Framing Early Child Development: Resilience…it’s everywhere.

If you’re part of the world of early child development science, policy and practice, you’ve undoubtedly come across the concept of “resilience”—it’s everywhere you turn. The next time you attend a presentation or are at a talk that deals with children and policy run a little experiment—count the number of times resilience is invoked, both explicitly as a term and more implicitly as a concept. My guess is that you’ll need more than the digits on your hands to gather this data.

As a framer working on translating the science of early child development for public understanding and policy application, resilience has become part of my world—it lurks at every meeting I go to, is in my face on every television show I watch about children, and is laced deeply somewhere within the first paragraph of every story that I read about kids. Resilience, in short, has become an indelible feature of science, and in turn public, discourse—it’s all the rage.

A recognition of resilience’s presence and perniciousness on the landscape is an important first step—but it’s only a first step. It reveals a concept about which scientists are communicating and the public is thinking and screams to those of us working at the nexus of science, public understanding and social policy that we would be wise to give resilience some serious analytical attention. We need to understand what scientists know and want to say about resilience; how the issue is being presented; how the public understands and makes sense of these patterns in presentation; and if in fact they are out of whack, how we can bring intended and actual meanings of the concept into alignment.

For the last 9 months FrameWorks has started to answer these questions, and over the next year will be continuing to document public understanding and translate the science of resilience. Sponsored by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and part of our on-going effort to translate the science of development, we have just completed work on a Map the Gaps report, which details the messages scientists want to present about resilience as well as the public understandings into which these message are being delivered.

Our research suggests that Americans have access to, and apply, a rich set of shared assumptions and implicit understandings when thinking about resilience, child well-being and the results of development. Many of the assumptions documented in this and past FrameWorks research impede public access to key components of the science of early child development. In important ways, the documentation of some of these models in our research on resilience corroborates past descriptions of the American cultural terrain on the issue of child development.

A detailed account of our resilience research can be found in the report. However, one of the most interesting findings was that, when asked directly about the term “resilience” as it pertains to children, informants employed two dominant assumptions.

• The “resilience is a substance” cultural model. Employing this implicit understanding, informants discussed resilience as if it were a substance that all individuals are born with, and that individuals must use to maintain.

• The “resilience is yours if you want it” cultural model. Thinking about resilience was heavily flavored with the notion of willpower. In this way, informants voiced opinions that were shaped by the underlying assumption that “willpower” was directly, and entirely, synonymous with “resilience.” This assumption structured notions that people can, and should, use their resilience to overcome any situation or adversity.

These patterned and implicit ways of thinking about resilience have some serious implications for communications and science translation. Can you see them? We invite you to make a list and then check it against those implications identified in our report.

Resilience is everywhere, and the challenge for communicators is to construct a frame around this concept that encourages an understanding of the science and its policy implications. We’re working on it…


2 thoughts on “Framing Early Child Development: Resilience…it’s everywhere.

  1. Greetings, Nat –
    How wonderful to see you taking on this work. You and Frameworks and CDC have once again identified a deeply serious obstacle impeding progress at the science-practice-policy nexus. As a “recovering resiliency researcher” myself, I have had great challenges and debates on the matter. As a practicing clinician, it became intolerable sitting with divorcing parents and attorneys who too often called upon the resilience concept and data as a foundation, justification, rationalization for all sorts of arrangements well outside the “best-interests-of-the-child.” As a policy advocate, it became too painful to participate in discussions where allocations for programs for young children became expendable in the “enlightened” belief that resilience research supports the notion that they are less vulnerable or that they more easily recover or bounce back. As a teacher, one of my favorite seminars a few years back was called Resilience: Brilliant concept or dangerous idea?
    I look forward to reading your report.
    Certainly one of the most useful exercises for me in this area was the exploration of the translation of our US “resilience” in diverse cultures – and what is revealed by the absence of the term as well as the replacement or near-definition terms. How to convey the complex relational process of resilience in a meaningful and useful way remains an important challenge.
    Thank you for stimulating much-needed discussion.


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