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Resiliency Model

Interest in the area of resiliency first developed in the early 1970`s out of research which aimed to identify the factors that place young people at risk of developing various problems, such as drug abuse, delinquency or mental disorders. Researchers noticed that many young people who had been exposed to numerous `risk factors` nevertheless developed into healthy, competent adults. These researchers became interested in studying the resiliency of these young people and turned their attention to identifying the protective factors- both internal and external - that help a person to bounce back from, or thrive in spite of, adverse circumstances. These protective factors have now been identified in some detail, providing a clear picture of what makes some people more resilient than others.

Risk versus resiliency

The resiliency approach, which focuses on individuals` strengths and resources, is often contrasted with the risk-based approaches from which it originally developed (Garmezy, 1991). Whilst it is true that the emphasis of each is different, in fact both approaches are complementary and necessary. Identifying risks is only of benefit to the extent that we are able to either reduce those risks, or help individuals to cope in spite of them. On the other hand, programs that aim to promote resiliency will be more effective if they target `at risk` individuals, for the obvious reason that those who are having to cope with adversity have greater need of resiliency than those whose lives are relatively easy.

One of the criticisms that has been made against risk-based approaches is that it focuses on deficits rather than strengths. In doing so, it creates the possibility of negative stereotyping and stigmatisation. It can also create a `self-fulfilling prophecy` effect whereby young people who are identified as `at risk` are treated differently and regarded as less able than their peers. It is well established that low expectations can actuallycausepoor performance, thereby reinforcing the low expectations and creating a vicious circle. On the other hand, resiliency research has clearly shown that high expectations tend to have the opposite effect, creating a cycle of positive reinforcement that can be highly beneficial (Benard, 1997).

An ecological approach

There is a universal human tendency to over-estimate the importance of internal, personality factors and under-estimate the impact of the environment in explaining people`s behaviour. This has been referred to as the `fundamental attribution error`. In the context of resiliency, this error is reflected in a tendency to see the good or poor functioning of a child as due to the child`s `nature` rather than their context or circumstances. However, resiliency research has increasingly embraced an ecological model, in which the child`s functioning and behaviour is viewed within the context of a web of bi-directional relationships, including family, school, peers, neighbourhood and the wider society.

Whilst genetic factors do play a role in resiliency, ultimately much more important is the quality of inter-personal relationships and the availability of networks of support. Programs that target the cognitive underpinnings of resiliency - optimism, self-esteem, autonomy and so forth - are important. However, the ecological perspective suggests that treating children as isolated units of cognitive functioning is a limited approach. Ultimately resiliency is not an attribute of any single individual; it is an attribute of communities, schools and families.

An ecological model of factors affecting resiliency

What defines a `best practice` resiliency program?

The following are a number of recommendations for resiliency programs, which emerge consistently in the research:

A focus on identifying and developing protective factors.

Programs should focus on either identifying factors that protect against risks, or should aim to develop known protective factors. The focus on development of protective factors is what distinguishes resiliency-oriented programs from other programs which aim to assist those "at risk".

Targeting of `at risk` children

The concept of resiliency implies the presence of adversity. Gains from resiliency programs will be greatest among those who are experiencing significant risk.

Targeting of times of transition and stress

Programs are more likely to be beneficial if they target not only individuals who are having to cope with adverse circumstances, but also focus on times of transition and stress, for example the transition from primary to secondary school, or the transition to puberty.

A strong research or evidence base

It is important that programs should either advance knowledge in the field by testing new ideas, or should implement the findings of previous research in the area of resiliency.

A focus on fostering supportive environments

One of the key findings to emerge from resiliency research to date is the fundamental importance of positive, supportive interpersonal relationships and environments. The presence of at least one caring, supportive adult - whether parent, teacher, relative or friend - is one the strongest protective factors identified in the research.

A preference for systemic interventions

Generally speaking, resiliency programs should focus on system-wide interventions rather than focusing solely on the individual. This recommendation stems from the recognition that resiliency is not a purely internal attribute; schools, families and the wider community are essential to creating an environment conducive to the development of resiliency. Furthermore, the cumulative nature of risk factors suggests that programs will be more effective if they address a broad spectrum of protective factors, including cognitive, interpersonal and social factors.

Evaluation built into the program

All programs should have some form of evaluation built into their design from the outset, not merely as an afterthought or as a means of securing continued funding. Ideally, evaluations should assess outcomes and should attempt to evaluate long-term effectiveness, not just immediate gains.

A framework for resiliency programs

Resiliency researchers Ann Masten and Jennifer Powell have developed a framework for resiliency research, policy and practice which reflects the change in thinking that has occurred since researchers began to focus on resiliency instead of risk. Their framework emphasises the importance of focusing on positive resources, health and competence when designing and developing programs for children and young people. Their framework suggests that programs` missions (goals), models, measures and methods should all reflect a focus on positive adaptation and the natural human capacity for healthy adaptation.

Mission: Frame goals in positive terms

Rather than focusing on rectifying deficits, programs should aim to promote competence and shift development into more positive directions.

Models: Include positive predictors and outcomes in models of change

The models used to develop programs should incorporate notions of health and competence, as well as concepts of pathology or dysfunction. They should also focus on normal developmental tasks, and acknowledge protective factors as well as risk factors.

Measures: Assess the positive as well as the negative

The measures used to evaluate the success of programs should not just focus only on dysfunction or psychopathology but should assess children`s strengths and assets. Success should be framed in terms of positive outcomes rather than just the absence of problems.

Methods: Consider multiple strategies based on resilience needs

Masten and Powell suggest three major strategies which resiliency programs can employ: risk-based approaches, which aim to reduce adversity, asset-focussed strategies, which attempt to improve or add to the assets in the lives in children, and process-oriented designs, which attempt to mobilise children`s adaptive capacities (e.g., by improving attachment relationships with parents, or providing social skills training.)