Has the resilience ship sailed?

25th March 2016 at 00:00
As exam season approaches, efforts to boost student resilience will be in full flow. But psychologist Marc Smith argues that such interventions are deeply flawed. Instead, he says, we should be fostering ‘academic buoyancy’

Battling extreme adversity and managing, somehow, to find your way out of it requires resilience. Having a home life that seems almost too horrific even for fiction and managing not just to survive but thrive – that also requires resilience. But what about being able to recover from a poor mark on an essay, dealing with a fleeting lack of motivation, or not giving up the first time you get a maths question wrong? The prevailing opinion in education suggests that overcoming these setbacks requires resilience, too. I am not so sure.

Education has been obsessed with resilience for some time. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has made “character education” her mantra, and she passionately defends the concept whenever it is questioned (see box, page 33). Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb has said that education is about the “practical business of ensuring that young people…have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed”.

Where the Department for Education leads, everyone else follows. Academics that offer variations on the resilience theme – such as Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck and Paul Tough – have become well-known education names, lauded at conferences and discussed in countless column inches and blog posts. At ground level, consultants have spotted a market ripe with rich pickings: resilience inset days are big business.

It’s easy to get carried away with it all but education needs to take a moment to reflect. When it does, it will find that very few people actually know what resilience really is. More worryingly, what schools believe is resilience is likely to be something entirely different: “academic buoyancy”.

Potential failure

Resilience has attracted significant attention owing to widespread concerns about the ability of students to cope with setbacks and potential failure. New statistics and studies revealing high levels of student anxiety are seemingly released weekly and the current school intake has been labelled the “snowflake generation” owing to its apparent fragility in the face of adversity. Suddenly, we are led to believe, the kids can’t cope, and so we need to intervene with resilience programmes to “fix” them.

The methods used by the programmes are numerous and many of them have been reviewed by academics. A cursory glance suggests that these interventions have been effective, and yet dig deeper and there are numerous problems. For example, in a review of the academic literature on resilience-based interventions for schools published in 2013, Angie Hart and Becky Heaver, of the University of Brighton, discovered that many of the papers defined resilience in such a “vague and conceptually weak manner” that the authors cast doubt as to whether the intervention could actually be described as “resilience-based”.

The intervention landscape remains diverse and fragmented, too. Some interventions target long-term wellbeing to reduce the incidences of mental illness, but most either target negative reactions to setbacks resulting from the normal process of learning or aim for a kind of catch-all toolkit of techniques in the hope that these tools will work on a number of levels.

Considering the significant interest in resilience being shown by the UK government and the teaching profession, it is disturbing to discover large differences between interventions and, in some cases, the absence of any understanding of important concepts and measurable outcomes. If resilience is so important, why are we not sure what it is or how to instil it in our young people?

Yet as concerning as this is, we have a bigger problem: we are not only getting resilience interventions wrong in a large number of cases; we shouldn’t even be targeting resilience in the first place. What schools are usually aiming to strengthen is students’ ability to cope with minor but personally significant academic setbacks. That does not require an intervention to improve resilience – what it requires is academic buoyancy.

How does resilience differ from buoyancy? More than three decades of resilience research has focused on extreme adversity in early childhood and the way in which some children appear inoculated against its negative consequences. As research gained momentum, studies into resilience expanded to include children raised in extreme poverty or the life experiences of children from ethnic minority groups.

Children who thrived despite harsh conditions and poor life chances were initially thought to possess certain innate qualities that made them invulnerable. As research progressed it became clear that, although resilience displays trait-like attributes, it’s more likely that individuals become resilient via the complex interaction between personality, experience and mechanisms within the environment.

In contrast, academic buoyancy, and the research underpinning it, concerns itself with the ability of students to bounce back from seemingly less significant negative events such as isolated poor grades, typical stress levels and dips in motivation and engagement. These events are seen as common to the daily lives of learners but can have a detrimental impact on academic achievement. Those students who display higher levels of academic buoyancy are better equipped to navigate setbacks and are more likely to meet achievement expectations.

It could be argued that the two are not entirely unrelated. Psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh identified academic buoyancy as separate from – but related to – resilience. However, it’s easy to identify which is more relevant to schools. While schools may have a few students in desperate circumstances, the vast majority will need to become more buoyant rather than more resilient.

Impact of anxiety

So, if schools are to target academic buoyancy, rather than resilience, how should they do it? Research from David Putwain, professor of education at Edge Hill University, and his colleagues is useful in demonstrating how academic buoyancy plays out in the school context and how we might approach helping students become more buoyant.

In a 2015 study involving more than 700 year 11 pupils, Putwain and colleagues looked at the impact of anxiety. Anxiety not only impairs working memory function, it also makes students less “buoyant” and more fearful of failure. They found that higher levels of academic buoyancy “protected against” anxiety experienced as a result of high-stakes GCSE exams.

