MusingsSchoolsSocial Emotional Learning

Understanding Resilience

According to the Harvard Business Review (2002) “…more than education, experience, or training, an individual’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds & who fails.”

And yet a report by the Mental Health Foundation suggests that, in comparison with earlier generations, children today are less able to cope with stress and adversity partly because they have been sheltered from facing challenging situations. Over-protection may well reduce morbidity, but it comes at a cost, particularly for children in first world countries where the lives and childhoods are being newly constrained by unprecedented levels of parental concern.

Campbell & Twenge (2009) identified the damage that has been done to this generation of children through the belief that raising self-esteem without the need to tie it to achievement. The result is an entitled generation, with no coping mechanism when the going gets tough. Hence, now more than ever, we need to help our youth develop resilience. Resilience is a key social skill that children need to learn in order to become fully functioning members of our society.

What is resilience?
Resilience originates from the Latin, meaning ‘to jump back’ and refers to a set of qualities that promote a process of positive adaptation, an ability to bounce back from life’s knocks. These are protective coping skills that allow us to function well in society and to handle adversities in the future. Resilience develops along with social competence, autonomy, critical consciousness, problem-solving skills and a sense of purpose. Recently, Ungar (2012) broadened the definition of resilience to include ecological and cultural factors. They define resilience as the development and application of science-based knowledge pertaining to positive development, positive adjustment and thriving across the life span. However, resilience is a nebulous concept and there are still debates as to whether to consider resilience as a process, a set of traits or an outcome. It can also have a different meaning between individuals, cultures and societies. Most researchers do seem to agree that resilience is a dynamic concept that alters with time and within different contexts. Resilience processes that operate in one time or space do not necessarily work in another time or space.

“It takes a village to raise a child” – an African proverb

Research shows that certain characteristics of family, school, and community environments may alter or even reverse expected negative outcomes and enable children to manifest resilience despite risk. Haraldsson et al (2008) conducted a study looking at well-being related to stress in adolescents. They found that relationships exist between well-being and stress, self-efficacy, social support from teachers and school conditions.

An innate capacity for resilience helps children develop social competence, problem-solving skills, a critical consciousness, autonomy, and a sense of purpose, all of which is achieved within a supportive community, very much like Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological theory of development. Ungar (2012) and Gilligan (2017) both place emphasis on relational aspect of developing resilience between the individual and their social framework. Adopting this more relational understanding of wellbeing, resilience can be understood as requiring individuals to have the capacity to find resources that bolster wellbeing, while also emphasising that families, communities and governments need to provide these resources in ways in which individuals value them. In this sense, resilience is the result of both successful navigation to resources and negotiation for resources to be provided in meaningful ways.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how –
Friedrich Nietzsche

Resilience therefore is a process of becoming, where children start to develop understand and appreciate their place in the world. When children believe and acknowledge that they are worthy and are able to prevail in times of adversity, they become resilient. Research shows that one major factor that contributes to resilience is the experience of harnessing positive emotions, even in the midst of an especially trying or stressful time.

Resilience theory maintains that it is not the nature of adversity that is most important, but rather how we deal with that adversity. When faced with misfortune, frustration or adversity, resilience helps us bounce back. Although resilience helps us recover, survive (and sometimes even thrive) in the face or wake of misfortune, there is a lot more to it than that.
Resilience appears to result from a combination of the I HAVE, I AM, and I CAN features. These features of resilience may appear obvious and easy to acquire but they are not (Grotberg, 1995). This is echoed in the research that found that those with a resilient mindset had two of the following categories:


Trusting relationships

Structure and rules at home

Role models

Encouragement to be autonomous

Access to health, education, welfare and security systems


Loveable and my temperament is appealing

Loving empathetic and altruistic

Proud of myself

Filled with faith hope and trust



Manage my feelings and impulses

Gauge the temperament of myself and others

Seek trusting relations

At different ages, children rely more or less heavily on their I HAVE, I AM, and I CAN resources. As children grow, they increasingly shift their reliance from outside supports (I HAVE) to their own skills (I CAN), while continually building and strengthening their personal attitudes and feelings (I AM).

Similarly, Benard (2004) found that there were four categories of personal strengths or manifestations of resilience. These categories were personal, environmental and developmental. They also appear to transcend culture, ethnicity, gender, geography and time. Benard noted that these resilience strengths are most fittingly seen as developmental possibilities that can be engaged in all individuals through the provision of external supports and opportunities.

