Child poverty in Canada and Ontario has changed very little since 1989, the year our government vowed to end child poverty by the turn of the century (Child poverty rates in Canada, Ontario remain high). In an annual report released this week by Campaign 2000, results show that although the percentage of children living in low-income families is lower in Ontario than in the rest of Canada, these numbers continue to be higher than originally reported in 1989. Alarmingly, twenty-four years later, one in seven Canadian children – including one in two children of immigrant families and one in four children in First Nations communities – still lives in poverty.
“In the face of change and crisis, the resource we need most is our resilience.” ~ Elle Allison, The Resilient Leader
The truth is heartbreaking. We may never be able to eradicate child poverty, or abuse, neglect, addiction, disability, illness, violence, trauma or any other of the myriad of risk factors some of our most vulnerable children face. But what we can do as caring adults is help foster their resilience. We can become resilience builders. And research shows that schools provide the ideal environment for helping children cultivate the resilience that resides within them (Henderson, 2013).
Resilience is often described as a personal trait; as a self-righting tendency or predisposition that enables individuals to bounce back or recover from adversity. And certainly, when we think of leadership within this context, resilience is an admirable resource for leaders to be able to draw upon in their practice. The reality, however, is that resilience is a much more complex and interactive process as individuals attempt to navigate the relationships and resources that help them thrive and move forward in the midst of adversity (Truebridge & Benard, 2013). These resources, called protective factors, help foster resilience and include caring relationships, a safe environment, supportive role models and mentors, high expectations, clear boundaries and structure. Not only do protective factors act as buffers that can help mitigate the effects of stress and trauma, they have been shown to have a greater impact in children’s lives than the specific adverse event(s) encountered (Henderson, 2013).
The Resiliency Wheel
Note: The Resiliency Wheel is a visual synthesis of resiliency-building conditions documented in the body of resilience research. “Caring and Support” is highlighted because it is the single most powerful environmental protective factor. All of the other conditions are actions that grow out of providing genuine caring and support. —Nan Henderson
Many of these protective factors are already part of a school’s climate, making schools the ideal places where resilience building can flourish. But what school leaders (all leaders, not just the principal) may not realize is the additional benefit, the profound positive impact that these conditions can have on at-risk students. We can move from a perspective of risk-deficit to a perspective of strength by becoming more aware of the influence of protective factors on resilience building. And creating a caring and supportive environment is the single most powerful protective factor in fostering one’s resilience (Henderson, 2013). School leaders need to harness that knowledge by modeling protective factors in their schools and practice. Because a safe and positive school climate provides many of the key components to resilience building as illustrated in The Resiliency Wheel above.
“One person’s support can be crucial in developing another’s resilience.” ~ Truebridge and Benard, Reflections on Resilience
Ultimately, resilience is about relationships. It’s about caring and supportive relationships that demonstrate compassion, respect, trust and understanding. I’d like to share with you a story about how crucial that support can be for an at-risk child. In my Leadership in Education class we recently had the privilege of meeting a guest speaker, I’ll call her Sara. She has an intellectual disability. Her journey to becoming a leader, educator and mentor, began as a victim. From the age of 5, she was sexually abused by her father. Her physical, emotional and psychological trauma manifested itself in a variety of behaviours; through aggression, anger, cutting, suicidal thoughts, hearing voices, run-ins with the law and multiple admissions to psychiatric hospitals. The emphasis was on controlling Sara’s behaviour and there was no support to connect her behaviour to abuse. At the age of 19, Sara confided in her school’s guidance counselor about her father’s abuse. She found a caring and supportive environment in her school, and the one relationship she needed to begin her process of healing and resilience.
“I see what is right with you, despite your struggles. And I believe what is right with you is more powerful than anything that is wrong.” ~ Nan Henderson, Havens of Resilience
It was a very long journey and many more years before Sara truly received the help that she needed. Eventually, she was referred to and connected with the right supportive relationships and she began to receive counseling, education, trauma therapy and behavioural intervention that focused on skill building, not control. She began to develop a sense of safety and security. Through participation in a variety of groups she began building strong connections with her community, developing caring and positive relationships, and she found employment. There were no more hospitalizations and her self-harming behaviours were significantly reduced. Using the skills she has learned, Sara teaches others. She leads support groups, is a peer mentor in the Wonders of Me program, and she has received a leadership award for people with developmental disabilities. Her story of resilience and recovery now guides a best practice model in Ontario. She travels the Province to tell her story at conferences, with clinicians in hospitals, and she’s the most active member of the Trauma and Developmental Disabilities Committee of Central West Region.
“In reality, every student, no matter how troubled, has strengths that he or she can call on, even while he or she may be exhibiting serious challenges. One of the most effective resilience-building actions educators can engage in is to dig for and reflect back to a student his or her strengths.” ~ Nan Henderson, Havens of Resilience
Everyone has the capacity for resilience. Everyone has strengths. Identifying and tapping into those strengths is how we can move from ‘risk’ to ‘resilience’. And we can do that by becoming better resilience builders…in ourselves, and in others.
As always, I invite and appreciate your comments and feedback.
Allison, E. (2011/2012). The resourceful school: The resilient leader. Educational Leadership, 69(4), 79- 82. (Online link here)
Henderson, N. (2013). Resilience and learning: Havens of resilience. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 22- 27. (Online link here)
Truebridge, S., & Benard, B. (2013) Resilience and learning: Reflections on resilience. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 66-67. (Online link here)
Special thanks to my classmate Karen Klee for her presentation on “Mentorship in Education” and for introducing us to such an incredible woman whose journey of resilience and recovery is truly remarkable and inspiring.