Nan Henderson, president of Resiliency In Action and author of The Resiliency Workbook, shares insights from her article “Havens of Resilience” in the September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership about the crucial role educators play in providing the conditions that help students bounce back.
Educators have far more power to change the life trajectory of their students than they realize. That’s the conclusion of the growing body of resilience research focused on how distressed kids bounce back from adversity.
This information was not available when I was a new school social worker in the 1980s. I assumed that I was powerless in the face of the poverty, dysfunctional families, and crime-filled neighborhoods many of my students lived with daily. “What good is an hour with me—or even several hours at school—when these kids have to go back to such traumatic environments?” I often asked myself.
Resilience research, which began to emerge in the early 1990s, directly challenges this attitude. These studies, from psychology, psychiatry, and sociology, examine exactly how traumatized children from “at risk” environments do bounce back. The key is not the complete elimination of the risk factors in students’ lives. The most powerful force for a resilient outcome is protective factors–individual and environmental conditions that both mitigate the impact of negative conditions as well promote positive life outcomes.
What are some of these factors? Expressing caring and support is a crucial protective and promotive factor, as is expressing the belief that a student can succeed. Maintaining consistent boundaries, strengthening prosocial connections, and providing opportunities for a student to contribute meaningfully to the larger school community are also powerful. Providing needed life skills development also promotes a student’s academic and social success.
Schools are filled with these resilience-builders. And educators, usually without even realizing it, are daily agents of providing them.