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Wednesday, July 15, 2009


“Resilience is the ability to manage and learn from difficulties and to bounce back after diversity.” (Department of Education and Children’s Services, 2007 p1)

Each of us has a different definition of what is a “disastrous” event, an event that makes us lose control of our emotions.

For some it can take something as little as the inability to find one’s keys, for others it takes significant life events like the passing of a loved one. That is because we each have differing levels of resilience.

There is some debate over just what makes one person more resilient than another, but personality, life experiences, emotional intelligence and self-perception will all influence how well we bounce back.

How facing risk can build resilience

A list of school safety rules as seen in the BBC news

Wearing goggles to put up posters
Five-page briefing on the dangers of glue sticks
Ban on running in the playground
Wet grass stopping PE lessons
Ban on playing with conkers
One person at a time in staff kitchen
Ban on sweets because of choking risk
Buoyancy aids for capable year 11 swimmers on a school trip to France

It may be suggested that some of these are a little over-the-top. But we want to protect our children. Isn’t that a good thing?

Like for most things, we need to do it in moderation. There is research that suggests that children who face either low or high levels of risk through their lives, whether it be physical or emotional risk, are likely to be less resilient than those children who have faced a moderate level of risk (Fergus and Zimmerman, 2005; Gill, 2007). If a child has not had to face and deal with any risk before, they are more likely to be anxious and unsure of how to deal with problems or challenging situations in their lives. They may not be familiar with the feelings associated with a healthy adrenaline rush and may not be able to cope with or use that emotion to their advantage.

On the other side, children who face high levels of risk in their lives are likely to be worn down by unhealthy levels of fear and anxiety. Every person has a breaking point, and there is a point at which fear and anxiety can limit our ability to problem-solve or manage our emotions.

But it is more complicated than that…

We cannot simply push children to face “moderately risky” situations and hope they will develop resilience. As mentioned before, we don't always know what can be defined as a "moderately risky" situation for a person. And we also need to think about what will help children learn good coping strategies.

Research suggests that children are more likely to be resilient if they have good role models, adequate supervision and good social/emotional supports (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005). They also need to be educated on risks and problem-solving.

Let’s take the simple example of the glue sticks. We probably don’t need a five-page briefing on the topic. However, you will need to choose child-friendly glue sticks, supervise young children closely whilst using them and occasionally remind them that the glue is for the paper not for their mouths.

Coping skills

How we deal with every-day problems tells us a lot about resilience. What do our children or students do when they are faced with problems?
· Are they curious or do they show signs of anxiety or fear?
· Are they confident enough to make mistakes – and learn from them?
· Can they change their minds or ways of doing things when things don’t go the way they planned?
· Can they honestly express their feelings, or do they withdraw or hide behind humour or acting out?
· Can they defend themselves?
· Can they see the positives that come out of any situation?

Children with disabilities

For children with disabilities there is a number of factors that can influence their resilience.

For example, children with developmental delays or literacy difficulties might have frequently experienced failure in classroom settings if their needs have not been accommodated adequately. This is likely to influence their sense of self-efficacy. And this, in turn, can lead to refusal to attempt work they perceive as too difficult.

Children who have difficulty with higher order thinking skills such as reasoning, problem-solving, analysing will struggle to cope with every-day problems. For these children you may see frequent and sometimes violent outbursts. These could be due to anger, frustration, fear and other strong emotions they are not able to manage.

Children with language delays will find it difficult to use conventional problem-solving methods such as communication of feelings or negotiation.

Children with sensory sensitivities may be so overwhelmed by noise, sound, movement or touch that they are not able to control their response.

Education and emotional literacy

To build resilience, we need to think about specifically teaching our children or students the following:
- self-esteem and self-belief
- coping and problem-solving skills
- recognising and managing emotions
- self-defence mechanisms (preferably not of the violent kind)
- communication skills

In my posts this month I will try to share a few strategies, resources and programs that may be helpful.


Department of Education and Children’s Services (2007). Resilience. Issues in Society, 260, p 1-3.

Fergus, S, & Zimmerman, M.A. (2005). Adolescent Resilience: A Framework for Understanding Healthy Development in the Face of Risk. Annual Review of Public Health, 26, p399-419.

Gill, T. (2007). No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.


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