The study suggests that this is because buoyant students don’t appear to view failure in the same way as less buoyant students; they don’t view it as a direct attack on their self-worth or personal aspirations. This is partly due to these students having confidence that they can bounce back from any failure that may occur.

Furthermore, buoyant students do not hold the same expectation of failure as less buoyant students – they are more likely to back themselves to pass because they believe in their ability to respond positively to the challenge of events such as exams.

How can we spot an academically buoyant, or less buoyant, student? Research has identified certain motivational predictors common to those individuals displaying high levels of academic buoyancy. Martin and Marsh call these characteristics the 5Cs: confidence, coordination (the ability to effectively plan), control, composure (low levels of anxiety) and commitment. These are all easily observable in classrooms, so “diagnosis” would not be too onerous.

Can academic buoyancy be “taught” to those lacking it? It’s useful to look at resilience programmes and where they go wrong as this gives an insight into where the key to academic buoyancy lies.

Many school-based resilience interventions rely on explicitly teaching skills that are thought to increase resilience levels. Some of these techniques draw upon those used successfully within sports psychology while others, such as the Penn Resiliency Program, developed at the University of Pennsylvania and used as the basis for the UK Resilience Programme, emphasise the use of positive emotions (particularly optimism) and the premise that happy children do better at school.

However, much of the research concludes that structures within the school and community are also likely to impact positively on resilience.

A number of longitudinal studies conducted since the 1970s (including Michael Rutter’s 1979 book Fifteen Thousand Hours: secondary schools and their effects on children – an examination of 12 inner-London secondaries) identified school structures as important factors in the positive development of vulnerable children. Successful schools tend to maintain high academic standards, use effective incentive and reward systems, ensure good feedback and praise from teachers, and ensure that all pupils are given the opportunity to be awarded positions of trust and responsibility. Studies such as the Kauai longitudinal study also highlighted the importance of teacher-pupil relationships.

It is the structures, rather than the taught skills, that are key to academic buoyancy. While teaching specific techniques can prove useful, efforts to increase buoyancy should examine existing structures that inhibit a student’s ability to “bounce back”. School structures are inundated with the language of success and those pupils who fall short of such high standards can end up caught in a spiral of fear and failure, zapping them of the ability to bounce back when things don’t go according to plan. Fear leads to anxiety and anxiety activates self-handicapping strategies (those pre-emptive excuses used to justify future failure).

Reconceptualising failure as part of the learning process, a rejection of linear progress (because progress is naturally messy and rarely linear) and the adoption of carefully designed growth rather than success goals (Andrew Martin calls these “personal best goals”) all help students to view learning as a process rather than an end result (see box, page 31, for more techniques).

So, should schools abandon resilience and embrace academic buoyancy? The evidence suggests so. Certainly, reconceptualising resilience as academic buoyancy enables schools and researchers to better understand how students cope with the daily pressures and conflicts that arise each day. It also allows for the design of more appropriate interventions with clearly defined parameters, resulting in programmes that are valid and measurable. And it more accurately addresses the problems that we see in our classrooms, rather than ones based on assumptions and conceptual misunderstandings.

Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and educational writer and researcher who has taught in secondary schools across North and West Yorkshire since 2004 @psychologymarc

Five ways to ensure academic buoyancy

1. Identify harmful negative emotions

Students often reveal their anxieties through their language. Statements such as “I’m not clever enough” or “I’ve done my homework but it’s probably wrong” can reveal anxieties related to failure and suggest a tendency to self-handicap.

2. Emphasise growth goals over attainment goals

Decide on achievable incremental goals that are based on a “better than last time” framework. Emphasise “personal bests” rather than “better than everyone else”.

3. Provide constructive feedback and link it to growth goals

Feedback should relate to personal-best goals but needn’t be extensive and can be verbal. Ensure that students understand what they need to do to better their last performance.

4. Praise effort over intellect Rewarding hard work encourages motivation and can reduce self-handicapping.

5. Reconceptualise failure

Emphasise the need to fail as part of the learning process. Reject the myth of linear progress and stress that we all succeed through different pathways.


Hart, A & Heaver, B (2013). “Evaluating resilience-based programs for schools using a systematic consultative review”, Journal of Child and Youth Development, 1 (1). p.pp. 27–53.

Martin, AJ & Marsh, HW (2008). “Academic buoyancy: Towards an understanding of students’ everyday academic resilience”, Journal of School Psychology, 46 (1). p.pp. 53–83.

Putwain, DW, Connors, L, Symes, W & Douglas-Osborn, E. (2012). “Is academic buoyancy anything more than adaptive coping?” Anxiety, Stress, and Coping Journal, 25 (3). p.pp. 349–58.

