Kids: a Fundamental Building Block in Community Resiliency #2

A longitudinal study spanning 40+ years (Werner, 2005), and supported by numerous shorter studies (Zolkoski and Bullock, 2012; Werner, 2005a), illuminates the resilience potential in youngsters. What is intriguing is that those characteristics are reflective of the attributes found in resilient communities. My  hypothesis is that the social and environmental attributes that foster resiliency in youth as “opportunities to participate in meaningful, valued activities and roles — those involving problem-solving, decision-making, planning, goal setting, [and] helping others” (Benard,1991; Wehlage, 1989), if employed through community-driven, project-based service learning have the potential to also foster greater resiliency across the youths’ communities.

The building of a community’s resilience through its youth can be accomplished in a series of steps. First, we identify the primary qualities indicative of resiliency in youth. Second, we identify the extent to which those qualities are fostered through collaborative forms of youth-community interaction. Finally, we provide opportunities to simultaneously further resiliency in youth and across their community through collaborative service-learning experiences with community members. The latter step will be presented below through selected examples of student-community collaborative projects spanning 40. The examples will introduce different ways kids worked alongside local citizens of all ages and backgrounds in problem-solving projects that engaged the kids in learning as they contributed to their surroundings. Benard (1993) notes that participation in such learning environments provides students with opportunities to further their self-efficacy, sense of power, degree of control over their environment and future, and their sense of purpose. Wilding (2001) echoes the same qualities when talking about resilient communities.  

In the early 1970s preventionists shifted from a retrospective approach to the study of childhood disorders to the study of successful “survivors.” Researchers began to identify factors that contribute to children’s growth to stable, healthy adults. They found that one out of three of kids who grew up in high risk home environments reached midlife as “competent, confident and caring adults” (Werner, 2005,11). “They succeeded in school, managed home and social life well, and set realistic educational and vocational goals and expectations for themselves. By the time they reached age 40, not one of these individuals was unemployed, none had been in trouble with the law, and none had to rely on social services” (Werner, 2005, 11-12). More surprising was that many who had experienced serious coping problems as teenagers had, by midlife, no serious problems. “They were in stable marriages and jobs, were satisfied with their relationships with their spouses and children, and were responsible citizens in their community” (12).

Key to the youngsters’ successful maturation was a positive relationship with at least one person: extended family member, school teacher, or someone in the community. Success among teens with problems came to them as an “‘opening of opportunities’ in the third and fourth decade of life [that] led to enduring positive changes among the majority of teenage mothers, the delinquent boys, and the individuals who had struggled with mental health problems in their teens”(12). What I propose here is an opening of diverse learning opportunities that integrate youth in their community as the community becomes more integrated in their youth’s learning. An outcome of this approach would find the classroom and the community almost indistinguishable: the classroom would be wherever the students are and teaching and learning would be a shared endeavor.

“If we can determine the personal and environmental sources of social competence and wellness [that contribute to resiliency in youth], we can better plan preventive interventions focused on creating and enhancing the personal and environmental attributes that serve as the key to healthy development” (Benard, 1991,3). An application of this call for change across other dimensions of community and education begins to identify those social environmental attributes that serve to build community resiliency. The attributes are more in the design of built environments and social situations, or opportunities that enable people to regularly encounter the kinds of positive interactions that Benard refers to as “transactional process[es] with one’s environment” (1991,3).

What is Benard’s transactional environment and can it constitute a learning environment? Kids already grow up, or at least age, in a transactional environment. That environment is called school. On one hand school provides them with opportunities to develop positive relationships with peers and teachers. On the other hand, while there are changes for the better being made, the greater K-12 educational environment is, in regard to building a community’s resilience, stifling youth’s community contributions now and limiting their participation in the future.

