A Perspective On Resilience1
By Bonnie Bernard
Creating Resilient Systems = Engaging the Developmental Wisdom of Adolescence
In an age of standards-driven educational reform and get tough on youth social policies, we must ask, where is human development? We see, once again, human development (referred to as youth development during the adolescence years), pushed aside as a “nice” but nonessential concern for education and prevention. Ironically, this is happening at a time when the best of social and behavioral science research is consistently documenting that the most effective, efficient, and joyful approach to meeting standards and preventing health-risk behaviors in young people is by creating environments in our schools that meet adolescents’ developmental needs and thereby engage their intrinsic motivation.
Brain science, multiple intelligence research, motivational psychology, effective schools research, child and youth development, and long-term studies of individual resilience in the face of risk and challenge are finding that healthy development and successful learning are the product of critical developmental supports and opportunities. However, it is to resilience research–the long-term studies of positive human development in the face of environmental threat, challenge, stress, risk, and adversity—that educators and preventionists can turn to find the most powerful research-based answer to what these supports and opportunities should look like for all young people in all schools.2 They consist of three simple and common-sensical principles of effectiveness:
- caring relationships
- positive expectation messages and beliefs, and
- opportunities for participation and contribution.3
Whenever and wherever you find a school achieving positive academic outcomes for all children—not just the few—you will find this commonsense philosophy driving the mission of the school.
Resiliency requires changing hearts and minds.
Caring relationships are the supportive connections to others that model and support healthy development and well-being. Ultimately, they weave the fabric of a safe and resilient school. Caring relationships have been identified by these longitudinal studies of human resilience, program evaluation research, the recent National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,4 qualitative studies, and personal stories as the most critical factor protecting healthy and successful child and youth development even in the face of multiple risks.
Caring relationships are those of mutual trust in which someone is “there“ for a youth. This is demonstrated by having adults in the school who take an active interest in who the young person is, being respectful, having compassion for a youth’s life circumstances, and paying attention and actively listening to and talking with the youth. During adolescence the peer group emerges as a critical provider of this essential support.
High expectation messages
High expectation messages refer to the consistent communication of direct and indirect messages that the young person can and will succeed. These messages are at the core of caring relationships and reflect the adult’s (and friend’s) belief in the youth’s innate resilience and ability to learn. The message, “You can make it; you have everything it takes to achieve your dreams; I’ll be there to support you” is a theme in resilience research and a pivotal protective factor in the family, school, and/or community environments of youth who have overcome the odds.
In addition to this challenge plus support message, a high expectation approach conveys firm guidance—clear boundaries and the structure necessary for creating a sense of safety and predictability—not to enforce compliance and control but to allow for the freedom and exploration necessary to develop autonomy, identity, and self-control. A high expectation approach is also individually- based and strengths-focused. This means identifying each youth’s unique strengths, gifts, and callings and nurturing them as well as using them to work on needs or concerns.
Having high expectations assumes that “one size never fits all.”
Opportunities for participation and contribution
Resilience research has documented the positive developmental outcomes, including reductions in health –risk behaviors and increases in academic success factors, that result when youth are given the chance to belong to a group; to have responsibilities; to be involved in relevant, engaging, and respected activities; to have a voice and choice; to make decisions, to plan; and to have ownership and leadership. Most importantly, resilience research and outcome evaluations of service learning and cooperative learning find positive academic and social outcomes when youth are given the opportunity to give back their gift—to be of service to other people, to nature, to their community and world. Providing young people with opportunities for meaningful participation is a natural outcome of schools and classrooms that convey high expectations.
It is no coincidence that resilience and other social and behavioral research continually identify these three characteristics as supporting healthy and successful outcomes. It is precisely through caring relationships, high expectation messages, and opportunities for participation and contribution that we engage our students’ intrinsic motivation—their drive to meet their developmental needs for safety, love, belonging, respect, mastery, challenge, power and identity, and, ultimately, for meaning.
The people and places most often identified in the resilience research as providing these 3 “protective” factors—thus meeting students’ developmental needs–were teachers and schools. In the words of Emmy Werner,
“One of the wonderful things we see now in adulthood is that these children really remember one or two teachers who made the difference. They mourn some of those teachers more than they do their own family members because what went out of their lives was a person who looked beyond outward experience, their behavior, and their often times unkempt appearance, and saw the promise” 5
Resilience research has also found that schools that not only have these turnaround teachers but that have fair and equitably enforced rules, lots of and varied opportunities to succeed, and that give students a decision-making voice and opportunities to work with and be helpful to others become safe havens for students to develop cognitively, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. In the words of one student, “School was my church, it was my religion. It was constant, the only thing that I could count on every day….I would not be here if it was not for school.” . In other words, they become places where students’ developmental needs are honored and placed centrally in the mission of the school. Let’s look at what these mean for schools.
