Whose resilience is it anyway?

ETF Associate Polly Harrow considers the meaning of ‘resilience’ and how to apply it in the FE and Training sector, looking at why it is important and how it is developed in young people.

When considering the meaning of resilience, educators will recognise the term as an aspect of ‘character education’ which they are expected to instil in their learners, with the desired outcome that learners are ‘persistent in the face of difficulties and that providers ‘teach and train learners how to build their confidence and resilience’ (Further Education and Skills Handbook, March 2020).

Given Nietzsche’s famous assertion ‘that which does not kill us, makes us stronger’ (Twilight of the Idols, 1888), there is a fairly universal understanding that, if we ‘stick at it’, if we can adapt to challenging situations and overcome them, we will develop personal resilience and recover positively from adversity and difficulties, learn valuable lessons and move on. We won’t, in other words, be beaten into defeat by the misfortunes we face; most important of all, we won’t give up.

When we reflect on resilience in education, we often hear that learners with traumatic lived experiences need to be resilient, accountable, to learn and grow from their situations. That is perfectly fine and laudable – we just need to work out the ‘how’, because advising someone that they ‘should be more resilient’ simply doesn’t cut it. Resilience is deeply personal and developed over time; how long it takes is anyone’s guess and down to each individual and unique case. There is no benchmark for resilience; by this age/stage you should be measuring this much on the resilience scale. Everyone has different emotional, psychological, mental and physical profiles, as unique as their set of fingerprints. We don’t all move at the same pace and we don’t all have the right people around us at the right time, to understand and support our resilient development.

The focus on building resilience, legitimate as its objectives are, must be seen in a wider context. There is an emerging concern about the expectation that young people ‘should’ be able to withstand some levels of adversity and ‘shouldn’t’ give in We need to appreciate and acknowledge the ills and challenges which young people are subject to and name the wrong done to them alongside supporting their self-awareness in understanding how they can manage the feelings they have in the most effective way. A recent example of this was a young woman of 16 who had accessed an adult dating site and was subsequently sent lewd images from a number of unknown males. The outcome of this was that the young woman ‘acknowledged her mistake, learned her lesson and wouldn’t be repeating the behaviour’. There was no mention of the lack of checks and measures which allow 16-year-olds to access adult sites on the internet, no mention that the males sending pictures of their genitalia over social media might actually be misguided. The focus is all about the young person, and their responsibility to ‘be resilient’. And resilience just doesn’t work like that. Another very different example is the learner who was graded a B for work he felt merited an A*. His world literally felt as if it had fallen apart. He was worthless, hopeless, useless, might as well quit now and go home. Building up resilience in someone who is hard wired to think that a B equates to a fail, is not an easy task.

In safeguarding, we are constantly repeating stranger danger messages, the risks of talking to unknown people on social media, the dangers and traps which lurk there. The emphasis being on the young person’s responsibility to keep themselves safe in an unsafe world. The focus should surely equally be on making the internet a safer place for young people to be and to do more to stop predators targeting and abusing vulnerable people. If we want to encourage resilience, we also have to acknowledge the reasons which have led to the point of resilience being required; recognise the disappointment, the anger, distress, shame, guilt, sorrow; we have to allow that awful things have happened, maybe somethings which are very wrong and should never have happened and be extremely careful not to use blame and shame language. (Brene Brown has some wonderful short films of youtube on this subject).

Resilience doesn’t mean a lack of feeling, a lack of emotional upheaval, a detachment; it means finding the strength and often the courage to process pain and suffering, rejection or disappointment, to avoid feeling helpless, overwhelmed or turning to unhealthy coping strategies to assuage the painful feelings. Research studies identify protective factors for young people at risk of depression, such as positive self-esteem, strong family ties, established friendship groups, as key in achieving resilience in adulthood. Ken Ginsberg, MD, an expert in adolescent development and Professor of Pediatrics at University of Pennsylvania, developed a 7Cs model for resilience which is a useful tool; Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, Contribution, Coping and Control. Following Ginsberg’s 7Cs, we can start to plan and prepare how we are to support young people, particularly in this time of Covid-19, to develop resilient attitudes, character and behaviours.

This planning includes recognising the importance of social support; if not available outside work or learning, how can we provide opportunities for meaningful connection and belonging inside college? What realistic and achievable actions could be agreed to underpin feelings of competence? Character education, positive choices, community contribution with a prevailing sense of purpose. How do we encourage problem solving skill development which feeds into coping mechanisms? How do we ensure that every member of staff is aware and focused on building self-esteem across our learner body and is able to assist learners with emotional regulation? In short, a strong coaching/mentoring culture which underpins the ethos of the organisation and staff development programmes based on the neuroscience of adolescent development.

One stark insight into resilience among young people in this pandemic is offered via the recent survey carried out by the AoC, where 94% of colleges stated that they were aware of suicide attempts among their learner communities and over half of colleges reported increases in suicide attempts and ideation compared to the previous year. Professor Brene Brown, an American social studies academic, says “Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, suicidal ideation, bullying, eating disorders….holding something we have done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be”. In order to develop resilience, we need to understand why it is necessary in the first place, understand the shame young people feel about what they are not, and help them to focus on all that they are and can be.

Reflecting on the requirement for the development of increased resilience among our young people, it is essential that we, as educators, understand fully what it is we are asking for and trying to achieve. Appropriate and meaningful staff development programmes are needed, which foster appreciation and expertise in this area. In nurturing the characteristics of resilience, we must identify appropriate approaches to individuals which acknowledge their lived experience and encourage confidence and self belief.

An ETF National Safeguarding and Prevent Forum addressing the theme of ‘Peer Influence’ takes place on 29 June 2021. The event is aimed at all those responsible for Safeguarding and Prevent in FE and Training. There is no charge to attend. Find details on our Safeguarding and Prevent page.


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