Other than a small, yet growing number of exceptions, High Tech High, The Met, Coalition of Essential Schools, and the like, children are predominantly separated from their community and seen by society in one of three roles. Each role limits the potential of primary and secondary school students as community builders. An overview of the three viewpoints is found in Kurth-Schai’s “Roles of Youth in Society” (1988, 114-116). In summary, children are seen as 1) victims of adult society and therefore in need of protection, 2) as threats to adult society and therefore in need of control, and 3) as learners of adult society and therefore “incomplete, incompetent, and in need of adult guidance” (115). These views of children and youth as “adults in the making” bring with them a sense that their capacities and abilities have yet to be developed and that any such development is accomplished through adult intervention and supervision. Seen this way, kids’ role in society is inconsequential, their value and power invisible, and their psychological and intellectual capacities and abilities vastly underutilized (Kurth-Schai, 1988, 115; Goodman, 1970). Two consequences of the kids being assigned the limited goal of academic achievement are that their creative energies and positive future outlook are lost to their community as the community’s ability to provide them with opportunities to strengthen their resilience is lost to the kids (Kurth-Schai, 1988, 117).

For a majority of K-12 students, one outcome of society’s assigned roles is that “youth are required to spend many years isolated from the realities of community life in artificial environments” (116; Toffler, 1974). Education, located on the periphery of society, as opposed to integrated throughout  society, deprives youth of ‘participation either in significant community decision-making or in socially approved productive work” (116; Toffler, 1974,15). They are also deprived of the greater likelihood of being able to recruit (Benard’s word) a caring, supportive member of the community and therefore better insure their future as a healthy, participatory citizen.

While much learning in school remains separated from the greater community, schools do provide positive opportunities to establish a caring relationship with a teacher, peer or friend. However, even with the rise of project-based learning in schools many projects, while relevant to the community, are carried out in school and remain separated from the community. Projects’ subjects may be relevant to the community, data may be drawn from local sources, and specialists and professionals may visit the students, but the learning experience still has room to expand into and become more interactive with the greater community. Such an expansion into a multigenerational, community-wide setting greatly enhances students’ openings to opportunities.

Given my hypothesis, that a community can build a foundation of resilience on its youth’s personal and social strengths and that one means of doing that is through community-driven, project-based service learning, then we will begin by identifying those attributes characterizing resilience in youth. Once we have the attributes in hand we can then determine to what extent community-driven, project-based service learning provides appropriate learning experiences. A review of the factors facilitating resiliency in youth makes it clear that such a learning environment is an admixture of physical settings and social interactions. A review of resilience attributes in youth  (Werner, 2005; Benard, 1993; 1991; Zolkoski and Bullock, 2012; and Martin-Breen and Anderies, 2011) provides a, by no means comprehensive, list of the primary characteristics upon which community resiliency may be fostered and sustained. That list follows shortly.

Benard, B. 1991. Fostering Resiliency in Kids: protective factors in the family, school, and community Portland, OR: Western Center for Drug-free Schools and Communities.

Benard, B. 1993. Fostering Resiliency in Kids. Educational Leadership, 44-48.

Goodman, M.E. 1970. The Culture of Childhood. New York: Teachers College.

Kelly, James. A guide to conductive prevention research in the community: first steps. Prevention in Human Services 6(1), 1988. Whole issue.

Kurth-Schai. 1988. The Roles of Youth in Society: a reconceptualization. The Educational Forum 52(2), 113-132.

Linden, E. 2014. How the insurance industry sees climate change. Los Angles Times Op-ed.

Martin-Breen, P. & Anderies, J.M. 2011. Resilience: a literature review. New York, USA, The Rockefeller Foundation.

Mills, E. 2014. Responding to climate change – the insurance industry perspective.

Toffler, A. 1974. “The Psychology of the Future,” in Learning for Tomorrow, ed. A.. Toffler. New York: Vintage Books.

Wehlage, G., ed. Reducing the Risk: schools as communities of support. Philadelphia, PA: Falmer.

Werner, E. 2005. Resiliency and Recovery: findings from the Kauai longitudinal study. Focal  Point, Research, Policy, and Practice in Children’s Mental Health. Vol. 19 No. 1, pages 11-14.

Werner, E. E. (2005a). What can we learn about resilience from large- scale longitudinal studies? In S. Goldstein & R. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of Resilience in Children (pp. 91 – 106). New York: Kluwer Aca- demic Publishers.

Wilding, N. 2001. Exploring Community Resiliency in Times of Rapid Change. Dunfermline Fife: Carnegie UK Trust.

Zolkoski,, S. and Bullock, L. 2012. Resilience in children and youth: a review. Children and Youth Services Review 34, 2295-2303.