Safety refers to both physical and emotional safety. For healthy development and successful learning to occur our children must feel safe in their classrooms and schools. Brain research tells us that when children do NOT feel safe, their brain stays in a vicious fight-flight circuit. In order to engage higher order thinking skills and creativity, a child must feel safe.
The gut response measures often taken by politicians and some school administrations to school safety often become barriers to achieving real school safety. The hiring of more police officers and security guards; installing sophisticated weapon detection and student surveillance devices; toughening punishments for children who misbehave; and attempting to identify students at risk for becoming mass murderers often only further marginalize youth that are “different”—making them feel even more unsafe. And do remember that Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Kliebold did not feel safe in their schools? Real safety only comes through building an inclusive school community in which diversity is honored and all students are welcomed into the circle. A first step in creating a safe classroom and school is inviting students to create their own agreements/ground rules…such as occurs in schools using the process of Tribes.
Love and belonging refers to basic affiliation and attachment needs—the need to be connected to people and places that ultimately gives all of our lives meaning and hope. Meeting academic standards requires starting with relationships. No quote has ever stated this more eloquently than the following words of Nel Noddings: “At a time when the traditional structures of caring have deteriorated, schools must places where teachers and students live together, talk with each other, take delight in each other’s company. My guess is that when schools focus on what really matters in life, the cognitive ends we now pursue so painfully and artificially will be achieved somewhat more naturally…It is obvious that children will work harder and do things-even odd things like adding fractions—for people they love and trust.”6
What does this mean for your school? It means we must put relationships at the heart of what we do in our classrooms and schools. There are hundreds of ways to do this: making one-to-one connections with a student—even for a few seconds is a powerful acknowledgement; shaking hands, actively listening, being available, showing an interest, noticing something they’re doing right, and so on. In some schools, every student is assigned to an adult who checks in with him or her at least once a week.
Besides student-teacher connections, we have to create inclusive classroom communities where all students feel invited in. Cooperative learning groups and peer-helping in which ALL students can be helpers—even challenged students can help younger youth—are critical strategies for building belonging. This means paying special attention to who’s not currently included and including them. Healthy development requires that students stay connected; relationships must be maintained and responsibilities honored.
Class size reduction can be an effective support for teacher-student relationship-building. It gives classroom teachers more and more opportunities to get to know and connect with their students. At the school level, it means breaking up large schools into smaller schools such as schools-within-schools, academies, and career magnets. In classrooms, it means that each student is a member in an on-going tribe. Relationships cannot happen in large anonymous groups.
It is human nature to create our own small groupings because we are all seeking safety and belonging. As educators we need to create small heterogeneous groupings in which everyone has a place and diversity is honored as it is in Tribes Learning Communities. After school activities also provide a great opportunity to create small groupings with the adult serving as facilitator/mentor. These can range from support groups of all kinds to interest-based groups to community-service groups.
If we want good outcomes in the traditional 3 R’s: Reading, Riting, Rithmetic, we need an additional 3 R’s: Relationship, Respect, and Responsibility.
The need or drive to be respected—to be acknowledged and honored for who we are is a powerful motivator. Lack of respect—along with lack of caring and boredom—are usually the top three reasons school dropouts give for leaving school. May I suggest that we if we want good outcomes in the traditional 3 R’s: Reading, Riting, Rithmetic, we need an additional 3 R’s: Relationship, Respect, and Responsibility. Debra Meier’s turnaround school, Central Park East in Harlem, put both relationships and respect at the heart of her school’s mission. She wrote,
“Maybe mutual respect is what we’re all looking for—which means feeling sure the other person acknowledges us, sees us for who we are—as their equal I value and importance. When there’s enough respect, perhaps we’re able to give up tight control over our youngsters, and give them more space to make their own decisions, including their own mistakes”7
Once again, there are hundreds of ways school staff can show respect to students. Primarily, however, if we want students to be respectful to us, we must model it first. Attentive listening and speaking nonjudgmentally, shaking hands, using a Namaste greeting which mean, “I greet the soul within you.” Once again, a small group process like Tribes is a powerful structure for promoting a respectful climate in which teasing, harassment, bullying, and other forms of violence are not tolerated.
