At the time of writing this review, the world is currently tackling the unprecedented pandemic Covid-19 virus. There is perhaps no better time to be thinking about resilience and how people react in the face of adversity. In this current climate, talk of resiliency is regularly discussed and reported in the form of resilience funds and grants, resilient communities and resilience plans to name but a few. In the UK and other countries, the economic uncertainty and ever-changing directives has highlighted the need to foster adaptability in the population. However, despite the recent focuses at an international level, resiliency is not a new concept.
In Scotland, resiliency is threaded through the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), as part of the four capacities to be to be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor. A ‘whole child approach’ was introduced in 2008 with the launch of Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC). Based on an ecological model (Bronfenbrenner, 1977), the child or young person is placed in the centre of their world and is surrounded by the wider environmental factors and interactions that can affect them. The aim of CfE is “to ensure that all children and young people in Scotland develop the attributes, knowledge and skills they will need to flourish in life, learning and work’. This review concentrates on developing resilience in children and young people within the scope of education. What is resilience and how can schools help to build resilience in students? How can schools help children and young people to flourish despite adversity?
Since the initial concept of resilience, there have been numerous definitions which vary between academic disciplines (Atkinson, et al., 2009). In terms of resilience in children and young people, resilience can be described as the ability to cope with negative life events and challenges, or the capacity to ‘bounce back’ from difficult situations and persist in the face of adversity. Definitions of resilience by key theorists such as Rutter (2013), Garmezy (1991), Luthar et al. (2000), Masten (2014) and Ungar (2004) all contain two essential components: adverse life experience and the demonstration of adaptability or a positive outcome despite the adversity. Velleman & Templeton (2016) summarise the “core characteristics” of resilience. The first characteristic is that resilience is not a personality trait or personal quality. This concept is widely agreed amongst the aforementioned key theorists. Additionally, Velleman & Templeton (2016) recognise that resilience is a “fluid process”. Some individuals will be more resilient than others depending on the circumstances and timing. This view is supported by Masten (2014) and Luthar et al. (2000), who both refer to resilience as “dynamic”. People are not born with resilience, it can be learned and it can be affected by close relationships, environmental factors and beliefs (Velleman & Templeton, 2016). These views of developing resilience and the exterior factors surrounding resilience are acknowledged by all the key theorists to some extent. The internal and external nature of these characteristics outlined by Velleman & Templeton (2016) is reflected by Masten (2014), who states that resilience involves “many systems within the individual as well as many systems outside the individual”. Interestingly, a very recent article by McDonald, et al. (2019) carried out research to understand the differences in perceptions of resilience between children, parents and teachers. The study was small and did not have a diverse range of participants however, the differences in perceptions is noteworthy. The children and parents in the study most commonly defined resilience in terms of individual attributes, whereas the teacher group was more likely to consider the external contributory factors to resilience. The children and parents were also more likely to characterise resilience as a coping mechanism, whereas teachers tended to describe resilience as fluid and complex.
Globally, it is estimated that 10% of young people have a diagnosable mental disorder (Layard & Hagell, 2015). This correlates well with the most recent data from Audit Scotland (2018) which shows that one in ten children and young people aged five to sixteen have a clinically diagnosed mental illness. Furthermore, half of children who suffer from mental ill-health will develop mental ill-health again as adults (Layard & Hagell, 2015). As well as the great loss to humankind, from an economic perspective OECD (2014) has estimated that in most countries, the overall effects of mental illness reduces the gross domestic product (GDP) by over 5%. Thus, the prevention of mental ill-health is integral to gaining positive life outcomes for young people.
Developing resilience in children and young people is considered a major factor in reducing the impacts of mental ill-health across society. According to Shean (2015), “resilience research provides data that has the potential to significantly improve the psychological, educational, social and emotional outcomes in young people.” Shean (2015) continues to say that positive development in children and young people who experience adversity provides an opportunity to alter current and future outcomes in adulthood. On a similar vein, Masten (2011) proposes that “competence begets competence” and Benard (2004) suggests that students with more resiliency have a better chance of thriving within a learning environment. Therefore, personal success in both school and life can be aided by developing good mental health and resilience.
School is an important feature in many children’s lives, especially so in more developed countries. For example, in the UK children and young people typically spend 30-35 hours per week in school. Consequently, given this level of prominence, schools can play a key role in fostering resilience. Masten et al. (2008) highlight that within research into promoting positive development and the prevention of future difficulties, schools play a vital role. Furthermore, Masten et al. (2008) and Song et al. (2013) emphasise the increased value of school-based support for children at risk of adversity from their families or communities.
