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Educating African American Children

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Developing Resilience in Urban Youth

Introduction – Creating Resilience in Urban Youth

Reports of the disturbing condition of youth in urban America continue to capture the nation’s attention. Although it is appropriate to recognize the desperate social and economic conditions that affect young people, it is also critical to study and understand how some youth succeed despite the overwhelming odds against them. Understanding the concept of resilience provides information that can help administrators, teachers, and policymakers design more effective school environments and intervention models.

The term “at risk” has been over-used in education, often being applied to urban youth as a descriptor even though the term actually applies to the conditions of their lives – specifically, “risk factors” such as poverty and economic status. In labeling youth “at risk,” we often blame the students for their own educational failure. As noted by Berry (1989), “the old labels of the past that have inferred cognitive, motivational, self-esteem, and learning deficits of Black children, youth, and college-age young adults should be looked at with a jaundiced eye” (p. 288). Resilience, on the other hand, suggests the individual’s response to risk factors. Some children are able to overcome adversity and succeed, while others are not. The concept of resilience has been used in other fields for a much longer period – e.g., health and psychiatric research, which generated considerable interest in understanding the characteristics that enable individuals to survive severely traumatic experiences. In my work, I deliberately focus attention on “correlates” or protective processes that foster resilience – although, in reality, resilience is an interaction between the characteristics of the individual and the environment. These correlates or protective processes are the factors over which adults working with children have considerable influence.

Building Resiliency in Youth (2012 Youth Survey)

External or environmental protective factors can strengthen an individual’s capacity to survive and grow as a result of adversity. This video shows how the adults in youth’s lives can help youth become more resilient.


This paper discusses the characteristics of resilient children and how to build protective processes within and around children so that they overcome risk at critical decision-making moments in their lives. The paper outlines a research-based definition of resilience, four major protective mechanisms that foster resilience, and examples of strategies that help to build those protective processes for students. Three critical transition periods for students are explored, followed by recommendations for programs and policies during each transition period. The paper then summarizes these recommendation.

Characteristics of Resilient Children

Garmezy (1983) and others have identified individual characteristics of resilient students in high poverty areas who succeeded despite their disadvantaged circumstances. These characteristics include a wide array of social skills, positive peer interactions, a high degree of social responsiveness and sensitivity, intelligence (measured by IQ), empathy, a sense of humor, and critical problem-solving skills. Additional characteristics of resilient children identified by Garmezy (1983) include the following:

  • Positive peer and adult interactions
  • Low degrees of defensiveness and aggressiveness and high degrees of cooperation, participation, and emotional stability (teachers’ ratings)
  • A positive sense of self
  • A sense of personal power rather than powerlessness
  • An internal locus of control (a belief that they are capable of exercising a degree of control over their environment)

Resilient children also tend to have parents who are concerned with their children’s education, who participate in that education, who direct their children’s everyday tasks, and who are aware of their children’s interests and goals. Another important characteristic of resilient children is having at least one significant adult in their lives. An intact family was not an identifiable, consistent correlate (Clark, 1983; Fine & Schwebel, 1991).

However, a more meaningful conception views resilience not as a fixed attribute, but as vulnerabilities or protective mechanisms that modify the individual’s response to risk situations and operate at turning points during his or her life (Rutter, 1987; Garmezy, 1991). Rutter illustrates this point clearly:

“Protection does not reside in the psychological chemistry of the moment but in the ways in which people deal with life changes and in what they do about their stressful or disadvantageous circumstances. Particular attention needs to be paid to the mechanisms operating at key turning points in people’s lives when a risk trajectory may be redirected onto a more adaptive path.” (Rutter, 1987, p. 329)

By labeling children “resilient” or “nonresilient,” it is easy to overlook the significance of this concept. What makes a child “resilient” is the relative strength of individual characteristics and external protective processes (supports provided by school staff, communities, and families) compared to the influence of risks and vulnerabilities in the external environment. A student may be resilient at certain critical moments and not at others, due to the circumstances surrounding an event or moment. Because resilience is being defined here as a dynamic rather than a static concept, educators, families, and community members must build young people’s potential to be resilient and strengthen protective processes in the face of external risk factors such as gang warfare; low teacher expectations; physical, verbal, or sexual abuse; alcohol or other drug abuse; pregnancy; and so forth.

What Do We Mean by Resilience?

How do we define this term to make it meaningful and useful to educators and policymakers? Some of the terms often considered to be synonymous with resilience are positive coping, persistence, adaptation, and long-term success despite adverse circumstances. Is resilience something we do or something we foster? If you view resilience as something we do, then many of the strategies adopted will be short-term and misdirected toward changing the child. This approach is similar to what some teachers attempt to do in order to build students’ self-esteem. Typically, commercial packages are purchased and teachers teach a lesson on self-esteem. This strategy is ineffective because self-esteem and self-efficacy are learned through positive social interaction and successful accomplishment of tasks, rather than through decontextualized units in a workbook.

Resilience should be viewed as something we foster throughout students’ development by strengthening protective processes for students at critical moments in their lives. When you view resilience as a developmental process that can be fostered, then strategies for change can be directed toward practices, policies, and attitudes among professional educators. It is important to realize, however, that even when you change practices, policies, and attitudes within schools and communities, your work is not done. You will not automatically end up with a school full of resilient children. Within every young person is a delicate balance during those critical life events between the protective processes and risk factors that originate both internally and externally. Protective processes have to be reinforced constantly so that the potential for young people to be resilient when faced with risk factors and vulnerabilities remains intact.

