Resilience is currently a bit of a toxic word currently. The idea that we need to build young people's resilience to 'survive' some of society's contemporary challenges has hints of 'victim' blaming. Living in poverty - toughen up. Experienced trauma - develop grit. Mental illness - not strong enough. This is not where Every Child Should is coming from.
The wider concept of resilience - how to deal with the unexpected or challenging - has been an interest of mine throughout my career. The words may have changed, but through youth work, health education, first aid, humanitarian action, and essential skills development it has always been there.
Over the next year Every Child Should will explore what it means to be resilient and the challenges to overcome in order for every child to be resilient. We are aware of some excellent work directly in this field and – as you’ll see from the definitions below – there’s a plethora of work that is not called resilience, but contributes hugely.
So why resilience and why now? As with all of Every Child Should’s themes we are exploring what would help all children to thrive.
We will look at more sophisticated definitions over the coming months, but for me resilience is:
- An ability to cope - when an ‘event’ occurs the child is able to withstand potentially negative effects.
- Bouncebackability - when an ‘event’ leads to negative effects the child is able to recover to their normal (or a new normal) state.
But a child’s day is full of events. And the impact of those events varies greatly depending on the child’s personality, their circumstances, their ability, their networks and support and their skills and knowledge. My son with who has heightened anxiety will some days find routine tasks very stressful. Other days less so and his brother hardly ever. An ability to cope is multi-faceted – and bouncebackability is fundamentally an ability to cope over time.
By building resilience what are we trying to protect? Once we establish this, we can work backwards to understand what will help to build a child’s resilience.
- Physical health: we want children to keep breathing, with as many limbs and digits as they started with and everything else in the right place and doing what it should,
- Mental health and wellbeing: we want children to be in a state of happiness and well-being where they can learn and develop, cope with typical stresses of life and maintain positive relationships with others.
Thinking about you, your children or the young people that you work with - and the resources and networks available to them - consider the following scenarios:
- If you missed the last bus at 11pm how would you get back home?
- How would you manage if there was 48-hour power cut at your home during a cold winter?
- Would the people in your home know what to do if you fell and broke your leg?
- Where would you go if you had to leave your home suddenly?
- If a strike meant that supermarkets couldn't re-stock and shelves were bare for 3 days would you have enough food?
- What would be the impact of not being paid for next month?
- Do you have anyone you trust that you can talk to if you needed to?
- If an injury left you bed bound could you get to the toilet and to food?
- What would happen if your child was meant to be calling you to be collected but the mobile signal went down across the network?
None of these are terribly outlandish scenarios. And the ability to manage them depends on a whole range of factors. Sometimes skills e.g. first aid etc. Sometimes preparedness e.g. candles, cooking stoves etc. Sometimes money and resources. Often networks of support. And skills such as problem solving, assessment of risk and communication. Access to state support.
These things are what contribute to resilience. And it is this we will be focusing on over our 2019/2020.
Clearly some people have more of these things than others. And part of the challenge is how we develop these protective factors for all.
Because none of those scenarios should lead to life threatening, limb injuring, emotional harm or otherwise damaging outcomes. But it is easy to see how having low resilience - e.g. limited preparedness, challenges with problem solving, fewer networks of support - could move any of these situations from difficult to deal with to dangerous.
Resilient self, resilient communities
The ability to cope with a physical injury depends on knowledge of first aid and access to health services. The ability of a child to cope with bereavement will depend on their support networks and the services they can access. There are so many events that a child may need to be resilient against – do we need to prioritise these? Are there core skills that will cover most bases? Are the right services in place?
Resilience does not equate to independence. Although the ability to manage situations on your own is one component of resilience, it is not the aim. You cannot do CPR on yourself. You cannot move independently if you have no motor control – but if you have sufficient resources available to you then you can withstand negative events.
If we are nervous about the 'resilience' word then what else? We have given this piece of work the working title 'Every Child Prepared' - it is about building the skills, knowledge, resources and links that help children face the day to day challenges. And in building these for the routine and lower level 'crisis' considering how we are building children and young people's tool kit to manage bigger emergencies.
And its more than just about the individual. Public services, schools, communities and society as a whole have a role to play in helping each other to manage crisis. Supporting children to recognise how to help others is a core part of stronger communities. How do we know when someone needs our help? What role can children play in improving the ability of a community to manage difficulties? What is the balance between the State's responsibility to provide support in an emergency and our responsibility to manage by ourselves? How much should communities 'be prepared' for potential emergencies and to support each other?
So, this is the beginning of a conversation, but areas for consideration, when exploring ways to build resilience, might include:
- Skills development and opportunities to rehearse responses to possible events,
- Knowledge where when and how to access help,
- Prevention and health promotion,
- The essential components of resilience and preparedness for a child.
And within this how do we ensure that every child is resilient and how to overcome the additional challenges to resilience for those who have limited resources.
Get involved with this conversation, send your thoughts and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Matt Overd is an experienced third sector leader and expert in outcomes based strategy development, implementation and evaluation. Having worked for very large, medium and very small charities, he now leads Every Child Should and provides consultancy support to a range of organisations. Matt has particular interest in individual and community resilience, youth led approaches, community conflict resolution, disabilities and inclusion, first aid, young people’s leadership and humanitarianism. He has a PhD in chaos, an MSc in Voluntary Sector Management and leads work on Theory of Change and impact measurement.