Research into resilience started in the 1970s as part of an investigation into children at risk of psychopathology by Dr Norman Garmezy. The research generated from this formed the concept of resilience and steered thinking from mental illness to mental health. This change generated a vast amount of research into protective factors that promote mental health and positive development in the face of risk, rather than focussing on repairing problems or negative outcomes, i.e. the risk factors. Risk and protective factors can exist at an individual or environmental level. The environment can include family, school and the wider community. Protective factors will either promote positivity or help to lessen the impact of risk factors (Morrison & Allen, 2007). Based on positive psychology, schools can use strength-based approaches to focus on what will help an individual to thrive by building on their existing strengths and capabilities (Cahill, et al., 2014). One such strength is perceived self-efficacy.
Rutter (1987) conceived that self-efficacy is a contributor to resilience. Bandura (1997) defines self-efficacy as a belief of ability to control and shape one’s personal future and achieve desired outcomes through one’s own actions and decisions, Therefore, it follows that self-efficacy beliefs can promote resilience. Furthermore, across the selected literature self-efficacy is defined as a protective factor (Benard, 2004), (Masten, 2014), (Ungar, 2008), (Velleman & Templeton, 2016). Effective schools and teachers should provide regular opportunities and experiences for children and young people that encourage self-efficacy and resilience despite failures.
One prominent key protective factor is the sense of belonging or connectedness to school. A sense of belonging within school has been defined through research to be a highly significant protective factor for children and young people. Similarly, Bizumic, et al. (2009) conducted a study consisting of almost 700 students across two high schools and found that psychologically, a sense of belonging to their school was identified as the most significant factor. The study found that a student’s sense of belonging and acceptance within the school was inversely proportional to reports of anxiety, depression, loss of emotional control and aggression. A sense of belonging to school is not only connected to better health, it can also improve academic outcomes. Research conducted by Osterman (2000) found that a sense of belonging was related to participation in learning activities, peer support, abiding by school rules and higher levels of expectation and achievement. A perceived sense of belonging requires a school environment that encourages students to be successful and be actively involved in school. It is also associated with safe and supportive teacher-student and peer relationships, consistent and positive classroom management, opportunities to succeed, encouragement to succeed and a culture of trust, respect and caring.
As discussed above, good relationships within school are integral to school connectedness, but they are also individual protective factors. A whole-school approach fosters positive peer relationships that can provide friendship and support. Holfve-Sabel (2014) states that healthy peer relationships play a considerable role in overall school experience and are associated with better academic achievement, less risk taking and reduce existing risk factors. On the other hand, the well-being of children and young people can be significantly harmed by negative peer relationships such as bullying. Both bullies and their victims are likely to experience issues with mental health at school and as adults.
A whole-school approach also promotes positive teacher-student relationships. Roorda, et al. (2011) carried out a quantitative study of the influence of teacher-student relationships and concluded that positive relationships resulted in better student engagement and performance. In addition, the study found ‘at risk’ students benefited most from positive teacher-student relations, in particular students with learning difficulties and those from poorer households. Furthermore, students are more likely to seek assistance from a teacher for both schoolwork problems and social or emotional problems if there is a good teacher-student relationship.
School-home relationships have also been shown to make a significant difference to student achievement and well-being, regardless of income or background. To foster school-home relationships, schools should strive to create a welcoming, trusting environment and offer parental involvement that is sensitive to diversity. In recent times, parental engagement can be encouraged through technology such as school apps on mobile phones and social media.
Strong school-agency (or school-community) links are vital for the well-being of children and young people, in particular for those in need of professional help. However, due to unfamiliarity with professional employees, students are disinclined to ask for help with personal problems. Teachers and schools can have an intermediary role in helping students to access professional help, this is particularly important for mental health issues such as suicide prevention. Many teachers have concerns over lack of skills or knowledge and some problems may be too severe or urgent, so it is imperative that schools have well organised processes and links between themselves and external agencies.
