn again to that 3-billion-year development lying within us, that uncanny wisdom of the body clearly programmed into the child as unbending intent, ... [we could] allow our children (and so ourselves) to become the free, whole individuals this good earth has prepared us to be. (p. 15)
1The research documenting each of these categories' positive effects on life outcomes has grown exponentially over the last decade. The author's book Resiliency: What We Have Learned (WestEd, 2004) offers an in-depth research-based review of each of these strengths.
Benard, B. (1991). Fostering resiliency in kids: Protective factors in the family, school, and community. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
Coles, R. (1986). The moral life of children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hattie, J., Marsh, H., Neill, J., & Richards, G. (1996). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43–87.
Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227–238.
Melchior, A. (1996). National evaluation of Learn and Serve America school and community-based programs: Interim report. Washington, DC: Corporation for National and Community Service.
Pearce, J. C. (1977). The magical child. New York: Plume.
Schulman, M. (2002). The passion to know: A developmental perspective. In C. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 313–326). New York: Oxford University Press.
Slavin, R. (1997). Cooperative learning among students. In D. Stern & G. L. Huber (Eds.), Active learning for students and teachers: Reports from eight countries (pp. 159–173). Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang.
Werner, E., & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High-risk children from birth to adulthood. New York: Cornell University Press.
Werner, E., & Smith, R. (2001). Journeys from childhood to midlife: Risk, resilience, and recovery. New York: Cornell University Press.
Bonnie Benard, a researcher in the field of resilience and youth development, recently retired as a senior program associate at WestEd. She is the author of Resiliency: What We Have Learned (WestEd, 2004). This article originally appeared in ASCD Express.