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Appendix 2: Resilience

The Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa, as described by the Hon. Laila Harre, former Minister of Youth Affairs, "sets out how government, working with families and communities, can support young people to develop the skills and attitudes they need to take part positively in society, now and in the future". She says, "we each have a very real interest in ensuring that all young New Zealanders are supported to grow into resourceful and resilient adults" (Ministry of Youth Affairs, 2002, pages 4–5).

Making Connections, a book in The Curriculum in Action series for teachers of year 9–10 students, suggests ways to incorporate the concept of resilience into lesson planning in Health and Physical Education in the New Zealand Curriculum (1999). In Making Meaning: Making a Difference, students themselves are invited and encouraged to take an active role in building their own resilience and that of others in their school community using an action competence process that shares many common features with the process of health promotion.

Emergence of the concept of resilience

Ideas about resilience have emerged from research about young people perceived to be vulnerable and at risk because of the adverse environments in which they live or the significant stressful life events they have experienced. Many of these "risk factors" do not exist in isolation, and it is usually exposure to multiple risk factors that undermines people's resilience.

Unfortunately, the stories told about young people often tend to focus on their problems and pay little attention to their strengths, which results in many adolescents wearing the "at-risk" label.

Key risk factors that undermine young people's resilience include loss and grief, lack of academic success, lack of social skills, relationship difficulties (including difficulties with sexual relationships), homophobic attitudes towards same-sex attraction, the impact of transitions (for example, changing schools or changing family structures), drug and alcohol misuse, a history of abuse or victimisation or of witnessing violence, appearing older or younger than most of their peer group, repeating a year level, a low sense of self-worth, the perception that they are discriminated against (for example, by other students with racist attitudes), fear and uncertainty about the future, and issues about body image.

The observation that many young people in "at-risk" situations still achieve good outcomes (that is, they cope, they adapt, they manage, and they overcome the odds and live successful lives) has led many international studies to identify the factors that have "protected" young people and enabled them to bounce back despite the adversity they have faced (that is, the factors that made them resilient). This work has provided a useful framework for bringing about a shift in the way these young people are viewed, moving from focusing only on their deficits and problems to working with their strengths and addressing the challenges that their lives present.

Defining resilience

As a consequence of this evolving understanding about the concept, definitions of resilience have shifted in emphasis over the past two and a half decades. For the purpose of this resource, a resilient person could be thought of as someone who has the ability to bounce back after experiencing stressful life events or who is able to cope despite the adverse conditions they live in. They become resilient because they have a sense of being valued, they feel secure, and they have many connections with other people. The concept of resilience can be widened to apply to families and whole communities.

The recurrent themes emerging out of the first generation of resilience research, which identified the diversity of protective factors, are summarised by Werner and Johnson (1999, page 261) in the following extract.

Resilient young people have:

  1. dispositional attributes of the individual that elicit predominantly positive responses from the environment, such as physical robustness and vigor, an engaging "easy" temperament, good problem-solving and communication skills, and an area of competence valued by the person or society;
  2. socialization practices within the family that encourage trust, autonomy, initiative, and affectional ties to a stable, caring, competent adult, whether a parent, grandparent, older sibling, or other kin; and
  3. external support systems in the neighborhood, school, church, or the community that reinforce self-esteem and self-efficacy and provide the individual with a set of positive values.

There have been criticisms about the research methodology used to develop this understanding of resilience (for example, from Werner and Johnson, 1999; Benard, 1993; and Masten, 1999). These critics have suggested that the research:

  • focused only on isolated risk or protective factors and did not recognise the concurrence of these
  • moved too far towards working only with the protective factors without considering that reducing or eliminating risk factors might be important
  • focused too much on individuals in highly adverse circumstances and did not consider how the concept of resilience could be applied to whole populations of young people
  • was based on assumptions that placed too much responsibility on the individual to make themselves resilient (where it is often whole families or communities that need to work collectively and be supported to increase their resilience)
  • paid insufficient attention to gender differences in vulnerability and resilience, and to the interplay between risk and protective factors at critical developmental transitions (for example, from childhood to adolescence).

These challenges are gradually being addressed in the second generation of resilience research by a shift towards an approach that considers the complex interplay of risk and protective factors, fosters resilience for all young people regardless of their life circumstances, and actively recognises the importance of collaboration between the many layers of social organisation in which the young person lives. This is a socio-ecological approach.

It is important for teachers and young people working with resilience concepts in health education, physical education, and home economics to consider some of these issues in their teaching and learning programmes at the senior secondary levels of the curriculum.