The primary aim of social and emotional learning (SEL) programmes is to explicitly teach coping and problem-solving skills. To teach SEL effectively, programmes should include a combination of knowledge and awareness of social and emotional health, skills for increasing self-esteem, social and life skills, coping skills, skills for managing emotions and stress, critical thinking, problem solving and negotiation (Cahill, et al., 2014). Programmes are more effective if they are taught by the classroom teacher in a collaborative way and are part of a comprehensive health and well-being curriculum (Durlak, et al., 2011). However, across the relevant literature it is apparent that the effectiveness of such programmes is difficult to quantify. Durlak, et al. (2011) conclude that although the results of their meta-analysis suggest various benefits of SEL, “current findings are not definitive”. On the same vein, a recent meta-analysis carried out by Dray, et al. (2017) found that SEL programmes showed promise in providing better mental health outcomes, however conclusions could not be fully determined due to the limited number useable trials, variation in content and teaching of SEL programmes and the quality and bias of the studies. In a follow up study to Durlak, et al. (2011), which reviewed the outcomes of SEL from 6 months to 18 years postintervention, similar limitations were found, however the analysis did note that benefits achieved were similar regardless of students’ race, location or socioeconomic background.
“PROSPER” is one of the latest preventative well-being frameworks for schools that has been created by Noble & McGrath (2015). PROSPER is an acronym that stands for Positivity, Relationships, Outcomes, Strengths, Purpose, Engagement and Resilience. It aims to be a planning or auditing tool for schools to implement the seven key components or “pathways” so that all students might prosper or “thrive and succeed in a healthy way; to flourish”. The components combine positive psychology, or positive education, with existing school practices to improve student well-being and academic achievement. The framework suggests that in order for students to develop the skills and attitudes required to foster resiliency, a school must specifically teach skills to cope in both personal and school contexts, foster self-management, act with courage and learn to make good decisions. Even though it is beneficial to have the concept of resilience highlighted in this framework as a key component to prosper, the other six components could also be connected to the fostering of resiliency due to their comparability to defined protective factors. Cahill, et al. (2014) provides an extended table of risk and protective factors for the individual, family, school and community levels. The table is a combination of factors identified from various literature sources which correlate well with the skills required in the PROSPER framework (Noble & McGrath, 2015) indicating a level of agreement within the field of SEL development.
Shean (2015) points out that although it is widely agreed throughout resilience theory that the environment surrounding the child of young person is a significant factor, most theorists initially focussed on resilience interventions at an individual level. Ungar (2011) is critical of simplistic “subject centred” interventions and warns that such approaches mean that, “responsibility for resilience is wrongly placed on the victim”. He recommends “decentering the child” and focussing instead on how the surrounding environment can provide opportunities for the child or young person. Despite this, there is growing criticism that current resilience policies do not consider social and economic inequalities. These inequalities could equate to adversities, however social critics argue against promoting resilience because the individual is made responsible for the outcome instead of governing institutions addressing the issues of inequity (Hart, et al., 2016). Likewise, from a Scottish perspective, Davidson & Carlin (2019) state that the current context of resilience is masking inequality and “potentially penalising individuals who are most in need by making them responsible not only for their own well-being, but that of the nation.” In defining risk factors of resilience in children and young people, social and economic factors are a vital part of understanding the adversities faced by children and young people (Davidson & Carlin, 2019). In a review of the connections between the attainment gap, the mental health and well-being of children and resiliency, Mowat (2019) suggests that by placing responsibility on schools for closing the attainment gap, attention is drawn away from the inequalities that create poverty (and adversity) for children and their families. Mowat (2019) also calls for economic and public policy to assess inequalities in society and states that, “schools alone cannot solve the problem.” This quote is echoed by Doll, et al. (2011) who observe that promoting resilience should not be confined to school resiliency interventions alone. Risk factors such as poverty and community violence are predictors of poor performance but cannot be easily changed by the school. This makes it almost impossible for teachers to alter the child’s path to success.
In summary, this review has analysed some of the most recent literature as well as the historical literature that provides the foundations of the concept of resiliency in children and young people. The review has highlighted the differences and similarities in the literature over definitions of the concepts of resilience and the difficulties of how it can be measured. Also evident is the significant and intertwined link between child resilience, mental health and well-being. Based on resilience research, this review has discussed the important role school and teachers can play in young people’s lives. It describes the variety of ways in which a school can foster resilience and promote well-being and good mental health in children and young people. The potential benefits of building resilience in children and young people are wide ranging. For example, on an individual level it could result in better academic achievement. On a societal level it could result in a reduction of mental health issues. However, the review has also found that schools could be limited to some extent in their ability to support some children and their families due to wider social and economic inequality factors that can create serious adversities for them. These types of adversities are outside the scope of a school or its agencies and from a social justice perspective, the aspiration of all children flourishing lies firmly within government policies. To this end, there are calls for future resilience theories and models to be less individualised, with more focus on the detrimental environmental factors surrounding the individual, particularly those involving social and economic inequalities.