Resilience: The Buzz on Bouncing Back

These days it’s hard to avoid the term “resilience.” Communities are “resilient,” countries are “resilient,” leaders are “resilient,” and yes, soccer teams are as well.  And I’d wager that almost anything you come across in the popular media these days about child development is strewn with “resilience.” But what does it mean to say something or someone is resilient? And do scientists, advocates, and the public all understand the term in the same ways?

There are some who might think that the frequency with which this term is being used is good—that more resilience in the public discourse is a “win” for the scientists who are on a mission to communicate what they are learning about children and development. Unfortunately it’s not that simple—in strategic communication, frequency is not the name of the game.

For the past three years, FrameWorks has been working with the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child to design and test strategies that translate the developmental science of resilience in ways that are more accessible to the public and policy makers. In this effort, we’re trying to get what experts say about how to improve child and social outcomes more in line with what the public takes away when they hear “resilience.” When developmental scientists talk about resilience they are talking about a developmental process and a specific outcome of this process. Essentially, they’re talking about how it is that some children who face significant adversity end up turning out OK. What they don’t want to step in, but often do, is the idea that resilience is inherent in a child as some fixed characteristic.

Developmental scientists push back on the idea that resilience is a “you’ve either got it, or you don’t” situation and instead explain that resilience isn’t a mystery and doesn’t just happen. Resilience is shaped by a set of factors: constitutional factors, the experiences (good and bad) that a child has, and the way in which those experiences influence how genes work (epigenetics). From this perspective, the key is to improve the environments that shape children’s experiences and to build skills that allow them to interact with these contexts more positively and adaptively. It’s not just about “grit,” but about the contexts that shape these skills and capacities.

The problem is that, for the public, resilience is a decidedly a-contextual idea—one that is understood in solidly individualistic ways and flavored strongly by a “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.  When people hear the term “resilience” applied to children they think that, of course children are resilient—it’s something that is in all of us, if only we choose to use it. In other words, people reason that the difference between those who do and don’t persevere is, well…perseverance.

Now you see the problem—scientists point to experiences as the X-factor in the resilience equation, where as the public, because of deep cultural models, directs their attention to willpower, discipline and gumption as the key ingredients in understanding why some people do well despite significant adversity, and others don’t. Something is lost in translation.

This is why more “resilience” in the public discourse isn’t necessarily a good thing. If every time people hear the term resilience they are reminded of what they already think (you can do well if you really want to), and what they already think prevents them from being open to new ideas, the more “resilience” they encounter, the more deeply embedded the impediments to science translation become.

What is needed here is not more, but new ways of talking about resilience—messages that activate latent ways that Americans can and do think about child development, individual differences, and outcomes.

The bottom line is that increasing the quantity of a message isn’t the answer. Effective communication is about increase message quality.

If you want to read about how we’re doing this at FrameWorks, check out: http://www.frameworksinstitute.org/early-childhood-development.html.

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