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Can You Teach Resilience?

Kids who thrive in the face of adversity seem to share some common traits. Now some schools are looking for ways to pass on these skills.

WebMD Feature

June 26, 2000 -- A teenage boy escapes the violence of the inner city and becomes a noted trial attorney. A young girl, raised in poverty and sexually abused, grows up to be a university professor, playwright, and poet laureate.

The first is Christopher Darden, a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case. The second is Maya Angelou, poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

What enables people to flourish despite such dire beginnings? To find out, psychologists over the years have looked at kids from poor families, orphans from war-torn countries, and teens from gang-infested neighborhoods. They've discovered that resilient kids share key traits: the ability to trust and form caring relationships, a sense of independence, good problem-solving skills, perseverance, and a belief that their lives have meaning and purpose.

Now psychologists are asking, "Can we teach these skills in public schools?" Surprisingly, they're finding that the answer is "Yes." And resiliency research suggests that few lessons are more important.

Building a More Resilient Attitude

Today's teenagers are more at risk for anxiety and depression than any generation in history, says Andrew Shatte, PhD, co-director of the Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. "Yet our ongoing studies for the last ten years show we can cut the adolescent depression rate in half and make kids more resilient by teaching better thinking skills."

In a 1990 pilot program, Penn graduate psychology students showed 70 children ages 6 to 12 how to back off from pessimistic or habitually negative assumptions.

For 12 weeks the Penn researchers taught the kids how to tell the difference between productive and self-defeating thinking. "We used the story of The Little Engine That Could to illustrate the importance of a positive attitude and Chicken Little to illustrate the pitfalls of catastrophic thinking," Shatte says.

Researchers then instructed the children to look at their own fears and ask, "What's the worst that can happen?" and "How likely is it that this will pan out?" "The kids had to test their expectations and see if they were realistic," Shatte says.

In one exercise, students examined the case of Tim C., a ten-year-old who believed that people didn't like him, that he wasn't very good in school, and that he would never get decent grades. The students looked for evidence supporting or refuting Tim's assumptions.

The group also learned how to analyze a difficult situation, then make a list of options and alternatives. Says Shatte, "We taught them the basic skills of problem-solving."

All the kids were at risk for depression because of conflict or instability in their homes. Two years later, Shatte and his colleagues found only 22% of the kids in the program still felt depressed, compared to 44% of kids from similar backgrounds in a control group.

The program was so successful it was repeated in ten locations over the next nine years. Since then, the Penn Resiliency Program has also trained teachers from New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, California, Canada, Australia, and China. The work has caught the eye of the nation's top mental health experts; Penn researchers are currently conducting a study of more than 700 children and teens, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health.

One of the kids who benefited from the resiliency program was Miguel, who lived in a poor city neighborhood and was numbed by frequent drive-by shootings. Miguel's older brother had many friends in street gangs. "I'm scared I'm going to end up like that," Miguel said. "What's the point in doing anything? It's just the way it is."

In the Penn Resiliency Program, Miguel learned the skill of "de-catastrophizing" -- looking for other possible outcomes and putting his energy to work on the things he could control. Says Shatte, "He learned the skills of optimism and of hope."

Few Schools Do It

But schools that teach these skills are still in the minority. Most kids who learn these positive personality traits do so at home. Yet a groundbreaking study of 1,225 children and their caregivers in 30 countries reveals that adult caregivers now teach these skills only one-third of the time.

"We can do better," says Edith Grotberg, PhD, a senior research scientist at the Civitan International Research Center at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and director of the study.

From 1990 to 1995, Grotberg looked at how parents and caretakers handled a variety of challenges, such as earthquakes, fires, floods, war, poverty, illness, death in the family, loss of income, or a major move. Her findings offer insight into how to best teach resiliency to different kids at different ages. She found that

  • Girls tend to become resilient by building strong, caring relationships, while boys usually bounce back by learning how to problem-solve.

  • Kids can learn how to be more resilient, regardless of their IQ.

  • Children learn resilience from their parents up to the age of 11; after that, they learn from their peers.

  • Parents and caregivers find it easy to teach resilience when a child is young, vulnerable, and helpless, yet they find it difficult when dealing with rebellious kids.

  • Affluence doesn't seem to matter. Parents in developing nations teach resilience as often as those in affluent countries.

"Punishment and blame are counterproductive, Grotberg says. "It's not about putting guards with guns in schools. We need to teach resilience and reach out to kids who are troubled and depressed."

Valerie Andrews has written for Intuition, HealthScout, and many other publications. She lives in Greenbrae, Calif.

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