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December 1999

Fostering Resilience
in Troubled Students

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Research shows that teachers and schools play an important role in helping students survive a troubled childhood.

Every teacher knows what it is like to see a student trying to cope with poverty, emotional neglect or abuse. These children run the risk of developing serious and enduring problems that perpetuate a cycle of poverty, underachievement and anti-social behaviour.

But not all children are defeated by such circumstances. Researchers are increasingly looking at the phenomenon of resilience, through which many disadvantaged children develop healthy relationships and productive lives.

Some of the studies that have followed children throughout their lives have estimated that as many as half to two-thirds of abused or neglected children show evidence of a resilient response. A common theme running through much of this research is the role played by caring adults – sometimes just one caring adult, and often a teacher.

Emmy Werner, a professor of human development and a research child psychologist at the University of California, conducted an extensive study on the island of Kauai in Hawaii that followed the progress of disadvantaged children for almost two decades. Werner found that all the high-risk children of the study – people she termed "vulnerable, but invincible" – had at least one caring and supportive teacher. According to Werner, the teachers "listened to the children, challenged them, and rooted for them." Werner also described how resilient children often made their school "a home away from home."

Other resiliency researchers have also found that although anyone can be in a caring and supportive role for a child, the most commonly identified source of non-parental support is a teacher. As research on resilience has expanded to encompass other cultures and experiences, such as the effects of war, the evidence suggests that the protective factors work across cultural, geographic and economic boundaries – an important factor in Ontario’s multicultural schools.


Joseph Durlak, a researcher in the department of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, carried out a review in 1998 of 1,200 studies related to childhood adjustment to develop a body of risk and protective factors that affect children during their development. Although the resultant list of risk factors covers a range of situations, there is clear evidence that teachers are among those who often play a pivotal role in young people’s development.

In Durlak’s study, it wasn’t individual characteristics such as low IQ, low motivation or ineffectual study skills that caused negative results for students, but bad schools. Schools with uncaring teachers, an uninteresting curriculum, poor co-operation between the school and the parents and little expectation that the students would do well were a major factor in producing low academic achievement, behavioural problems and other life-changing factors such as pregnancy, drug use and AIDS. This underscored Durlak’s belief that where schools do offer adequate levels of support and guidance, even students affected by negative individual factors can do well.


Another group of researchers, led by child psychiatrist Michael Rutter at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, were interested in why student behaviour and levels of accomplishment varied so much from school to school. Their studies found that successful schools were the opposite of Durlak’s "bad schools" – teachers set high standards of behaviour, made it clear they had expectations that the students would do well, and that they had faith in the students’ ability to do well.

Students also benefited from praise and rose to the challenge when teachers gave them additional responsibilities. Even children who were experiencing considerable deprivation at home did well if they attended high quality schools. All these factors bear out the results of other research that shows people often behave in ways that fulfil the expectations of others.

The value of giving students extra responsibility has been shown in other studies in a slightly different context. Children who are required to look after younger siblings or take over tasks usually done by an adult – what one researcher termed "required helpfulness" – often show signs of resilience. They appear to draw strength from being needed and being able to cope successfully in a difficult situation.


Even in light of such research, some may question the power of teachers to have a significant and enduring impact on young people’s lives given increasing class sizes and a reduction in the amount of one-to-one contact between teachers and students.

However, the research overall seems to have found that the only true requirement for being an effective and positive influence on a young person is genuine concern for the child’s well-being. It’s not the amount of time a teacher can spend with a student but the sense of stability and commitment that an adult communicates to a child during the time they are together.

Research demonstrates that many people from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to make poor choices even after their circumstances improve. Teachers can play a key role in such a situation, since decisions related to education are of particular importance in terms of career and financial success. Teachers are in an ideal situation to provide guidance in what is a crucial aspect of life planning.

Excerpt from "Resilient Children" in Young Children by Emmy E. Werner

Those of us who care for young children, who work with or on behalf of them, can help tilt the balance from vulnerability to resiliency if we:

• accept children’s temperamental idiosyncrasies and allow them some experiences that challenge, but do not overwhelm, their coping abilities;

• convey to children a sense of responsibility and caring, and, in turn, reward them for helpfulness and co-operation;

• encourage a child to develop a special interest, hobby, or activity that can serve as a source of gratification and self-esteem;

• model, by example, a conviction that life makes sense despite the inevitable adversities that each of us encounters;

• encourage children to reach out beyond their nuclear family to a beloved relative or friend.

The research highlights the critical role that teachers play not only as educators but as advocates and supporters of vulnerable children and adolescents. Clearly teachers influence more than the academic outcomes of their students. Teachers influence lives.

Emmy Werner describes how resilient children often attribute their ability to cope effectively to a feeling of confidence that things will work out no matter how difficult their present circumstances. In order for this confidence to develop and be sustained, children need relationships and contact with people who care and help give meaning to their lives.

As Werner points out, "each of us can impart this gift to a child – in the classroom, on the playground, in the neighbourhood, in the family, if we care enough." Teachers are in the rare and honoured position of being able to impart this "gift" of caring and support to many young people during the course of their careers. Through supportive and caring interactions with the children and adolescents in their care, teachers do make a difference.

This article was prepared with information from the Community Health Systems Resource Group at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

For more information about research into resilience in children:


South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services:

Department of Psychology, Valdosta State University: