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Resiliency in At-Risk Youth

Updated on January 6, 2016

Resiliency is an important thing to explore when thinking about how to help at-risk youth. When we think about at-risk youth images of disruptive students, violence and criminal behavior often come to mind. However, it’s important to remember that not all at-risk youth are unsuccessful. Despite the adversity, about 19% of youth determined to be at-risk are successful (McMillan & Reed, 1994). It makes logical sense to explore why that is and determine what made them different from the other 81%. The resiliency approach does exactly that. It asks “what are the factors that make some at-risk students successful when others aren’t?”

About 19% of youth determined to be at-risk are successful.
About 19% of youth determined to be at-risk are successful. | Source

There are a variety of individual attributes that resilient youth posses. A strong desire to succeed and an internal locus of control are two main factors (McMillan & Reed, 1994). Students who feel they are personally responsible for their successes do better than those who believe that circumstances are the reasons for their failures. Students who accept responsibility for their success seem to have more of it. Resilient students also are internally motivated by the desire to succeed and the satisfaction of success. They recognize the importance of an education and have clear goals for themselves (McMillan & Reed, 1994). Resilient students also use their time in constructive ways. They are actively engaged in extra-curricular activities; they are members of clubs, they play sports, they are involved in church, they volunteer.


Why Do Some Youth Make Good Choices?

The question really lies in “Why?” Why do these particular youth have these qualities? Why do they make good after-school choices, why do they have an internal locust of control and why do they accept personal responsibility? The answer is found in three areas: caring relationships, opportunities to participate in positive activities and high expectations. Bonnie Benard believes these attributes are outcomes of resilience, not causes (1997). I tend to agree with her. These characteristics can be developed in youth through meaningful relationships with adults. It seems that resilient youth find these relationships in three places: school, extra-curricular activities and family members. Family members provide the best source of physiological support for a youth. Strong family ties give youth grounding and a sense of control over their own life (McMillan & Reed, 1994). Interestingly enough, family ties do not have to be directly to the parents, it could be a substitute caregiver, such as a grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle. The composition of the family also doesn’t have much affect on the resilience of a child (McMillan & Reed, 1994). The main factor is that there is a strong relationship with a family member.

In the absence of the family member, teachers are most often positive role models for resilient children (Edwards, 2000). By offering a learning environment that is compassionate and understanding, where expectations are high, students are challenged and where there are opportunities to participate, teachers can meet an at-risk student’s need for love and belonging, accomplishment and meaning (Benard, 1997).


School Support is Critical

For resilient youth school is more then just academics (McMillan & Reed, 1994). It’s a place of support and structure. “When students have opportunities to participate in school in meaningful ways, they sense empowerment rather than alienation” (Edwards, 2000, para. 3). High expectations are closely associated with resilient youth. Students develop healthier views of themselves when someone has high expectations for them. They will feel as if they can contribute something of value and will begin to behave as such (Edwards, 2000).

Extra-curricular activities increase a student’s positive engagement in school. Many students feel a sense of belonging with extra-curricular activities, especially sports, which can increase a student’s self-esteem and further amplify their sense of purpose within the community. A strong relationship with a family member, high expectations from school leaders and productive extra-curricular activities all provide outlets to build the characteristics of resilience.

Identifying Methods to Help Youth Succeed

This is good news. If these characteristics can be cultivated, then it’s possible to develop educational programming that helps foster these characteristics. This is where the resiliency approach differs from the at-risk approach. At-risk approach is based on recognizing what puts youth at risk, where the resiliency approach is focused on identifying what methods help youth succeed. Recognizing what puts youth at risk is beneficial, to some extent, if we are able to reduce the risk or help individuals cope with their circumstances (Embrace the Future, 2006). However this approach can be somewhat negative. Focusing solely on deficiencies may establish stereotypes or stigmatisms about youth that then cultivate low expectations and finally poor performance (Embrace the Future, 2006). Students can only live up to the expectations set for them, high or low.

There are many schools of thought on the fostering of resilience. Benard is passionate about the strengths based approach and a teacher’s impact on resilient youth (1997). McMillan focuses on resilient youth’s individual characteristics and how schools can foster these qualities (1994). Edwards believes in a strong, caring community environment within the school where students take an active role in planning curriculum (2000). With all the differences, however, all can still agree that caring relationships, high expectations and opportunities to participate are areas that help at-risk youth become resilient and therefore are areas were should be developing within our schools.


The Role of Environment

If educators are interested in helping at-risk youth succeed, we must develop programmatic approaches that encourage student development in these three areas (Benard, 1997). According to Embrace the Future “resiliency is absorbed by children who learn in an environment that is supportive, challenging and involving, in which the innate potential of each child is believed in and nurtured, and in which the wellbeing of staff as much as students is fostered through a health-promoting environment (2006). This aligns with my vision of experiential education within a positive learning community. A small alternative school, focused on experiential education and community involvement allows for plenty of opportunity to promote goal setting, relationship building, involvement, bonding, and belonging. I think creating a welcoming, safe, community environment will help at-risk youth connect with school and positive adults as well as learn to take healthy risks, and develop positive self-esteem. Benard, as well, encourages schools to use programmatic approaches that provide opportunities for relationship-building, cooperative learning, small groups, mentoring and community service (1997).

Challenges in Today's Classroom

Although I am a big supporter of the resilience approach, there are some challenges to overcome. To effectively employ a resiliency approach schools will require smaller class sizes, additional resources, and a staff who is engaged, invested and trained, all of which all requires more money. Additionally the curriculum will need to be less content based and more experientially focused, which could create issues in many districts. Changing school culture is another big challenge, especially if a significantly different culture is in place. A culture of caring, respect and community will need to be established where bullying, put-downs or labeling is not tolerated. Both teachers and students need to be committed to this to make it successful.

While many changes many need to take place to employ a resiliency approach, I believe it is worth the time and effort. Identifying methods that help at-risk youth succeed, helping them build positive characteristics that will motivate them to do well in school, and in life is why we are here.


Benard, B. (1997). Turning it around for all youth: From risk to resilience. ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, 126.

Edwards, C. H. (2000). Moral classroom communities and the development of resiliency. Contemporary Education, 71(4), 38.

Embrace the Future (2006). Resiliency Resource Centre. Retrieved September 19, 2012 from

McMillan, J. H., & Reed, D. F. (1994). At-risk students and resiliency: Factors contributing to academic success. Clearing House, 67(3), 137-140.


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