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Despite overwhelming adversity, many children successfully manage to bounce back. What personal characteristics make this possible, and how can schools create environments that support these children?
Much attention has been focused recently on "at risk" children, especially those who face poverty, neglect, abuse, physical handicaps, war, or the mental illnesses, alcoholism, or criminality of their parents. Amazingly, while researchers have found that these children do develop more problems than the general population, they have also learned that a great percentage of the children become healthy, competent young adults.
For example, Michael Rutter's research on children growing up in adverse conditions found that half of the children did not repeat that pattern in their own adult lives (1985). Emmy Werner's ongoing, 38-year study of the children of Kauai found that one-third of the children having four or more risk factors during their childhood were doing fine by adolescence. By age 32, two-thirds of the children who did develop problems during adolescence were leading successful adult lives (Werner and Smith 1992).
The repeated documentation of this "resiliency" - the ability to bounce back successfully despite exposure to severe risks - has clearly established the self-righting nature of human development. Furthermore, several longitudinal studies of children growing up in adversity have identified protective factors in the child, family, school, and community that can buffer life's stresses.
While as educators we need to understand the stresses that are part of children's lives, we must move beyond a focus on the "risk factors" and problems in order to create the conditions that will facilitate children's healthy development. A growing body of research tells us what young people need to overcome the risks they face (Benard 1991).
Profile of the Resilient Child
According to the literature, the resilient child is one who "works well, plays well, loves well, and expects well." Resilient children usually have four attributes: social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and future.
Social competence includes qualities such as responsiveness - especially the ability to elicit positive responses from others - flexibility, empathy, caring, communication skills, and a sense of humor. From early childhood on, resilient children tend to establish positive relationships with both adults and peers that help bond them to their family, school, and community.
Problem-solving skills encompass the abilities to think abstractly and reflectively and to be able to attempt alternate solutions for both cognitive and social problems. Two skills are especially important: planning, which facilitates seeing oneself in control; and resourcefulness in seeking help from others. The literature on children growing up in slums provides an extreme example of the role these skills play in the development of resiliency; these children must continually negotiate the demands of their environment or die (Felsman 1989).
Autonomy is having a sense of one's own identity and an ability to act independently and exert some control over one's environment. Several researchers have also identified the ability to separate oneself from a dysfunctional family environment - to detach enough from parental distress to maintain outside pursuits and satisfactions - as the major characteristic of resilient children growing up in families with …