Theoretical Foundations for Fostering Resiliency in Schools

Posted on Nov 12, 2011 in Featured Content, Reflections on Counseling

Adolescents who experience change and transition can be significantly impacted on personal, social, and psychological levels. Resilience refers to a set of circumstances that result in “good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development” (Masten, 2001, p. 228). Multiple resiliency models are considered in this paper with the aim of clarifying what effective resiliency-building interventions should address. A common thread is that resilience is an ecological construct that is developed through interactions with the environment – families, schools, and communities (Greene, 2002; Jozefowicz-Simbeni & Allen-Meares, 2002). While the family is considered to have the greatest impact on the development of resilience, schools can contribute to positive youth development in the face of risks present in some families and communities (Brooks, 2006). School administrators, teachers, and school counsellors that understand the role schools can play in cultivating resiliency can implement specific programs, procedures, and policies to minimize the disruptions and negative impact of risks and stressors.

This tiny house in Okinawa Japan after countless storms and war

Richardson (2002) identified three waves of resiliency paradigms. The first wave considered resiliency in phenomenological terms of developmental assets and protective factors. According to this paradigm, individual vulnerability is determined by the relative influence of risk and protective factors (Evans, Marsh, & Weigel, 2010). This transactional view overturned some of the problem-focused assumptions associated with growing up in higher risk circumstances (Masten, 2001) and permeates the current literature on resiliency (Beightol, Jevertson, Gray, Carter & Gass, 2009 ; Brooks, 2006; Masten, 2001; Richardson, 2002; Short & Russell-Mayhew, 2009). While the emphasis on individual protective factors can be seen to inadequately account for the multiple-causation of Engel’s (1997) bio-psychosocial factors, as will be examined in this paper, this wave identifies specific characteristics that schools can promote to foster resiliency and risk factors that schools can play a role in helping students avoid.

The second wave considers how the phenomenological qualities of resiliency are acquired through a process of disruption and reintegration whereby people cope in the face of life challenges and exhibit growth, adequate maintenance of homeostasis, or, at least, minimal loss (Richardson, 2002). This is consistent with definitions of resiliency that are implicitly linked to adaptations in the face of adversity (Wright & Matsen, 2005). According to this experiential process, resilient qualities and skills are integrated so that events become routine and do not result in significant disruption. The model empowers people to recognize the choices available to determine desirable outcomes and fosters a sense of control (Richardson, 2002). Schools routinely challenge students across multiple learning domains and, therefore, are in an excellent position to offer this kind of experience to encourage positive social-emotional growth (Aviles, Anderson, & Davila, 2006).

An issue with this model is that it is focused solely on the development of individual characteristics of resiliency and does not address ecological contextual factors (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) or multi-causality (Masten, 2001) of either successful or unsuccessful integration. Chronic stressors are seen to “befall people when they do not develop resilient qualities or have not grown through the disruptions in their life” (Richardson, 2002, p. 311). Because contextual factors are not addressed, the process model displays little regard for the many unique variables of individual experience.

The third wave offers that resilience is a force or innate capacity within each individual to change and explores the energy source or motivation to adapt effectively (Richardson, 2002). The third wave explores the force behind what has been referred to as a “self-righting mechanism” (Werner & Smith, 1992, p. 202) or the drive toward self-actualization (Maslow, 1970, 1971). It follows that once the characteristics of resiliency have been identified by the first wave and the process needed to acquire them is clarified by the second, that the motivation and energy to enact the process would be explored by the third. However, Antonovsky (1990) highlighted two major lines of criticism regarding this paradigm.

The first criticism was that opportunities for earlier prevention are overlooked due to the focus on the individual caught in the throws of a struggle. Secondly, this framework is inadequate given the combined effect of the variety of risk factors in a bio-psychosocial system (Engel, 1997). Antonovsky (1990) also observed that a pathogenic metaphor persists in this model as homeostasis is still assumed to be the normal state of affairs. In other words, barring unusual risks people remain healthy within the duality of a health or illness construct.

Antonovsky (1990) argued that rather than homeostasis as the norm, heterostasis, imbalance, and systemic entropy are more characteristic of human existence. With the acceptance of ubiquitous pathogens, the question ceases to focus on functional or dysfunctional integration, but asks how, with all of us partly healthy and partly sick, some people suffer less and move toward health. Antonovsky’s salutogenic paradigm moves away from a not resilient/resilient dichotomy to a continuum where forces push us in the direction of one pole or another. Rather than simply a glass half-full or glass half-empty shift, Antonovsky proposed that a salutogenic versus a pathogenic view adjusts the focus away from the maintenance of homeostasis and avoidance of personal risk toward an emphasis on reduction of systemic risk and adaptive movement toward health.

Antonovosky (1990) identified “the sense of coherence” or SOC as the force that moves people toward health (p. 7). The SOC is understood to be the pervasive feeling of confidence that is constructed within a macrosocial environment and is based on a feeling of understanding of the environments of life, that resources exist to cope within these environments, and that it is worthwhile to exert the effort required to meet challenges. As the SOC identifies individual characteristics that move people toward health, it may bring the discussion full circle back to a phenomenological view.

Rather than privilege one wave of resilience over another, school-based interventions stand to benefit from an integrated view that evaluates protective factors as they prevent risks and foster a stronger sense of coherency. This could include an effective parenting skills program through which parents are taught how to help children avoid dangerous situations and develop understanding of internal and external resources. Similarly the processes through which children acquire the characteristics of resiliency can be considered at multiple levels so that “basic human adaptational systems” are in place (Masten, 2001) in addition to developmental programs designed specifically to foster resiliency. Lastly, a salutary paradigm maintains focus on the reduction of pervasive risk factors and the development of capabilities to promote movement toward health for all members of the school community not merely those identified as lacking resilience or at particular risk.

There will be more to follow on this topic. – AC

Adam Clark is a school counselor at Yokohama International School in Yokohama, Japan. Find out more at


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