Emmy Werner has studied resilience, at a time when resilience research was not widely recognized, as a resource for helping traumatized children outside of scholarly literature, until now. Werner’s work is based on a remarkable longitudinal study that followed hundreds of children (opens in a new tab) who were born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955, for four decades.
One in three Kauai children identified as high-risk have grown into surprisingly competent, confident, and caring adults. They did not develop behavioral or learning problems during childhood or adolescence. They did well in school, coping well with family and social life. These children grew into adults capable of overcoming incredible obstacles, leading to successful and fulfilling lives.
This study challenged the persistent belief that children at risk cannot succeed. How did they thwart the odds?
A consistent pattern of protective factors was revealed in these resilient children:
- Protective factors within the individual: These included characteristics such as intelligence, a positive attitude, a sense of humor, and a talent or interest that provided a sense of purpose and identity.
- Protective factors in family life: These included having at least one opportunity for support and involvement to establish a close bond with at least one competent, emotionally stable and responsive person, often substitute caregivers such as grandparents, older siblings, aunts or uncles.
- External factors: These included access to supportive social networks, such as teachers, mentors, and peers, and opportunities to participate in activities that fostered positive relationships and skill development.
The second and third factors are dispositions that schools and communities can foster, but the first factor may seem to depend on the individual. Yet internal resilience can be learned, causing these protective factors to interact in a synergy that compounds positive long-term consequences. Indeed, schools and communities can implement the lessons learned from Werner’s study. More evidence in other studies provides validation for generalizing strategies to disadvantaged children in schools.
Learning resilience from historical patterns
A more recent tragedy, with parallels to post-Covid student trauma, was carried out for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. This disaster wiped out much of the city of New Orleans in 2005. Researchers published findings on “resilience outliers (opens in a new tab)a decade later, in Katrina’s children (opens in a new tab). These children were displaced from school and home for a year and had no digital access to connect to their educational or social lives.
Similar to the pandemic, 100,000 post-Katrina students have been isolated, deprived of critical opportunities for development and social learning. However, the researchers found individuals who not only survived, but went on to lead prosperous and fulfilling young adult lives. As with Werner’s findings, a strong sense of community helped the children of Katrina rebuild their lives. And like the Kids of Kauai, having a strong support network has helped these traumatized children experience post-traumatic growth.
The patterns of the story reinforce the solutions. In 2014, Google researched who its top performers were. The assumption was that those who went to prestigious universities topped the list. Admittedly, they were given the conditions to succeed, except that they were beaten by people who have experienced trauma at some point in their lives and have excelled (opens in a new tab) not in spite of, but perhaps because of the lessons learned from the victory.
This study confirmed that all is not lost. In fact, resilience is sometimes best learned through real-life challenges. Incorporating protective factors helps traumatized people draw strength, rather than weakness, from circumstances.
Expectations and results
The Pygmalion Effect (opens in a new tab), another study of school community support dating back half a century, showed how teachers who were told that certain students were gifted expected them to excel academically. Another group of students, they were told, were average. In reality, there was no difference between these groups. Yet teachers treated the perceived gifted as more intelligent, giving them more attention, encouragement, and opportunities.
As a result, perceived gifted students demonstrated gifted levels of performance while their peers performed as expected, with average performance. The Pygmalion effect revealed higher expectations leading to better performance.
Teachers’ perceptions and attitudes toward students often include unconscious biases. Being aware of this can help all children, moving beyond our biases to create supportive learning communities, so that all children have the opportunity to excel.
Consider a model to guide educators:
- Teach children resilience so they learn to persevere. Building resilience can often be achieved by inspiring stories (opens in a new tab) to overcome trauma.
- Provide strong affiliations with mentors, coaches, and teachers to foster a sense of connection with adults in the lives of children in need.
- Provide outlets for supportive social networks, such as teams, clubs, religious affiliations, and other organizations to connect students to these children.
Although not a fail-safe, these actions, as evidenced, certainly increase the chances of success for those who had to overcome obstacles early in life. Stacking these strategies further increases the likelihood of success for many students, certainly more than without.
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