Mastery and challenge
The drive for accomplishment—to be good at something—is inborn in all of us. Where we have our problems in schooling is that we have very narrowly defined what that “something” can be. We have assigned greater value to mathematical and linguistic intelligences and in terms of the physical—to sports participation than dance–than the rest of these intelligences. This is what our culture values and yes, students need to learn. However, what Howard Gardner and his disciples of multiple intelligences tell us is that we need to use the strengths–the intelligences students are especially good in—to address the areas of challenge. To have someone with the power of a teacher acknowledge your gifts is an incredible motivator that facilitates learning in the challenging areas. I would like to point out that the strengths especially found in resilience literature include competencies in all these areas—especially the inter- and intra-personal areas and creativity and outlets for the imagination.
So what does this mean for schools?
It means we have to create opportunities for success in each of these intelligences. We need to do activities in school in which we learn the interests, strengths, gifts, and dreams of each of our students. We need after school clubs where students can explore their interests in small groups. What about sports teams open to any student that wanted to play?. We need to value each of the gifts our young people bring. Our artists need to have their work displayed and honored as much as the athletes have their trophies displayed. I might mention that in Columbine High School the sports trophies were showcased in the front hall—the artwork down a back corridor. Sports pages in the yearbook were in color, a national debating team and other clubs in black and white. The homecoming king was a football player on probation for burglary.
Challenge is a related drive to mastery but refers more to the idea of taking risks. Adolescents especially need to have opportunities to take healthy risks. Do you know risk-taking is often on lists of risk factors? It is also one of the characteristics of successful people? We now have a wonderful study of adventure learning that illustrates how this approach (also referred to as Outward Bound and outdoor experience programs) not only helps adolescents achieve all of the developmental tasks—autonomy and independence, social competency, a sense of purpose, and problem-solving. It produces positive academic outcomes as well—even though it is a nonacademic program. 8 Why this is so powerful? Among many attributes, adventure programs create a restorative environment—especially through group process and support—in which most of adolescents developmental needs are met.
Providing ropes courses and challenge courses through after school programming is one obvious approach. However, this research also makes the case for experiential learning—hands on, working in groups under adults’ supervision and facilitation, and time for reflection. Sound familiar? These are also the characteristics of the process of Tribes.
Power and autonomy are the needs not only to find one’s identity but to discover oneself as an autonomous person. We’re talking here about self-efficacy—knowing you can take action and influence your environment. Youth who feel a sense of their own worth and power don’t need guns to feel powerful; they don’t need to hurt others or themselves to prove they exist and matter.
How do we meet student’s need to have some power and control? We give them opportunities to participate and contribute in an ongoing way in our classrooms and schools. Once again, while approaches like cooperative learning, peer helping, and service learning meet this drive, the bottom line is having personal control—chances to make decisions about their own schooling. This means we, as teachers and administrators, don’t impose our ideas of what students need—we ask them. This is the simple strategy of asking students their opinions, their needs, their ideas—and acting on them—not tokenizing them. Having your students create the governing rules of the classroom is a key strategy. When a problem develops, we can bring the students in on it, inviting their ideas of how we—as a classroom community—can solve it. In order to develop healthy psychological autonomy, adolescents need safety and the room to grow within the structure of a caring community.
Last—and certainly not least but probably the most important!—is the search for meaning that lies at the heart of every human life. Humans, including the adolescent variety, have the need to find meaning in what they do. Our genetic code makes us meaning-makers, constructors of our own knowledge. We must find purpose and relevance in what we do or we experience a disconnect—a sense of alienation from our true sense of calling. The loss of meaning is probably one of the major underlying reasons that 40% of our teens have unmet mental health needs—especially depression and stress. Government figures from 1998 show reductions in almost all teen health-risk behaviors: violence and alcohol, tobacco use, and drug abuse. However, depression, suicidality, and suicide are statistics that are not going down.
Schools need to be safe places for the exploration of the critical existential questions that drive not only the adolescent search for meaning but all of our quests for a meaningful life.9
- Who am I? What is my true nature? This is the search for identity.
- What do I love? What are my interests, and dreams? This is the search for meaning.
