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Resilience, Research, and Educational Reform

Susan Notes: Now here's research we should pay attention to, research ignored by Bill Gates and his separated-at-birth twin Arne Duncan. Educators who possess an understanding of resilience and the belief that student resilience is a process that can be tapped within each student can create educational environments that make a positive contribution to increasing student success.

I'd just add that educators who are not themselves resilient will never succeed. You can only teach who you are.

by Sara Truebridge

Resilience is one's ability to spring back from adversity. Those who engage in resilience research view the world and individuals through positive, protective, and preventive models as opposed to traditional problem-based, deficit, pathology models. The vast body of resilience research has provided the foundation for many popular movements, such as asset development, positive youth development, strengths-based practice, and positive psychology.

Resilience research in education focuses on healthy development and successful learning, especially with young people facing difficult life challenges in their homes, schools, and communities. Resilience research emerged over 40 years ago as researchers began asking the question, Why do some children who are threatened by exposure to high-risk environments successfully adapt while others do not? The study of resilience has expanded from an early focus on the individual to a broader, more inclusive focus that situates risk not in children, but rather in a variety of socio-economic systems, institutions, and harmful public and social policies.

Michael Rutter (1979), Bonnie Benard (2003), and other researchers as documented by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (2004) have already shown that motivation, learning, and the achievement gap are just some areas of education where resilience research has vital implications for practice and policy. Their data indicate that when classroom environments and schools consistently foster caring relationships, maintain high expectations for all students, and provide meaningful opportunities for students to participate and contribute, students from these nurturing environments are more successful in school.

One of the reoccurring messages in resilience research posits the relationship that beliefs have with resilience: resilience begins with what one believes. Educators who possess an understanding of resilience and the belief that student resilience is a process that can be tapped within each student can create educational environments that make a positive contribution to increasing student success. Researchers including Frank Pajares (1992) support the importance of studying beliefs in the context of education because beliefs influence the behaviors of education practitioners, which in turn influence the behaviors and success of their students. Thus, affecting educators’ belief systems about student resilience through well designed and supported education preservice or professional development programs are two concrete ways to transfer resilience research into education practice that would promote positive school experiences and education success for all.

Resilience research supports the argument that discussions about education reform and transformation cannot be limited to discussions about best practices as reflected in curriculum and programs. Such best practices are only as good as the practitioners who are able to implement them with their pedagogical best practices, thus creating educational climates conducive to student learning. As Joan Walsh (1997) states, "When there's improvement, it usually isn't that the services per se were different, it's about a change in the person who delivered the service, and the way they delivered it."

If education reform is truly to be grounded in sound research, it is rather interesting to see so many reforms that focus only on band-aid solutions that research has shown can actually be counterproductive to improving education outcomes. Some of these solutions when implementedâ€"including ones that involve extending the school day, increasing homework, purchasing new curriculums and programs, implementing more standardized testing, or creating competitions for resourcesâ€"prove to be short-sighted. These solutions often sacrifice quality for quantity.

Research consistently finds that education practitioners do not necessarily need to be inundated with new curriculums and programs, and students do not necessarily need more homework and longer school days. Education and resilience researchers consistently find that education practitioners need to be supported if any increase in teaching and learning is to occur and be sustained. One vital, valuable, and cost-effective way to support educators is to provide them with an understanding of the concept of resilience and support them in developing, nurturing, and sustaining practices that allow them to transfer resilience research into their classrooms and schools.

Resilience research in education specifically recognizes three protective factors that, when present in an educational environment, mitigate risk and enhance positive educational climates that promote student engagement, motivation, and self-efficacy, which in turn increase student success. These three protective factors are: (1) fostering caring relationships, (2) conveying high expectations, and (3) promoting opportunities for meaningful participation. So what do these three protective factors look like in a classroom or school?

Strategies that promote caring relationships are as simple to implement as being aware of making personal contact with students every dayâ€"something as basic as a "hello" or a smile. Another classroom strategy that promotes caring relationships is getting to know individual students' interests outside of school. Strategies teachers embrace that foster high expectations include encouraging students to develop a "stay with it" attitude and perspective when confronting challenges. Another strategy that conveys high expectations is helping students reframe language from a negative to a positiveâ€"instead of a student hearing that he is hyperactive, that particular student could be hearing that he is energetic; instead of being labeled as being argumentative, that student could begin to identify herself as having conviction, etc. Strategies that encourage meaningful participation and contribution include giving students more voice and choice in classroom and school issues. Another strategy that fosters meaningful participation and contribution for students is when classrooms and schools engage in peer-helping, cross-age helping, and cooperative learning.

It is unfortunate that, all too often, education policies and reforms are adopted without sound research and adequate attention paid to the voices in the trenchesâ€"our teachers and students. The potent and profound words of Haim Ginott (1972) clearly articulate what many education practitioners already know and what many students agree to be true:

I've come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

We are in the midst of an education crisis in the United States. In addressing this crisis, we need to question some of the current policies and practices that have been adopted in the name of education reform. We can start by questioning whether education reform focusing solely on spending more money to alter services, programs, and curriculum may be misdirected.

When we use the semantics and refer to making changes in education as "education reform," we often are compelled to look at the parts of education that are believed to be in need of improvement. Perhaps it is time that we reframe the needs in education by altering semantics and saying that the education system is in need of "transformation." With this perspective, teachers, administrators, policymakers, parents, and students may more readily embrace a theory of change in education, where the change agent resides not with the programs incorporated in the system, but rather within the individuals creating and implementing the system.

Resilience research supports that all children have the capacity for resilience. Individuals with an interest in increasing the education success of all students can benefit by developing a deeper understanding of student resilience and an enhanced awareness regarding the role that one's beliefs have in shaping such a concept. As Patrice De La Ossa (2005) says, "Although schools can make structural changes, until schools address underlying beliefs and perceptions, the educational system is failing our youth and society." Providing education practitioners with opportunities to reflect on their beliefs, especially how they pertain to student resilience, is a positive first step in the goal of improving student success for all.


Benard, B. (2003). Turnaround teachers and schools. In B. Williams (Ed.), Closing the achievement gap (2nd ed.) (pp. 115â€"137). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

De La Ossa, P. (2005). “Hear my voice:” Alternative high school students’ perceptions and implications for school change. American Secondary Education, 34, 24â€"39.

Ginott, H. G. (1972). Teacher and child. New York: MacMillan.

National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (with Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn & Board on Children, Youth, and Families Division of Behavioral a Social Sciences and Education). (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students’ motivation to learn. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Pajares, F. (1992). Teachers’ beliefs and educational research: Cleaning up a messy construct. Review of Educational Research, 62, 307â€"332.

Rutter, M. (1979). Protective factors in children’s responses to stress and disadvantaged. In M. W. Kent & J. E. Rolf (Eds.), Primary prevention of psychopathology: Social competence in children (pp. 49â€"74). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Walsh, J. (1997). The eye of the storm: Ten years on the front lines of new futuresâ€"an interview with Otis Johnson and Don Crary. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

education consultant Sara Truebridge, EdD. Contact Truebridge at resilienceST@gmail.com.

— Sara Truebridge, EdD
ASCD Whole Child Blog


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