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Resilience, the Brain, and Emotion

When I started thinking about resilience, and how we can develop this quality in our AVID students, I really didn’t understand the degree to which resilience is much less about the genetic make-up of the student and family background  than it is about the kind of educational environment we create.  In other words, I was falling into the typical trap:  “Blame the victim.”  We interview AVID students, looking for “Individual Determination,” but it is important to remember that we need to keep developing that determination and their resilience.  That’s why the AVID elective class is so critical.

Bill Madigan, a long-time AVID and AP® lit teacher, AVID staff developer, and brain research aficionado, set me straight about resilience and then sent me down a circuitous research path.  This year Bill attended a brain research conference in Wisconsin, as well as the American Psychological Association conference in San Diego.   In the past, he has made presentations to AVID Center's staff on brain research, equity, and the connection between emotion and cognition. (see Bill’s ACCESS article Why AVID Works).  In addition, this summer he presented  “Assertive Vulnerability in Learning and Leading” at several AVID Summer Institutes to staff developers.  We will be offering Bill’s presentation as a webinar session this fall.  This presentation is based on key discoveries he found while researching the works of Sir Michael Rutter, Dr. Jay Belsky, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, David Dobbs, and Dr. Larry K. Brendtro.

Brendtro, a professor of special education at several universities, founded the Circle of Courage program, based on the concept that, in order to be emotionally healthy, all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity (sounds like work of psychiatrist William Glasser, whose ideas Mary Catherine Swanson incorporated into her early writings on AVID’s research base).  I found twelve of  Brendtro’s books available, including The Resilience Revolution: Discovering Strengths in Challenging Kids.  Bill tells me that the Circle of Courage approach has yielded fantastic results with very challenging youths.   So, the first key discovery then is Brendtro’s assertion that we must deconstruct the “deficit or vulnerability” model.  He debunks some earlier psychological approaches, saying, “During much of the 20th Century, psychology was pre-occupied with pathology, and tomes written about anger, guilt, depression, and anxiety.  But after decades dwelling on the dark side of human behavior, a psychology of human strength is emerging.”

This focus on assets, not deficits, is common in resilience research and recommendations and is echoed by Belsky’s numerous studies and by David Dobbs, in his article for the Atlantic Magazine, “The Science of Success.”  This is a long and well-researched article, packed with science.  Dobbs tells us a fifth of the population carry a genetic make-up that make us vulnerable to depression (more on this later), but he also cites recent child development studies that show that our genetic vulnerabilities can actually be turned into assets, if interactions and environment are altered.  Key point number two,  a child’s interaction with his or her environment matters greatly, as much as genetic predisposition.  To further illustrate, Dobbs takes note of a phenomenon that scientists call “Dandelions and Orchids.”  To briefly describe the concept, some students, like dandelions, thrive in almost any environment, growing in the cracks in concrete or in fertile soil, almost anywhere.  Others are more like orchids:  fragile, but, Dobbs says, “capable of blooming spectacularly with greenhouse care. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.”

So, we come to the “greenhouse care” of the AVID elective class, where we insist on rigorous challenges and appropriate support and provide the fertile soil necessary.  Is the purpose of the elective support structure to increase student achievement or promote student development?  Probably both, Madigan says, but he leans toward development.

“Resilience means that we grow the gifts,” Bill Madigan says.  “We need to see our students more complexly and stop compartmentalizing them.  There is huge individual variance to the same experience.”

In reviewing the research, Madigan discovered that how we talk to students matters greatly and what we discuss matters as well.   “Just asking for feedback from students can make a huge difference,” he says.  “Asking them: 'How are we doing?’”  This hits on another key finding from the research,  students become more resilient when they are given a voice, responsibility, and are engaged in a planning process. 

Like many AVID teachers, Madigan designs his lessons to incorporate movement, frequently getting students out of their desks, and providing as rich a learning environment as possible, whether in the AVID elective class or in his AP literature class.

Sir Ken Robinson discusses the ‘Industrial Model’ of education, with students seated continually in rows, immobilized.  Other scientists have studied rats and discovered that being immobilized created stress, but also that giving rats a novelty-rich environment diminished stress,” he says.

Madigan mentions resilience research which notes that a student-centered environment, including strategies such as AVID’s Socratic Seminar, Philosophical Chairs or Corners, Tutorial groups, or reciprocal teaching develop a sense of autonomy and ownership, vital to resilience.

“Resilience is about differentiation,” Madigan says.  “We are moving from traits, which are imprinted on the left brain, to processes, which are more right-brain oriented, with more focus on long-term results.”

Are we trying to keep our students from avoiding stressful situations?  "Absolutely not," Madigan says, noting the work of Sir Michael Rutter.  “Exposure to risk is protective and developmental.  It is true in biology.  If we aren’t exposed to bacteria, we never developed resistance.   Rutter emphasizes that we need a fair amount of rigor and challenge, otherwise a bump in the road can become a mountain.”

(See my longer article in the upcoming Fall 2010 edition of ACCESS for more on Rutter, a key figure in resilience research.)


True Grit?

I had never heard of the concept of “grit” until Jay Mathews, national educational columnist for the Washington Post, mentioned it to me during my interview with him in ACCESS.  It turns out that this is a phenomenon named and studied by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman, from the University of Pennsylvania, strongly connected to student success.  For a succinct introduction to the idea, read Jonah Lehrer’s article, “The Truth About Grit,” in the Boston Globe. In essence, grit overrides IQ, and pertains to our students developing self-discipline and persistence, among other qualities.  Duckworth and Seligman have published numerous article and studies and are easily accessible at scienceblogs.com.  

Persistence through difficult tasks has been the focus of Carol Dweck’s work and Malcolm Gladwell also wrote extensively about the importance of this in Outliers: The Story of Success.  Recently, making the connection to college and career readiness, David Conley outlines persistence as one of the key cognitive strategies in his four dimensions of college and career readiness.

More on Dr. Conley, who will be speaking at AVID's National Conference, soon…

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Reader Comments (3)

Thanks for all the great links in your blog post Rob. Teaching Resilience and Grit is something that I hadn't considered, I had always thought it was a characteristic that you had or that you did not have. The links here will keep me busy for a while. Thank you.

September 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike Combs


Good to hear from you. Yes, you should have plenty of links to keep you busy. I appreciate the response.


September 30, 2010 | Registered CommenterRob Gira

Great blog. I like the way you have it laid out. How can I subscribe to RSS? Thanks.www.tophandbags4u.com

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershadows

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