The three characteristics of the process of fostering resilience are as follows:

  1. The process is long-term and developmental.
  2. The process views children with strengths rather than with deficits/risks.
  3. The process nurtures protective processes so that children can succeed, by changing systems, structures, and beliefs within schools and communities.

Beginning a Long-Term and Developmental Process

The difficulty in doing research on resilience is that the development of resilience occurs over a long period and depends on the presence of positive interventions by a significant individual, school, or organization at critical life points in order to counteract risks and vulnerabilities. Indications of resilience require more than short-term achievement gains on standardized tests, although these gains, too, are important. Fostering resilience is not a quick fix scheme or a panacea. An analogy that I like to use derives from research on gifted and talented individuals. People who go on to be world class athletes, Nobel Prize winners, or world famous musicians or artists had, at particular periods, the appropriate combination of support and encouragement, along with opportunities to study with “expert mentors” over a number of years in order for their talent to be developed. Yet, typically the only people within education who use the language of potential and the development of talent are those involved in gifted education. Unfortunately, these programs often are reserved for a small number of students, very few of whom are from racial/ethnic minority groups.

Viewing Children With Strengths Rather Than With Deficits/Risks

In the inner city, the task of developing talent is even more difficult – not only because of the risks, conditions, and vulnerabilities, but also because of the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of adults. We need to change our approach from one that emphasizes risks, deficits, and psychopathology to one that capitalizes on protection, strengths, and assets. We have become experts at predicting who will fail and what kinds of programs will compensate for the deficits. But to design effective interventions, we must understand how some students persist and succeed in school and in later life despite the overwhelming odds against them.


Nurturing Protective Processes for Children

Nurturing protective processes to help children succeed requires us to change beliefs, systems, and structures within schools and communities. The shift in thinking about resilience requires a change in beliefs, structures, and policies. Our expectations for young people are only part of the required change. If I asked teachers about IQ or student intelligence, a majority would say that it is fixed and immutable – that they cannot do much to change it. They believe that intelligence is largely genetic and that it is different across racial/ethnic groups. Most teachers might also admit that environment plays a part; however, because of the poor homes in which many students live, teachers feel that these students are unable to perform academically.

When these belief systems are ingrained in teachers’ minds, it is very difficult to talk about changing expectations, planning for long-term success, or developing resilience in inner-city and disadvantaged children. These ingrained belief systems need to change. Unfortunately, individuals’ perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes are not easily changed. But these belief systems can be changed by implementing sustained professional development, adopting school policies, and developing school cultures that promote learning and achievement for both students and teachers

What Do We Know About Resilience?

here was stability of role performance and attainment. In a special issue of Education and Urban Society (Winfield, 1991), studies reported findings based on cross-sectional populations (i.e., each study focused on different age groups rather than one cohort over a long period) in attempts to piece together what is known about this long-term process

Rutter’s four major protective processes that foster resilience are:

    1. Reducing negative outcomes by altering the risk or child’s exposure to the risk
    2. Reducing negative chain reaction following risk exposure
    3. Establishing and maintaining self-esteem and self-efficacy
    4. Opening up opportunities

To transform schools and communities into environments that foster resilience is no easy task. Strengthening the protective processes in schools and communities requires fundamental change in the beliefs, visions, rituals, and behaviors of educators and community members. For example, Tharp and Gallimore (1988) in their research on the KEEP project found that the scripts, discourse, and methods within schools and classrooms have remained largely unchanged for the last century, despite changes in society. They focus primarily on teaching literacy, and they find that the scripts of teaching and the organizational structures of schooling are similar for majority-culture children and minority children. They state, “Wherever they are, schools are not designed to teach, and they tend to operate, largely without awareness . . . . Teachers generally act as if students are supposed to learn on their own.” Tharp and Gallimore note that all participants in the educational enterprise have shared an inadequate vision of schooling. Their discussion is relevant to the issue of resilience, because it places the issue of fostering resilience within a larger context of changes in classrooms, communities, and schooling.Fostering protective processes in schools and communities requires a major shift in belief systems among adults in the education community. In the new vision of schooling, it is important to view students’ experience, prior cultural knowledge, and language as strengths – not deficits. Believing and expecting that each student has knowledge and experience to contribute to the teaching and learning process is not enough, however. Students also must have opportunities to demonstrate their strengths and knowledge and to see in their evaluations that these strengths and knowledge are valued. Opportunities must be created for young people to show, tell, and demonstrate what they know and can do in schools and communities.

Finally, descriptions of resilient learners or lists of strategies to guide practices and programs are not sufficient to transform schools and communities into protective learning environments. Instead, educators must examine more broadly how schools and classrooms, in concert with other educational and social service agencies, can better operate as protective factors in the lives of students living in high-risk, urban conditions. As such, the notion of resilience becomes a metaphor for creating a new vision of schooling, one in which policies, school structures, programs, and practices are designed to protect, nourish, and support student development rather than categorize, inhibit, and punish students who do not fit the mold.

This monograph was written by Linda F. Winfield, Ph.D., University of Southern California Graduate School of Education


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About Darlene Dancy

Darlene Dancy is the owner of Affordable and Historical Art. Darlene's goal is to educate, motivate and empower people of African descent to learn the rich history of African culture - past & present. Discover Black History written, researched and preserved by African American Scholars. Lectures, Documentaries & Auto Biographies on DVD's and Historical Black Print/Poster art

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