The Kauai resiliency project

Another particularly useful study was the 40-year Kauai project, led by Emmy Werner, that traced the lives of all 698 children born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955 (Werner, 2005). Werner's team included mental health professionals, paediatricians, social workers and public health workers who monitored the development of all the children on the island at critical points in their lives (ages 1, 2,10, 32 and 40). The researchers looked at the development of specific areas that included trust, autonomy, industry, identity, intimacy and generativity (defined as, the concern and the nurture of those from older and younger generations than themselves). Around 30 percent of the sample had been born and raised in poverty and displayed a number of other risk factors (such as divorce or parental psychopathology) or were raised by mothers with low levels of formal education. Werner discovered that two-thirds of the children who had experienced four or more risk factors by the age of two, went on to develop learning or behavioural problems by the age of ten or mental health problems by the same age.

While highlighting the impact of adverse childhood experiences, what is just as interesting is that one-third of the high-risk group grew up to be competent, confident and caring adults with no evidence of behavioural or learning problems during childhood and adolescence; they succeeded in school and managed home and social life well. By the time they reached 40, all were employed and none had been in trouble with the law. In addition, instances of divorce in this group were lower than their peers, as were mortality rates.

Did these individuals have some innate superpower that protected them from the slings and arrows that life fired at them? Werner certainly didn't think so but, rather, identified several protective factors that acted to inoculate them from the negative consequences of early adversity. These factors certainly arose from within the individual, but were also found to arise from within the family and the wider community.

Factors within the individual

The resilient children were more likely to display certain character traits and behaviours that elicited positive responses from parents and other caregivers (including grandparents and older siblings). By the age of one, they were being described as active, affectionate and good natured. By the age of two, independent observers were describing the resilient toddlers in terms of agreeableness and cheerfulness, behaviours that would, in turn, promote positive traits from others.

These two-year-olds were also more advanced in their language, motor and self-help skills. By the age of ten, they were scoring higher on tests of practical problem solving and were better readers than those who developed learning and behavioural problems. They were also said to have developed a special talent that gave them a sense of pride and were more willing than other children to help those in need.

By late adolescence, the resilient teenagers had developed a strong belief in their own effectiveness and a view that problems they encountered could be overcome by their own actions. They also had more realistic plans about their future professional trajectories than their less resilient peers.

Factors within the family

The resilient one-third were able to establish close bonds with caregivers who were sensitive to their needs early on and displayed healthy attachments. These caregivers weren't necessarily the primary attachment figure, as the more resilient children appeared particularly skilled at recruiting substitutes, such as grandparents, older siblings, uncles and aunts.

There were also some interesting gender differences. Resilient girls were more likely to come from households where the family combined an emphasis on independence with the support of a female caregiver; resilient boys came from households with structured rules and a male who served as a positive role model. Interestingly, perhaps, the ability to safely express emotions also played a protective factor for these boys. Finally, the families of resilient children also tended to hold religious beliefs that appeared to provide some stability and meaning in their lives.

Factors in the wider community

Community appeared to play an important role in the lives of the resilient one-third. These youngsters tended to rely more on elders and peers in their community for emotional support. Many of these youngsters said they had a favourite teacher who acted as a positive role model while added support was provided by caring neighbours, elder mentors, youth leaders, ministers and other members of the church.

The overriding message here is that strong inclusion within the community - a sense of belonging if you will - and knowing who to approach in time of need fortified intrinsic and family factors. For example, those skilled in recruiting surrogate caregivers had more opportunity to seek and find support as well as identifying those who they could look up to.

In addition to those individual factors highlighted by Werner, Dianne Coutu identifies a number of characteristics of resilient people (Coutu, 2002):

A staunch acceptance of reality

Resilient individuals remain pragmatic about the situations they face and identify practical ways of dealing with adverse situations. This is not to say that they are pessimistic (optimism is, after all, a key component of psychological capital) but they are able to identify strengths and weaknesses in themselves and assess the external environment in order to make rational, realistic and evidence-led decisions.

A deep belief that life has meaning

Resilient people are able to find meaning in often very difficult situations, including those related to personal suffering. This characteristic is, in turn, related to a concept known an post-traumatic growth, defined as 'positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances' (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004, p. 1).

The ability to improvise and adapt to significant change

Resilient people are creative and are able to use whatever comes to hand in order to innovate their way out of adversity In other words, they are able to adapt to changing circumstances.

While Werner places resilience within the context of childhood adversity, Coutu is referring to people and organisations, highlighting the way in which resilience is of growing concern to a number of different sectors. Furthermore, we most often describe resilient individuals, yet we might also use terms such as resilient organisations, resilient communities or resilient schools.

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