NASP Communiqué, Vol. 36, #3
Resiliency: Strategies for
Parents and Educators
By Virginia Smith Harvey, PhD, NCSP
University of Massachusetts–Boston
“Into every life, some rain must fall.”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1842
As Longfellow infers, everyone faces adverse circumstances at some point in their lives. To a
certain extent adversity—like rain—fosters growth. Yet severe adversity—like hurricanes—
can be overwhelming at any age, and even some young children face severe adversity. Those
who manage to become personally and professionally successful despite severe adversity are
While we marvel that some people overcome seemingly overwhelming childhood adversity,
resiliency is actually a normal trait that comes from inborn tendencies to adapt. If people’s
natural tendencies to adapt are appropriate, then they can overcome even severe adversity.
If not, problems can occur.
Since every life contains “some rain,” approaches and habits that increase resiliency—the
equivalent of umbrellas and waterproof shelter to withstand the “rainstorms” of life—can and
should be fostered in all children and adolescents. Approaches and habits that encourage
resiliency can be from attitudes and emotions, feelings of competence, social competence, or
physical health. Parents, teachers, and other adults can foster children’s resiliency in all of
these areas. Very often one resilient behavior affects more than one area. For example, regular
exercise promotes good physical health and also decreases negative emotions such as
anxiety, anger, and depression.
Attitudes and Emotions
Some responses that strongly affect resiliency are positive attitudes, positive emotions, and
the ability to appropriately express all emotions, even the negative ones.
Positive attitudes. These attitudes include thinking positively, encouraging ourselves to try,
being determined to persist until success is reached, and applying a problem-solving approach
when difficult situations are encountered. Positive attitudes reflect a sense of power, promise,
purpose, worth, and “self-efficacy.” Children and adolescents with positive attitudes are
optimistic. They believe that when they try they can learn, achieve in school, and have successful
careers. They also believe they are capable of making friends. Adults play a critical role
in helping children and adolescents in developing these positive attitudes. Many successful
persons remember specific adults who gave them words of encouragement when they were
young, resulting in the development of positive attitudes.
Positive emotions. Emotions such as love and gratitude also increase resiliency. Children
need to be cared for, loved, and supported by adults at home, in the neighborhood, in school,
and in organizations such as the Boys’ Club, churches, synagogues, and temples. Children and
adolescents should be praised much more often than they are criticized, and they should have
at least one adult with whom they feel able to trust and confide.
Every adult should strive to appreciate each child and adolescent in their lives. Adults
should deliberately develop their ability to be sensitive to the needs of each individual child
and respond to those particular needs. Children and adolescents who are cared for, loved, and
supported learn to express positive emotions to others. Receiving, feeling, and expressing positive
emotions buffer children, adolescents, and adults against depression and other negative
reactions to adversity. Numerous harmful circumstances are caused by other people—sometimes
by accident, sometimes through deliberate abuse or neglect. Learning to forgive others
and oneself for playing a part in causing adverse circumstances fosters resiliency. Forgiving
is not the same as forgetting, pardoning, condoning, excusing, or denying the harm that
one person does to another. It is a process in which the person becomes less angry, resentful,
fearful, interested in revenge, or remorseful. It is neither possible nor appropriate for forgiveness
to occur while the harm is still occurring. For example, a person who is being abused
should not try to forgive the offender while the abuse is still occurring. But later, forgiving
increases well-being and improves interpersonal relations. In forgiving, an injured person can
develop empathy and come to understand even an abuser’s needs and motives. Empathy can
enable a person to accept imperfections in all people, including themselves. Forgiving persons
choose to experience, appropriately express, and then let go of negative feelings of anger, guilt,
and retaliation. All of these responses increase future resiliency.
Appropriate expression of all emotions. Resilient people appropriately express all emotions,
even the negative ones. Children learn to express all emotions appropriately when
adults provide “emotion coaching,” which John Gottman at the University of Washington
(Gottman, Declaire, & Goleman, 1998; see “Resources”) describes as (a) becoming more
aware of emotions, (b) recognizing expressions of emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and
teaching, (c) listening empathically and validating feelings, (d) labeling emotions in words children
can understand, and (e) helping children come up with appropriate ways to solve a problem
or deal with an upsetting issue or situation
Children who feel competent are resilient. Feelings of competence arise from success in
school work or other activities.
Academic success. When children achieve academic success, they face all types of adversity
with much greater success. A lifetime commitment to education and learning results from
success in school, which in turn results from an academic program that is at a level at which
each child can succeed. Every child’s school and after-school academic program should be
designed so that the child is successful most of the time. In schools, academic success is
increased by the use of different types of teaching strategies that meet varied learning styles.
It is also fostered by recognizing and understanding cultural and other differences among the
Regular school attendance and homework completion. School attendance and completing
homework are essential for academic success. Children and adolescents need a quiet time and
place to do homework for six or more hours per week. They also need adults to help them
when they encounter difficulties with homework. This support can be at home, at school, or
in another location such as an after-school care center. All children should be helped to
develop a menu of good study strategies and the ability to deliberately choose appropriate
Developing talents. Every child should increase feelings of competence by developing talents.