- How shall I live? What values do I wish to live by? This is the search for morality.
- What is my gift to the family of the earth? What are my strengths and gifts? How can I make a difference? This is the search for purpose.
These questions of purpose are not particularly comfortable for schools. In fact, purpose is primarily taught in the curriculum through goal- setting and decision- making, and career exploration—most often with strictly rational techniques. We need to include the spiritual dimension—the above questions—if we are to help students make the deepest connection of all—to see themselves as interconnected to others, to nature, and to life itself.
How do schools do this? Some schools use the Council process, a circle or group process that creates a climate of safety, respect, and honor to reflect and share in community these deep yearnings.10 Others use Tribes Community Circles which accomplish the caring community culture of connectedness in a similar way.
Educators can also provide experiences that honor the questions and allow students to give their gifts to the world through creative expression—theater, dance, photography, video production, art, music, storytelling, and creative writing. Research on the arts is documenting the power of creative expression to achieve the developmental tasks of adolescence—as well as positive academic outcomes. 11 Similarly, research on community service learning, in which students can connect what they learn in schools to the real world and see themselves as active contributors, also achieves the developmental tasks and promotes academic success. 12
The common denominator running through the above strategies and approaches that meet adolescent developmental needs and thus help them achieve their developmental tasks is that of small group process. Group process is the vehicle for creating a caring community—for students and for educators. In fact, Thomas Sergiovanni writes, “The need for community is universal. A sense of belonging, of continuity, of being connected to others and to ideas and values that make ourselves meaningful and significant—these needs are shared by all of us” 13
Schools will be transformed only when this community-building process is implemented for teachers as well as for students. The critical challenge for the 21st century does not lie in mastering this piece of information or that technology. It lies in creating connectedness–in building schools across the nation that tap the innate developmental wisdom that is our shared humanity, connecting us to each other and to our shared web of life.
See Me Beautiful
(A Song by Red Grammer14)
See me beautiful…
Look for the best in me
It’s what I really am
And all I want to be,
It may take some time
It may be hard to find…
See me beautiful.
See me beautiful…
Each and every day,
Could you take a chance
Could you find a way
To see me shining through
In everything I do-
And see me…beautiful.
Bonnie Benard, MSW, is a Senior Program Associate at the WestEd Regional Educational Laboratory, School and Community Health Research Group. Since 1982 she has provided research support and conceptual frameworks for understanding and addressing prevention and youth development issues. In addition to her writing and consultation, she provides workshops and presentations internationally on the topic of resiliency and youth development. Bonnie’s insights have long served as guiding principles for the caring culture of Tribes.
- A key objective of Tribes is to bring knowledge of resiliency studies to educators and parents. The articulate papers of our friend, Bonnie Benard, are to be credited with summarizing more than forty years of research studies. Her initial work was supported by the Western Regional Center for Drug Free Schools and Communities, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland, OR. It is a great honor to have Bonnie Benard write this article for this book.
- Benard, Bonnie. (1991). Fostering Resiliency in Kids: Protective Factors In the Family, School, and Community. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
- Benard. (1991).
- Resnick, M., Bearman, P., Blum, R., Bauman, K., Harris, K., Jones, J., Tabor, J., Beuring, T., Sieving, R., Shew, M., Ireland, M., Bearinger, L., and Udry, J. Protecting Adolescents from Harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1997, pp. 278, 823-832.
- Werner, E. and Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the Odds: High-Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Noddings, N. Schools Face Crisis in Caring, Education Week, December 1988, p. 32.
- Meier. D. (1995). The Power of Their Idea: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Hattie, J., Marsh, H., Neill, J., and Richards, G. Adventure Education and Outward Bound: Out-of-Class Experiences That Make a Lasting Difference. Review of Educational Research, 1997, pp. 67, 43-87.
- Muller, W. (1996). How, Then, Shall We Live? Four Simple Questions That Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
- Kessler, R. (2000). The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
- Catterall, J. Involvement in the Arts and Success in Secondary School, Americans for the Arts Monographs, 1997, v.1, no. 9.
- Melchior, A. National Evaluation of Learn and Serve America: Interim and Final Evaluation, National Corporation for Community Service, 1996-1998.
- Sergiovanni, T. (1994). Building Community In Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Permission to use has been granted by Red Grammer of Red Note Records. “See Me Beautiful” is from his Teaching Peace CD, available here from CenterSource Systems.