Resilience: What it is and how children and young people can be helped to develop it
Kirstie Maclean, Director SIRCC
he term resilience has become fairly commonplace in residential childcare in the last few years but staff are not necessarily clear how to help children and young people become more resilient. This briefing paper aims to assist the development of a positive and hopeful resilience perspective and to provide some pointers as to how it might be put into practice. Obviously a short briefing paper cannot provide comprehensive information and advice and readers are urged to follow up their interest through accessing books and articles in the bibliography, attending a training course, or seeking consultancy and advice. SIRCC can provide all these services.
There are, however, many other qualities associated with resilience which develop through children’s life experiences — the main ones can be summarised as follows:
Table 1: Promoting resilience – action model (adapted from Grotberg 1997)
This is a model that could be used with children and young people to help them consider their own resilience and the areas they might work on with you.
Resilient children are often those in receipt of social support. The term support is very widely used in social work but it is not always clear what practitioners mean by it and how well it is provided. Richman, Rosenfeld and Hardy (1993) helpfully suggest that social support takes eight distinguishable forms: listening support (just listening, not advising or judging); emotional support; emotional challenge (helping the child evaluate his or her attitudes, values and feelings); reality confirmation support (sharing the child’s perspective of the world); task appreciation support; task challenge support (challenging, stretching, motivating); tangible assistance support (money or gifts); and personal assistance support (e.g. driving the child somewhere). Research undertaken by Richman, Rosenfeld and Bowen (1998) with disadvantaged school children found that those who regularly received the different types of social support were doing better in school on a variety of measures than those who did not receive them. The only type of support that did not appear to make a difference was tangible assistance.
Many authors stress the importance of education and attainment for building resilience. Borland et al (1998) in a research summary concerning the educational experiences of looked after children stated:
‘Schooling may be vital in enabling children to make the best of adverse circumstances like being in care, both through offering opportunities for academic success to compensate for the "failure" in family life and in affording access to alternative supporting relationships — with teachers and with peers ….. schools also offer opportunities for children to learn coping styles and gain a sense of self worth’.
The different outcomes in adult life between those looked after children who do well in school and those who do not is startling. Jackson and Martin (1998) in their comparisons of adults who had been in care who had achieved well educationally and a comparable group, in terms of their experiences of adversity, who had not done well educationally found the following outcomes:
Table 2: Educational achievement and adult outcomes (adapted from Jackson and Martin 1998)
It seems clear that educational success is a major tool in promoting resilience. However, recent research in Scotland (Dixon and Stein 2002) showed that only 40% of care leavers gained any Standard Grades at all. There is also, fortunately, evidence that success in non-academic subjects at school, such as sport or music, or social success, such as being popular, provided it is not popularity with a delinquent group, can also lead to resilience. In 2003 the Scottish Executive intends to publish quality indicators for assessing the educational richness of residential units and foster homes. It is important that residential staff use these indicators to try to improve the educational outcomes of the young people they look after.
There is a growing body of research that shows that participation in activities, hobbies and useful tasks promotes resilience. For instance Mahoney (2000) found that young people who participated in extra-curricular activities at school were less likely to drop out of school early and less likely to be arrested for crimes than their fellow students who did not participate in activities. Other studies have found that adolescent work experience, provided it is not for long hours in stressful, dead end jobs, can help adolescents to develop a sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence and to acquire the skills and abilities required for successful transition to adulthood. There is a huge range of activities, hobbies and useful tasks in which looked after young people can be involved — these can be school based, community based, faith based, employment based, or based in the residential unit itself. Sometimes staff can be concerned about the risk to the child, or to other people, of participation in some activities. It is important to do a risk assessment but bureaucracy or over-protectiveness should not be allowed to prevent looked after young people from getting involved in the kinds of activities that many children living in their own homes take for granted.
Gender has an effect on resilience. Pre-adolescence, girls are more resilient than boys but the situation reverses in adolescence. Different characteristics of the home environment are particularly protective for girls and boys. Girls benefit from an absence of over-protection, an emphasis on risk-taking and reliable emotional support. Boys benefit from greater structure and rules, adult supervision, the availability of a positive male role model and encouragement of emotional expression.