Which talents—playing a team sport, hiking, playing a musical instrument, dancing,
drawing, art, creative writing, bike riding, computer programming—is less important than the
feelings of joy and competence that result. Sometimes a talent leads to a career. More often
it results in an improved ability to deal with stress, a source of friendships, a positive method
of self-expression, and the constructive use of time. Adults play an important role in talent
development by mentoring; that is, by providing encouragement, helping children set realistic
and manageable goals, problem solving together, and finding ways to obtain necessary
Positive social competency leads to positive relationships, positive life choices, and increased
Network of connections. Connection fosters resiliency at all ages. It is important to “love
more than one;” that is, to have several groups of friends and relatives. For example, elderly
adults who have at least four different groups of friends and relatives with whom they feel connected,
and whom they see regularly, are more resilient and have fewer medical problems. The
same is true for children and adolescents. Adults can encourage children and adolescents to
develop emotional attachments with relatives, with neighbors, with others who share their
interests, and with other members of organized activities. Once a child has developed emotional
attachments, it is important to deliberately maintain them. For example, parents who
re moving can try to make sure that their children remain in the same schools and activities
so their network of connections is not disturbed. If that is not possible, adults can encourage
children and adolescents to maintain their network of connections long distance.
Structure and clear expectations. Adults at home and in school need to promote social competence
by providing consistent structure and clear expectations; that is, a careful balance of
rules that require children to be considerate of themselves and others. Children and adolescents
do less well when there are too many rules, too few rules, or inconsistent rules. They
need to know what is expected of them, what behaviors are acceptable, and what behaviors
are not acceptable.
Helping others. Social competence and resilience are also fostered by helping others. This
can take many forms: elementary students can read to first graders in school, adolescents can
work in the town food pantry or help build houses for Habitat for Humanity, young adults can
serve as mentors for children and adolescents.
Peace-building skills. These skills, including learning how to be appropriately assertive
without being aggressive, also foster resilience. Children who know how to be assertive are
least likely to be victims of bullies. They are also less likely to stand by and observe while others
get bullied. And, finally, social competence is increased by minimizing exposure to inappropriate
entertainment. Violent TV shows, movies, and video games significantly increase
violent responses by children and adolescents. This, in turn, reduces their resiliency.
Good physical health fosters the ability to handle life’s challenges because it prepares the body
and mind to be more resilient. Adults can foster children’s resiliency by helping them eat well.
Some foods foster good neurological development, particularly proteins (milk, meat, nuts) and
vitamins (vegetables, vitamin pills). Eating a breakfast that includes protein improves school
performance, which in turn improves resiliency.
Medical care. Vaccinations, vision and hearing evaluations, and seeking medical care for illness
increases resiliency by improving school performance. Short-term medication, such as
anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs, can be helpful in breaking the cycle of negative emotions.
Long-term medications, when appropriately prescribed and monitored for disorders
such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, are essential for the resiliency of individuals with
Exercise. Exercise, even walking or bicycling a half hour three times a week, not only
improves resiliency and physical health but is extremely helpful for emotional health. Individuals
in the habit of regular exercise, and who have a type of exercise they enjoy, are in a much
better position to deal with the anxiety, anger, or depression that can result from adversity.
Children who are disinclined to exercise on their own can be encouraged by adults regularly
exercising with them.
Adequate sleep. Getting enough sleep fosters resiliency. With longer work hours, increased
number of activities, and attempts to spend family time together, it can be challenging to
ensure that children obtain the necessary 9–10 hours of sleep each night. This problem can
be even more severe for teenagers, given the conflict between their high sleep needs, the early
time that high school begins, and the demands of activities and jobs.
Positive stress control. Controlling stress encourages resiliency. The most important way
for adults to teach children to use positive stress control is for the adults to use and demonstrate
positive stress controls, themselves, such as meditation, controlled breathing, yoga,
exercise, developing talents, and other “relaxation responses.” They do not abuse alcohol,
tobacco, or drugs to reduce stress. In addition, adults need to expressly tell children and adolescents
what behaviors are acceptable.
Good prenatal care. Resiliency is fostered by good prenatal care. During pregnancy, the
mother should eat well, take vitamins, see a physician, practice positive stress control, and
avoid diseases, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. A healthy prenatal environment helps unborn children
attain a healthy weight, reach full term, and develop a healthy nervous system and brain. This means the children are less likely to have future health or learning problems, and
in turn increases resilience. While we cannot undo a poor prenatal environment once a child
is born, all early adolescents should be educated about the importance of good prenatal care
so they will provide their own children with good prenatal care. This will increase the resilience
of future generations.
Resiliency can be fostered by many different approaches, and can be improved at any age. Not
all of the approaches and habits that foster resiliency are necessary, and very few of us can
practice all of them. However, the more resilient approaches and habits a child, adolescent,
or adult maintains, the better the ability to weather whatever life brings.
Benson, P. L., Espeland, P., & Galbraith, J. (1998). What
teens need to succeed: Proven, practical ways to shape
your own future. Minneapolis: Free Spirit. ISBN:
Benson, P. L., Galbraith, J., & Espeland, P. (1998). What kids
need to succeed: Proven, practical ways to raise good kids
(revised ed.). Minneapolis: Free Spirit. ISBN:
Brooks, R., & Goldstein, S. (2002). Raising resilient children:
Fostering strength, hope, and optimism in your child. New
York: McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books. ISBN:
Goldstein, S., & Brooks, R. (2002). Raising resilient children:
A curriculum to foster strength, hope, and optimism in
children. Baltimore: Brookes. ISBN: 1557665990.
Gottman, J. M., Declaire, J., & Goleman, D. P. (1998). Raising
an emotionally intelligent child. Fireside Press. ISBN:
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the
new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting
fulfillment. New York: Free Press. ISBN: 0743222970.