Putwain, DW, Daly, AL, Chamberlain, S & Sadreddini, S (2015). “Academically buoyant students are less anxious about and perform better in high-stakes examinations”. British Journal of Educational Psychology.

The resilience debate: the education secretary v the TES secret social worker

A recent blog by the TES secret social worker questioned claims that young people now lack resilience and “character”. Education secretary Nicky Morgan felt the need to respond. Below is the social worker’s blog, followed by Morgan’s response.

Every school has students like Chelsea. These are the students who get on with things despite the horrific circumstances and experiences they have to live through. Frequently these children will tell me that school is their escape, a sanctuary and a place for them to be normal. When these students are absent without explanation, you know you have to act quickly.

Chelsea always turned up to things. Despite a desperately troubled home life, she never missed school or a session with me (I am a social worker who works with schools). Today, though, she was absent.

I had been working with her since her mother died 12 months previously. She was living with her biological father. Before her mother’s death, Chelsea had little contact with him and he had addiction issues with both alcohol and drugs. It was an extremely challenging situation but after my last home visit things seemed to have been improving. What had happened now?

The pastoral manager had made a number of telephone calls to her home but had been unable to make contact with her. This was completely out of character.

I knew something was not right. I went to her house. The windows were all smashed. I looked inside. The house was destroyed and it was clear drugs and alcohol had been in use. Threatening messages were written on the walls in red paint. Chelsea was not there.

I ran to my car and called the police. I then called the pastoral manager and we started searching for Chelsea.

We looked in all the places she had ever talked about going in the local area: parks, swimming pools, cinemas. She was at none of them. We gave up when we had nowhere else to look and had a sleepless night waiting for news of her whereabouts.

The police eventually found her the next day. She and her father had been hiding at a relative’s house as her dad had fallen out with some people in the local area. I was so thankful he had the sense to hide, that Chelsea had not been there when those people had arrived at her house.

Chelsea did not let it affect her studies. She was back at school the next day and the school and I offered all the support we could. It was challenging, her situation was desperate, but her resilience was remarkable. She worked hard and she got the qualifications to go to college. She is doing great.

Chelsea is one of the reasons I get so annoyed with people saying that young people lack character. Every day I see kids battling against awful circumstances beyond their control. And they beat their situation. They thrive in it. They show more character, more resilience, than I could ever hope to have.

I’d like see how much resilience Nicky Morgan would show if she were in the same circumstances.

This account is written by a social worker who works in schools. It originally featured as one of the series of blogs the social worker writes for TES. You can read them at tes.com/news. Names have been changed to protect anonymity

Nicky Morgan’s response

The best part of my job is having the privilege of meeting hundreds of young people – many just like Chelsea, a resilient student described in a TES article earlier this week – across the country, and I never cease to be amazed at their resilience and their determination to succeed.

These traits are key to succeeding in life and I want to ensure that we are creating the conditions for everyone to proactively gain them – rather than people being forced into learning them through terrible circumstances.

That is at the heart of our drive to ensure that England is a global leader in character education – helping every school and pupil to be the best they can be.

I’d hate for any child like Chelsea to think that our drive to promote character education is a way of saying they lack character – far from it. Instead, we want schools to focus on this area because we know that character, resilience and grit are traits that everyone, adults and children alike, can improve and build on, and that doing so will help them in later life.

This government is the first to recognise the importance of character education – and the first to embark on a programme to look at how children learn character traits, such as resilience and responsibility, in school and how we can keep on improving this. We are doing this while developing the evidence base about what works and the impact it has on young people.

Awards for schools

We are investing £5 million in that work and are launching awards to promote the schools that are best at promoting character, and grants to expand the character-promoting work of leading schools and organisations.

This includes schools like King Solomon Academy in London, which fosters commitment, endeavour and resilience, as well as scholarship, in its inner-city pupils. Inspired by the US Knowledge is Power Program, the headteacher has introduced character-based rewards for pupils, while unabridged Shakespeare plays are produced from Year 7 onwards.

These schools represent the pinnacle of the excellent character-education work seen in classrooms across the country. But I don’t want it to be the pinnacle for an elite few: I want it to be the standard, the minimum that young people and parents can expect.

We have a generation of resilient children determined to succeed – just like Chelsea – and this is in no small part thanks to the hard work of teachers and social workers. But we are building on this to ensure that every child is as equipped as they can be to deal with the challenges life throws at them and to bounce back from disappointment.

All young people deserve the opportunity to develop the confidence and resilience that will not only complement their academic studies, but will also prepare them for success in their adult lives. It is our responsibility as adults to ensure that we are doing everything we can to make sure that happens.

Nicky Morgan is secretary of state for education and MP for Loughborough

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