Building Resilience

by: Peggy Pelonis, Dean of Student Affairs, ACS Athens
Ethos Magazine, Winter 2013, Vol 8, Issue 1

Stress is inevitable and cannot be eliminated or avoided in the course of one’s life, but it is important to consider that in addition to its inherently destructive effects, stress can have adaptive outcomes in the course of life span development. Challenging life stressors that are not devastating seem to promote the development of resilience. Likewise being exposed to stressors early in life and being asked to cope with such stressors contributes of adaptive functioning. (Lyons, Parker 2009). Numerous studies (Khoshaba & Maddi, 1999, Morimer & Staff 2004, Ellis 2005 in Lyons, Parker 2009) further indicate that adults cope better with major life stressors such as loss, illness and major trauma if they have previously been exposed to stress in childhood. Through such exposure a process of coping is developed that promotes resilience.

According to Panter-Brick and Leckman (2013) “It is now well-known that ‘toxic stress sculpts the brain’ – through a process of biological embedding during critical windows of development…. Thus the concept of resilience has been situated in the context of brain activity and epigenetic processes, namely the architecture of neurobiological and physiological plasticity.” Neuroscientists have refuted the idea that the brain remains static and unchanged in adulthood, instead the brain structure changes constantly. This means that like the muscles in our body, the brain can be weakened or strengthened depending on the type of brain activity we engage in. Thus, we have the ability to influence our brain as to how efficiently it operates and the types of skills it acquires. The flip side of that as outlined by Ungar, Ghazinour and Richter (in Panter-Brick and Leckman 2013, puts much emphasis on the social environment and considers altering the social and physical obstacles preventing individuals from coping optimally rather than the person’s ability to cope. This later perspective considers the necessity to provide appropriate resources, at the precise time, to children in order to help them adapt and thrive.

In order to understand the concept of resilience let us go to the physical sciences. Materials and objects are considered resilient when they take on their original shape after being manipulated (bent or stretched). Thus, people’s ability to ‘bounce back’ or as Harvard psychologist George Vaillant ( in Southwick and Charney 2012) indicates, resilient individuals resemble ‘a twig with a fresh, green living core. When twisted out of shape, such a twig bends, but it does not break; instead, it springs back and continues growing’ (p.7). Similarly, resilient individuals, when faced with adversity and life challenges rise when they fall, continue the race even against the odds, do not give up despite setbacks. Daniel Goleman (2006) in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence puts it in a nutshell, ‘resilient people are optimistic, action-oriented people. If something goes wrong in their lives, they immediately start to think about how to make it better’.

Numerous interviews and studies involving civilians from all walks of life thought to be resilient including people having survived 9/11, special forces instructors, war veterans and people who experienced some kind of severe trauma (Southwick &Charney 2012) led these authors to conclude that although people had very different experiences they used similar coping strategies. As a result Southwick and Charney (2012) outline 10 resilience factors when confronted with stress:

  • Confronted their fears
  • Maintained an optimistic but realistic outlook
  • Sought and accepted social support
  • Imitated sturdy role models
  • Relied on their moral inner compass
  • Turned to religious or spiritual practices
  • Found a way to accept that which they could not change
  • Maintained physical activity, mental and emotional strength
  • Were active problem solvers who looked for meaning and opportunity in the midst of adversity and sometimes found humor in the darkness
  • Accepted responsibility for their own emotional well-being.

The questions being asked by educators, parents, managers and leaders are twofold: What makes people resilient? And can resilience be taught?   Research strongly supports that there is a ‘clear link between most of the problems currently manifested among our youth (e.g. substance abuse, violence, crime, depression, bullying, and school failure) to the absence of resilient factors. Recent studies also indicate that child’s long-term social and emotional adaptation, academic and cognitive development, and citizenship skills can indeed be significantly enhanced through exposure to opportunities for developing and strengthening social competence during childhood and the development of more supportive social environments in the home, school and community’ (Nicoll, 2013).   Therefore, while family environment is very significant in fulfilling children’s basic emotional needs: to belong (feel safe) and to be loved (accepted), schools are the second most significant place where these two needs must be met. One of the most critical and steady findings in the resiliency research is the power that schools have and in particular teachers, to turn a child’s life around from risk to resilience (Garbarino, 1992; Higgins, 1994; Mastern&Coatsworth, 1998; Werner, 1996; Werner & Smith, 1992).

Therefore as incessant demands are being placed on youth to adopt to a continuously changing environment, to cope with life’s adverse circumstances and to filter and assimilate the abundance of information they are confronted with on a daily basis and as current reality stresses and applauds the individual’s ability to be independent and able to fend for one self, building resilience is a prerequisite to living a productive and happy life. Furthermore, living in a rapidly evolving society where change occurs continuously and on multiple levels, there is a need, more than ever before, for Education that reflects this new reality. The changes in demographics, the forming of multicultural families, the diversity on an economic, educational, social and ethical level, technology going global as well as the further rise of multinational corporations are all changes that are challenging traditional values and principles. (Gialamas & Pelonis, 2008)

Thus, education is not only a continuous act of acquiring skills, knowledge, problem solving abilities, but also a way of applying the learning, coping with and making educated decisions in academic establishments, job situations and most importantly in life challenges generally. This journey which involves the transition from one environment to another (primary to secondary school, secondary to higher education, college to career and beyond) can be smooth, as painless as possible and meaningful in a holistic way. (Gialamas, Papadakis, 2009).

Consequently what should Education address today that is different from the past? In a word Education should be about molding human beings capable of responding to the fast and multiple changes in today’s society rather than being usurped by these changes and becoming devoid of emotions, incapable of forming community bonds, their only purpose that of becoming organizational drones trained for specific jobs. (Gialamas, 2008). Education should be about providing opportunities to not only learn academically but also how to apply the skills and knowledge attained and thus to build resilience. School can and must empower individuals to be ‘architects of their own learning’ so today’s youth can be prepared for the unpredictable and changing demands of society by developing the above ten characteristics. It is the schools that have a clear understanding of these objectives that will indeed lead students toward being resilient, able to thrive and become architects of a healthy society.