It has been suggested that “protective factors” can be grouped into three major categories:

1. the presence of at least one caring person provides support for healthy development and learning, and a caring relationship with a teacher gives youth the motivation for wanting to succeed.

2. research has indicated that schools that establish high expectations for all youth and give them the support necessary to achieve those expectations have high rates of academic success and lower rates of problem behaviours than other schools.

3. practices that provide youth with opportunities for meaningful involvement and responsibility in the school foster all the traits of resilience.

Schiraldi (2017) provides examples and characteristics of resilient people including strengths, traits and coping mechanisms that are positively correlated with resilience:
• Sense of autonomy
• Self-regulation
• Good self-esteem
• Rational thinking
• Optimism
• Emotional intelligence
• Meaning and purpose
• Humour
• Altruism, love and compassion
• Integrity and moral strength
• Curiosity
• Work/Life balance
• Social competence
• Adaptability
• Spirituality
• Healthy lifestyle

However, we need to be mindful of a reductionist approach and assumption that all students have equal opportunities of developing resilience. Family background, environment, culture – all these elements operating at once make it easier for some to develop and demonstrate resilience than others.

Associated Concepts
Mental Toughness
Mental toughness is the ability to resist, manage and overcome doubts, worries, concerns and circumstances that prevent you from succeeding, or excelling at a task or towards an objective or a performance outcome that you set out to achieve. It is part hardiness (optimism and a predisposition towards challenge and risk), part confidence and it is what allows people to take whatever comes in their stride with a focus on what the learn and gain from the experience. Although the association with resilience is understandable, one needs to appreciate how they differ: resilience is what helps people recover from a setback, but mental toughness can help people avoid experiencing a setback in the first place. Mentally tough individuals are not only able to bounce back, but are also more likely to view hardship as a welcome challenge and greet it with a smile. Strycharczyk (2015) maintains that: “All mentally tough individuals are resilient, but not all resilient individuals are mentally tough”.

Grit is often (and in my opinion, mistakenly) used interchangeably with resilience. Made more popular by Angela Duckworth’s research and book entitled: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, grit is all about the sustained, consistent effort toward a goal even when we struggle, falter, or temporarily fail. Professor Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power organization suggests that grit is not merely a synonym for resilience:
“Grit…is defined as the tendency to sustain interest and effort towards long term goals. It is associated with self-control and deferring short term gratification” (n.d.). Simply put, while resilience refers to the ability to bounce back from short-term adversities, grit is the tendency to stick with something long-term despite the struggle, failures and challenges along the way.

Mental Endurance
Mental endurance is another construct that is similar to resilience. This refers to the mental or inner strength that we use in times of difficulty and adversity. An individual requires self-discipline, willpower and perseverance to develop and sustain mental endurance. While not specifically ‘bouncing back’ from adversity and trauma, both traits help an individual deal with difficulties in life.

Hardiness is a described as personality style that helps a person cope, withstand and actively engage in transformational coping when faced with stressful events. Transformational coping allows the person to reframe the stressful situation, perceiving it as an opportunity rather than a threat (Kobasa, 1979)

Resourcefulness refers to the ability to cope with difficult situations or unusual problems. Rosenbaum (1990) suggests that learned resourcefulness is a behavioural repertoire which comprises of a mostly cognitive skills set whereby an individual self-regulates internal events (e.g. emotions, cognitions and physiological responses) that interfere with the desired or appropriate behaviour. Learned resourcefulness includes the following four components: (a) the use of self-statements to control emotional responses, (b) the application of problem-solving strategies, (c) the ability to delay immediate gratification, and (d) perceived self-efficacy. Studies consistently report that people with significant resourcefulness are skillful in dealing with stressful events more constructively and effectively than less resourceful people.

The importance of Resilience
The current reality is world of increasing uncertainty. At a time when pandemics, globalisation, geo-political shifts and technological advances are dramatically changing our world, we need to find ways to adapt to these changes. Resilience enables up to develop protective mechanisms for situations that may be overwhelming; it can help us maintain balance in our lives during times of adversity and stress and protect us from developing mental health issues.

Being resilient does not make a person immune to difficulty or distress, in fact the road to resilience often involves considerable emotional distress. While adverse events are painful and difficult, they need not determine the outcome of your life. There are many aspects of life that you can control, change and grow from – this is the role of resilience. Resilience not only helps you cope through difficult times, it can also empower you to grow and thrive in life.

It is inevitable that we will experience setbacks, obstacles, failures, losses, sickness, and death. However, it makes a great difference how we respond to these adversities.

