What actually is ‘resilience’?

The first use of the term ‘resilience’ to describe humans appeared in the 1830s. Around that same time in history, ‘resilient’ was being used as a technical term in the watchmaking industry, referring to flexible qualities of internal components.

But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Norman Garmezy, first began studying human resilience experimentally at the University of Minnesota. Since then, resilience has been a rich, important, and complex field of study in psychology and, more recently, in education.

Although it has been researched extensively, there is still both a lack of consensus as to how to define ‘resilience’ and some general misunderstandings in the wider community.

The most widely accepted current definition of ‘resilience’ comes from the The American Psychological Association (2014): “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”.

This definition is important because it helps us clarify some of the following:

  • resilience is not about ‘bouncing back’;
  • resilience is not binary (ie. present or absent);
  • resilience exists on a continuum;
  • resilience is not just a trait (it can be a process and / or outcome);
  • resilience is context-dependent (eg. we might be resilient playing sport but less so at work).

We also know that, through experience, we can learn to become more resilient. Not only are there specific, empirically validated skills that can be taught to children and adults, but mistake and adversity are wonderful teachers. That’s why we need to expose students to them regularly.

As our world becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, there are no guarantees anymore – apart from one: our students will need to be resilient. The world is changing fast, and those who have the capacity to adapt well, to survive and to move forward in spite of change will thrive.

Published by

David Bott

Hi, I'm David Bott, Associate Director of the Institute of Positive Education in Australia.

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