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Resilience – a Fixed Trait or a Learnable Skill?

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “How People Learn to Become Resilient” by Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker, February 11, 2016
In this New Yorker article, Maria Konnikova reports on resilience – for example, a boy with an alcoholic mother and absent father who walked into school every day with a smile on his face and a bread sandwich in his bag – two slices of bread with nothing between them – because he didn’t want anyone to know how bad things were at home.
“Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists,” says Konnikova. “Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?”
The study of resilience focuses on protective factors – the elements that allow a person to thrive in spite of negative circumstances. Protective factors fall into two categories – internal/psychological and external/environmental. In a study in Hawaii, developmental psychologist Emmy Werner followed 698 children from before they were born into adulthood.
Two-thirds of the children grew up in stable, trauma-free backgrounds, while one-third had stresses of some kind. Of the latter group, two-thirds developed serious learning and behavior problems by the age of ten or had mental health issues, incidents of delinquency, or teen pregnancies by 18 – but one-third grew up to be “competent, confident, and caring young adults,” said Werner; they achieved academic, domestic, and social success, and were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities.
Drawing on the rich trove of data she had gathered on the lives of the resilient children, Werner was able to pinpoint the factors involved. The most important external variable (basically a matter of luck) was a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor figures. The internal psychological factors she found were more interesting.
These children:
- Met the world on their own terms;
- Were autonomous and independent;
- Sought out new experiences;
- Had a positive social orientation;
- Though not especially gifted, they used whatever skills they had effectively;
- Had an internal locus of control – they believed that they, not their circumstances, affected their achievements, that they were the orchestrators of their own fates.
Resilience wasn’t a fixed entity, Werner found. With some children, the stressors in their lives overwhelmed them and they lost the ability to cope – in other words, they had a breaking point. Conversely, some children started off with a low level of resilience and somehow got better at it as the years passed, doing as well as children who had strong resilience from the beginning. Which raises the question of how resilience can be learned.
George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has zeroed in on this question. One of the key aspects of resilience, he’s found, is perception: Do you see an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” says Bonanno. Rather than calling an event traumatic, he believes it’s more accurate to call it a potentially traumatic event. Thus, the death of a loved one can be traumatic, or it can be seen as tragic but an opportunity to develop a greater awareness of a particular disease. In other words, the long-term impact of traumatic events is not in the events themselves but in how people process them.
The good news is that resilience is a set of skills that can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” says Bonanno. People can be taught the cognitive skills of regulating their emotional response, and the new mindset lasts over time. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman has successfully trained people to change their explanatory style from internal to external (Bad events aren’t my fault), from global to specific (This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life), and from permanent to ephemeral (I can change the situation; it’s not fixed) – and the result is that people are more psychologically successful and less prone to depression.
It’s also possible for a person to move in the opposite direction. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” says Bonanno. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” We can worry and ruminate, blow up a minor event into an obsession, and drive ourselves crazy. It’s all in how we frame things.

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