Studies have shown that:

• Resilience helps you transform failure into success
• Resilience helps you develop an internal locus of control
• Resilience helps you embrace change (which is inevitable in life)
• Greater resilience leads to improved learning and academic achievement.
• Resilience contributes to reduced risk-taking behaviours.

How to Develop Resilience
As noted above, there are certain factors than make some people more resilient than others. However, resilience isn’t a personality trait that some people possess, rather resilience involves thoughts, actions and behaviours that everyone can learn and develop. Resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. As with developing muscles, increasing resilience takes time and intentional practice. The American Psychological Association (APA) proposes four core components on which to focus: connection, wellness, healthy thinking and meaning. Centering on these components can empower you to withstand and learn from adversity.

Prioritise positive relationships
Join a support group

Acknowledge and accept your emotions
Take care of your body
Practice mindfulness and gratitude
Avoid negative outlets

Healthy thoughts
Keep things in perspective
Accept change
Maintain a hopeful outlook
Learn from your past.

Help others
Be proactive
Move toward your goals
Look for opportunities for self-discovery

Seek Help
Remember you are not alone on the journey. Getting help when you need it is crucial in building your resilience. While you may not be able control your circumstance, you can grow by focusing on the aspects of life’s challenges that you can manage with the support of family, friends and trusted professionals.

Below are some excellent tips and techniques on how to encourage resilience in the children in your life, be you parent or teacher:

• Help your child(ren) to make connections with others; this will help them build empathy, grow their support network, and encourage resilience.

• Allow your child(ren) to acknowledge, accept and process their emotions.

• Teach your child(ren) to practice mindfulness and keep a gratitude diary.

• Help your child(ren) set reasonable goals and move toward them, one step at a time; this will help them to focus on what they have accomplished rather than what they haven’t accomplished.

• Nurture a positive self-concept in your child(ren) by reminding them of the ways they have successfully handled difficulties and hardships in the past, connect their past success with their future potential.

• Help your child(ren) keep things in perspective and encourage a long-term view—particularly when they are stuck on something negative.

• Look for opportunities for self-discovery for your child(ren), and show them how to do the same.

• Teach your child(ren) self-care, including eating healthy, exercising, getting a good amount of sleep, and having downtime to just relax and have fun.

• Encourage your child(ren) to help others, which can help them feel empowered.

• Teach your child(ren) to accept that change is an inevitable part of life and that they can replace unattainable goals with more appropriate and relevant goals.

All too often we feel powerless in our lives and circumstances. But we do have power, we have the power to improve our resilience, we can draw on our strengths to become overcome adversity and thrive in life. Odyssey offers strength-based programmes to help introduce the concept and practices of resilience to students, teachers and parents.

APA Help Center. (n.d.). Resilience guide for parents & teachers. American Psychological Association Help Center. Retrieved from

Benard, B. (2004). Resiliency: What we have learned. San Francisco: WestEd.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979) The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Campbell, W.K., and Twenge, J.M. (2009). “The Narcissism Epidemic – Living in the Age of Entitlement.” Simon & Schuster, Inc, New York, NY.

Gilligan, R. (2017). Resilience Theory and Social Work Practice. In F. J. Turner (Ed.),SocialWork Treatment: Interlocking Theoretical Approaches (6th ed., pp. 441-451). New York,NY: Oxford University Press.

Grotberg, E. (1995). A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children: Strengthening the Human Spirit. Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections, v. 8. The Hague-NO: Bernard Van Leer Foundation.

Haraldsson, K.S., Lindgren, E-C. M.,Fridlund, B.G.A., Baigi, A.M.A.E.,Lydell, M.C., Marklund, B.R.G (2008) Evaluation of a school-based health promotion programme for adolescents aged 12–15 years with focus on well-being related to stress. Public Health, 122, 25–33

Kobasa, S. C. (1979), Personality and resistance to illness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 7, 413-423.

Rosenbaum, M. (1990). The role of learned resourcefulness in the self-control of health behavior. In M. Rosenbaum (Ed.), Springer series on behavior therapy and behavioral medicine, Vol. 24. Learned resourcefulness: On coping skills, self-control, and adaptive behavior (pp. 3-30). New York: Springer Publishing Co.

Schiraldi, G. (2017). What do resilient people look like? New Harbinger Publications. Retrieved from

Strycharczyk (2015)

The Resilience Institute:

Ungar, M. (2012). Social ecologies and their contribution to resilience. In: UNGAR, M. (ed.) The social ecology of resilience: A handbook of theory and practice. New York: Springer.