• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 21st May, 2012

Resilience? Four million hits and it just bounces back

In a paper called Resiliency, Resilience, Resilient: A Paradigm Shift? Joseph C. Napoli, co-author of Resiliency in the Face of Disaster and Terrorism: 10 Things to Do to Survive, reports that the number of hits for a “resiliency” Google search has almost doubled to over four million in the space of a year. He also does a PubMed literature search and finds that in the decade 1997-2006 there has been a similarly huge increase in the number of articles with “resiliency” (up 384%) or “resilience” (up 527%) in their titles compared to the previous decade. No doubting the fact, then, that the concept is proving useful and popular across a number of disciplines. Prevention science is no exception: resilience is gradually permeating the literature on interventions for young people. As distinct from physics or medicine where it indicates elasticity – an innate ability to bounce back – in prevention science the concept is constructed on ideas about the protective factors inherent in the psychological make-up of certain children or the fabric of their immediate surroundings which come into play only in the context of a risk.Resiliency here relates to those relatively stable attributes (likewise interior or exterior) that act as a constant buffer between children and the risk of harm. So Wellington boots, which only come into their own in heavy rain, might represent protective factors, but a solid pair of trainers, good for most terrains, suggests resiliency. The literature on resilience tends to focus on overcoming severe adversity. "Severe" is often thought of as acute (short-term but intense, such as the death of a close relative) or chronic (such as the grinding neglect experienced by children in East European orphanages). If children are resilient to such adversity they may continue to develop in spite of it, or even emerge from the storm stronger than before.Consequently the focus of much resiliency research is that relatively small population of children who experience severe adversity.But educational researchers Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh take a broader view. Why focus only on severe adversity, why not on the setbacks, challenges and pressures that are part of everyday life? Their moderate approach is interested in the experience and well-being of all children and so might be said to be better in tune with public health approaches to need.In an article published in the Journal of School Psychology, where they set out this lower-key view of resiliency in relation to school experiences, they use the term “academic buoyancy” to describe the capacity that enables children to let everyday hassles go harmlessly by and to bounce back from setbacks and challenges. As the adversity in question is relatively slight (such as a bad grade at school as opposed to a death in the family) so too are the corresponding consequences they investigate (such as a knock in confidence as opposed to lingering mental health difficulties).Drawing on broader educational research, Martin and Marsh tested a model that tries to identify factors that predict children's academic buoyancy. What is it about the children who roll with the punches at school, who cope with the stresses of homework and exams?They identify four factors that set buoyant children apart: self efficacy (confidence in one’s own abilities), engagement with school and learning, good relationships with teachers and, most importantly, (least surprisingly) low levels of anxiety about school work.If one were to think of translating this list into improved services for children, efforts might be made to change the environment or school context, for example by improving teaching practices or the physical structures of schools or changing school policies relating to examinations or transition. Alternatively, efforts could be made to improve the buoyancy of children by focusing on the predictive factors Martin and Marsh identify. Many argue that this cognitive route is the better way because it has the potential to prepare children for the bigger knocks they may face later. And, of course, there are already many examples of programs that promote self-esteem or reduce stress [see for example: Penn State on the PATHS to resilience, Stress debate is just about nicely balanced? and Time to put more brain power into Head Start?]. The difference here is the outcome (academic buoyancy as opposed to, say, improved mental health) and the pathways by which change may be elicited. Many questions need to be answered before academic buoyancy can be floated as a useful concept. Are constructs such as self-efficacy, school engagement and academic buoyancy much of a muchness and in danger of generating circular arguments and practices (“In order to improve children’s self-confidence we will… (ahem) improve their self-confidence”)? What role does cognitive functioning or emotional intelligence play? What is the the relationship between academic buoyancy and a child’s capacity to overcome severe adversity?All such reservations apart, what is fresh – and refreshing – about Martin and Marsh's argument is the focus on all children, not just a small minority. This is resiliency for the masses.**********ReferenceMartin, A J & Marsh, H W (2008). 'Academic Buoyancy': Towards an understanding of students' everyday academic resilience. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 53-83.

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