Developing students' resilience: What does the research say?

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
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Resilience as a life-skill and as a part of character education has come to the fore in recent years – and in an era of Covid-19, it seems more relevant than ever. Dr Stephanie Thornton looks at what the research says about this sometimes-elusive concept


Difficult and challenging environments often have a detrimental effect on developmental outcomes (Sutton et al, 2006). This is true whether the problem is associated with poverty and deprivation, with poor or abusive parenting, with families experiencing severe conflict and breakdown, with parents with mental health problems, or overcrowding – and often, teenagers experience several of these problems at the same time.

The impact can be broad: academic attainment, social development, mental health and many other factors can be negatively affected by such environments. In particular, poverty and deprivation and the negative effects of this on the family is associated with poorer developmental outcomes, including delinquency and crime (Imran et al, 2018).

Much developmental and educational research has focused on how things go wrong in adverse environments. However: it is clear that some individuals cope far better than we might expect in those situations, avoiding the developmental damage that such environments often generate (Ellis, 2017).

This has sparked renewed interest in the concept of resilience, introducing a new focus on what can go right in development, even in adversity.

This research has emphasised that resilience is not simply about coping better with potentially damaging environments and challenges. The resilient also cope better with the inevitable, ordinary everyday setbacks of life and schooling. And resilience is related to many aspects of positive psychological adjustment and happiness across the board.

Resilience is now generally accepted as an important issue, both in developmental research and in education. However, the concept of resilience is far less straightforward than one might assume, as is clear from a detailed review of different theories commissioned by the Australian educational service (Shean, 2015).

Beyond saying that it is something that allows the individual to cope better with adversity, there is no consensus on exactly how resilience should be defined, or exactly what it involves.

Different theorists argue for different definitions. These vary in terms of what they see as the foundations of resilience (the relative role of cognitive or emotional factors), in terms of the factors they see as playing a causal role in generating resilience (the relative importance of personal characteristics, family, community and direct experience of adversity), and in terms of what they suggest might be done to foster resilience in the young.

Most theories accept that there is some genetic component to resilience, though all reject the idea that resilience can be solely a function of genes, or that it is an innate and immutable trait. The consensus is that the genetic component of resilience derives from innate differences in temperament.

From birth, some babies are temperamentally easy going and robust, where others are irritable and easily distressed (Rothbart, 2011). Recent research has identified three personality types in childhood and adolescence, which seem to build on these early temperaments (Lionetti et al, 2018):

  • Dandelions: So-called because, like that hardy plant, these individuals are resilient, robustly thriving even in adverse circumstances.
  • Orchids: Like that tender flower, they are much more vulnerable in adverse circumstances and easily damaged.
  • Tulips: Those who fall between the above categories.

Over various studies, Lionetti et al (2018) found that about 25 to 35 per cent of children and adolescents scored as dandelions, about the same percentage as orchids, and 41 to 47 per cent as tulips.

This typology has important practical implications for schools: dandelions can cope with and learn from levels of challenge, setback and critical feedback that would leave an orchid too distraught to benefit. Identifying these personality types in the classroom would allow the possibility of tailoring teaching styles and feedback optimally, in light of an individual’s level of resilience.

It is generally accepted that our personalities are influenced not just by genetics, but also by the relationships we engage (Rothbart, 2011). Of these, families provide the most important social context for development. Families provide role models and training in various ways. There is good evidence that the way individuals react to trauma is transmitted from parent to child, and across many generations within a family.

Resilience in challenging environments is, in particular, a cross-generational thing. Exactly how families transmit resilience to their children is a matter for continuing research. All theorists would agree that parenting styles are crucial (Masten, 2018).

Warm, emotionally supporting families are more likely to produce resilient individuals than less emotionally supportive families. In general (and in settled environments) an authoritative parenting style that fosters self-confidence and autonomous competence in the young (Power, 2013) is most likely to produce robustly resilient teenagers. However, where children are growing up in deprivation or in dangerous or risky environments, a stricter, more authoritarian parenting style that presents clear guidance about what is or is not acceptable behaviour, and projects positive expectations for the child’s development is associated with more resilient outcomes.

Families are important, but other contexts, too, can influence the development of resilience. For example, a positive, caring and encouraging teacher can change a teenager’s perception of his or her potential, fostering the self-belief that most theories see as a core foundation for resilience (Werner & Smith, 2001). A school that projects high expectations, encouraging the young to have the self-confidence to try, and offering the opportunity to succeed, fosters a more resilient orientation in the young.

Thus resilience has an important foundation in a positive emotional orientation, a self-belief that expects to cope. However, it is also clear from research that self-belief alone is not enough to ensure that youth will transcend everyday challenge or serious adversity.

To be effectively resilient, an adolescent needs not only self-belief but effective mental strategies (Hauser et al, 2006). Research has shown that the resilient are characterised by a high degree of cognitive or executive control, the ability to focus attention, to evaluate what is or is not working effectively, the ability to switch attention to new strategies flexibly – and the ability to regulate emotional reactions. To some extent these things can be learned; but executive control of thoughts, behaviours and emotions is easier for some personality types than others.

Current research is starting to explore how personality, supportive families and schools and specific experiences interact to generate the emotional and cognitive processes that underlie resilience. This process is complex: as a result of differing balance between various factors, some individuals will tend to be resilient across many situations, whereas others may be resilient in some situations but not others, and some will have generally low resilience. By the same token, it may be easier to foster resilience in some individuals than in others (Masten, 2015).


  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development. To read Dr Thornton’s previous articles in SecEd, including in this series, go to http://bit.ly/2o1BVxK


Further information & resources

  • Ellis et al: Beyond risk and protective factors: An adaptation-based approach, Perspectives on Psychological Science 12, 2017.
  • Hauser et al: Out of the woods: Tales of teen resilience, Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Imran et al: Does poverty lead to crime? Evidence from the Unites States of America, International Journal of Social Economics 45, 2018.
  • Lionetti et al: Dandelions, tulips and orchids: Evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-senstive and high-sensitive individuals, Translational Psychology 8, 2018: https://go.nature.com/2NcDvrc
  • Masten: Resilience theory and research on children and families: Past, present, and promise, Journal of Family Theory and Review 10, 2018.
  • Masten: Ordinary Magic: Resilience in development, Guildford Press, 2015.
  • Power: Parenting dimensions and styles: A brief history and recommendations for future research, Childhood Obesity 9, 2013.
  • Rothbart: Becoming who we are: Temperament and personality in development, Guilford Press, 2011.
  • Shean: Current theories relating to resilience and young people: A literature review, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne, 2015: http://bit.ly/2SukNNi
  • Sutton et al: Nipping criminality in the bud, The Psychologist 19, 2006.
  • Werner & Smith: Journeys from childhood to midlife: Risk, resilience, and recovery, Cornell University Press, 2001.


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