In order for children to receive social support, develop trust, develop attachments and build a positive identity they need to remain connected to key figures in their lives. This will often include parents, step parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, close friends, neighbours, past carers, past teachers and past youth leaders. Sinclair and Gibbs (1998) state, in relation to children in residential care: ‘A system which provides them with a variety of adults to whom to turn is less likely to fail them than a system in which they are dependent on one’. For children who cannot have contact with close family members, the concept of family may need to be broadened, e.g. to include a befriender. Even where face-to-face contact is not appropriate, it is essential that children are helped to have a good knowledge and understanding of their family circumstances. Baldry and Kemmis (1998) found that over 20% of looked after young people in their sample did not have contact numbers and addresses for family and friends with whom they wanted to stay in touch. One in three did not even have photos or items to remind them of their family.
Where siblings are unable to live together, sibling contact is very important. Our sibling relationships are usually our longest relationships in life and research shows that most of us view them positively. Staff should make every effort to maintain positive ties between siblings, particularly where they live apart, by, for instance, involving them in joint activities and celebrations, having overnight stays, and making joint videos and family books.
Friends are also important and ‘it is particularly vital not to view peers as largely negative influences. Children help each other a great deal and all adults should be aware of friends and age-mates as actual or potential resources for resolving difficulties’ (Hill 1999). Jackson and Martin (1998) found that one of the protective factors strongly associated with later educational success was having a friend outside care who did well at school. The parents of non-care pupils can often provide social support and academic encouragement. For a variety of reasons, abused children find it harder to make and maintain friendships than their non-abused peers. Experiments where they are paired at school with a more socially competent peer show that they can be helped to interact more positively. Close relationships with peers can increase self-esteem and reduce some of the negative effects of abuse on children’s development (Bolger, Patterson and Kupersmidt, 1998). Although much of the literature encourages the maintenance and development of friendships with children who are not looked after, there is evidence that young people develop supportive and sometimes long lasting friendships with their peers in care (see for instance Horrocks and Milner in Mullender (ed.) 1999 and Emond 2002), and that these friendships should generally be supported, not discouraged.
Bolger, K., Patterson, C. and Kupersmidt, J. (1998) Peer relationships and self-esteem among children who have been maltreated, Child Development, Vol 69, No 4, 1171-1197
Borland, M. Pearson, C. Hill, M. Tisdall, K. and Bloomfield, I. (1998) Education and care away from home, SCRE
Daniel, B. (in press), The value of resilience as a concept for practice in residential settings, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 2(1)
Daniel, B., Wassell, S. and Gilligan, R., (1999) Child development for child care and protection workers, Jessica Kingsley
Dixon, J. and Stein, M., (2002) Still a Bairn? Through Care and After Care Services in Scotland. Edinburgh, Scottish Executive,
Emond, R. (2002) Understanding the resident group, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, Vol 1(1), 30-40
Fahlberg, V. (1994) A child’s journey through placement, BAAF
Gilligan, R. (2000) Adversity, resilience and young people: the protective value of positive school and spare time experiences, Children and Society, Vol 14 (1), 37-47
Gilligan, R. (2001) Promoting resilience: a resource guide on working with children in the care system, BAAF
Grotberg, E. (1997) A guide to promoting resilience in children: strengthening the human spirit, Bernard Van Leer Foundation,
Hill, M. (1999) What’s the problem? Who can help? The perspectives of children and young people on their well-being and on helping professionals, Journal of Social Work Practice, 13:2, 135-145
Jackson, S. and Martin, P. (1998) Surviving the care system: education and resilience, Journal of Adolescence, 21, 569-583
Mahoney, J. (2000) School extracurricular activity participation as a moderator in the development of anti-social patterns, Child Development, Vol 71(2), 502-516
Mullender, A. (ed), (1994) We are family: sibling relationship in placement and beyond, BAAF
Richman, J., Rosenfeld, L. and Hardy, C. (1993) The social support survey: an initial validation study of a clinical measure and practice model of social support, Process Research on Social Work Practice, 3, 288-311
Richman, J., Rosenfeld, L., and Bowen, G. (1998) Social support for adolescents at risk of school failure, Social Work, Vol 43 (4)
Sinclair, I. and Gibbs, I. (1998) Children’s homes – a study in diversity, Wiley