Henderson and Milstein (2003) cite a list of seven characteristics of resilient individuals: initiative, independence, insight, relationship, humor, creativity and morality. Where do these characteristics come from? These characteristics seem like the aspects of personality most likely to be effected by trauma. This definition of resilience seems almost self-referential: those who are resilient are those who have displayed resilience.
What is interesting is how these traits influence those who have not experienced significant trauma. Some individuals seem to be disproportionately effected by minor setbacks in their lives. These individuals, in my experience, seem to be lacking many of the seven characteristics of resilient individuals. For example, they may only find humor in the suffering of others, or they may lack initiative in the areas of their education and career. However, this observation is also circular: those who lack resilience are those who have not shown resilience.
So where does this lead? If resiliency can only be defined as a characteristic of the resilient, what value does the concept hold? In order to be valuable, it must be malleable, otherwise it is only observable in retrospect, and of no use in helping improve outcomes. Henderson and Milstein suggest six steps to foster resilience: increase bonding, set clear and consistent boundaries, teach life skills, provide caring and support, set and communicate high expectations, and provide opportunities for meaningful participation. This framework is meant to provide organizations a way to analyze how they currently support resilience, and how this support can be improved.
The most hopeful element of this model is that building resilience is a long term process. It is easy to get discouraged, seeing students who seem to have given up, who refuse to try. However, resilience may develop at any time, and the work that we do now with students may reap benefits that are not seen until many years after the student has moved on. Building resiliency may not be a quick fix, but it may be the only possible fix. As educators, we need to not worry fixate on whether students currently display signs of resilience. We need to build structures in our schools and in our classrooms that promote resilience in the long term.
Henderson, M. & Milstein, M. (2003) Resiliency in schools, Making it happen for students and educators. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.