Risk and resilience

This section explores how a risk and resilience model can provide a solid foundation for improving the emotional wellbeing of the whole school community by harnessing the ‘everyday magic of ordinary human resources in the minds, brains and bodies of children, in their families and relationships and in their communities’. [see reference 1 below].


An understanding of risk and resilience can help us identify early those pupils who are vulnerable to mental health problems and develop practical strategies to support them. By using a risk and resilience framework to think about wellbeing, the whole school community can realise benefits for pupils, parents and staff. 


There is a strong evidence base, built over many years, to indicate the risk factors that can make children, families and whole communities vulnerable to poor mental health.  Risk is not the same as cause, but it is cumulative. Reducing by even a small amount the stockpile of risk being experienced by a child or family, or avoiding adding to it, may make all the difference to that child’s wellbeing.

Schools may reasonably argue that risk factors such as family breakdown, bereavement or parental mental illness are beyond their control, but whether these issues are recognised and how they are dealt with in school, is significant. Risk cannot always be removed, but with the right help from adults and peers, children can learn to get better at managing risk in their lives and coping well despite difficult circumstances.


Psychologists have long recognised that some children develop well despite growing up in high-risk environments. This capacity to cope with adversity, and even be strengthened by it, is at the heart of resilience. 

Resilience has been variously defined as: normal development under difficult circumstances,[3] or the human capacity to face, overcome and ultimately be strengthened by life’s adversities and challenges. [4] This is not something that people either have or do not – resilience is learnable and teachable and as we learn we increase the range of strategies available to us when things get difficult. Resilience is about all children (and adults), not just those who are considered vulnerable, and is therefore a whole school issue.

Making sense of experience

Our wellbeing is shaped not only by our circumstances but by the meaning we make of what happens to us. Two children can have very similar experiences, failing a test, for example; but each may tell themselves a very different story about what happened and why. Our capacity to integrate experience into our belief system and value base and to process events in a meaningful and positive way – our capacity to reflect – powerfully influences our sense of wellbeing.

One child may see the failed test as a result of not having prepared properly and determine to read up in advance next time, while another may see confirmation of her inner belief that she is 'rubbish' at schoolwork and not someone who can learn. Challenging negative self-talk and helping children develop positive but realistic explanations of what happens to them can transform their engagement with learning. This is about teachable, learnable skills and about adults who can consistently model reflective capacity for children, rather than simply reacting to behaviour and perceived attitudes.

Mastery over stressful events

While self-esteem is important, self-efficacy is equally relevant to resilience. In particular, the capacity to be pro-active in the face of difficult, stressful events and to gain mastery over them is about a learnable set of skills and strategies that can equip children to engage with life and learning. If we think about our own lives there will be many instances where we have faced and overcome challenges and if we analyse what helped, supported and enabled us at those difficult times this will suggest strategies, most of which we can help children to develop so that they have options and choices when things get difficult rather than being dependent on a single way of coping.

Creating a benign cycle

Just as risk is cumulative so resilience is developmental. Tony Newman [5] describes a resilient child as one who ‘can resist adversity, cope with uncertainty and recover more successfully from traumatic events or episodes’. Each time we get through a difficult or stressful experience we have the potential to reflect on it and realise that next time we know we can cope. 

For individuals, but also for communities like schools, building resilience requires practice and is a developmental process. As the number of resilient individuals, adults and children, grows the strength of the whole school community is enhanced and the ability of each to better understand and support the other is deepened. Resilience is not a quick fix or a panacea, but it is a positive, hopeful, increasingly evidence based approach to improving outcomes for children and families and for promoting the wellbeing of staff.

Resilient therapy [6]
Ideas about resilience are increasingly being applied to practice. Professor Angie Hart and colleagues at Brighton University suggest a framework based on four ‘noble truths’; accepting, conserving, commitment and enlisting. They continue to explore how resilience can be built in five ‘compartments’; basics, belonging, learning, coping and core self. These ideas, and the very pragmatic approach that accompanies them, can be helpful in working with children from even the most difficult environments and offer a hopeful context for practice. Strongly based on the research evidence, resilient therapy involves a partnership between Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), academics, social workers, youth workers, nurses, teachers, learning support assistants, the parents and carers of children and young people themselves. As such, it is ideally suited to a whole school, whole system approach that promotes wellbeing for all and addresses the needs of children and young people with behavioural, emotional or social difficulties.


Good schools already do many things that promote resilience without necessarily being aware of the underpinning theory and research. 

Understanding more fully why those things are so important, how they inter-relate and why they make a difference will ensure that they become part of the consistent policy and practice of the school rather than being dependent on a few individuals.

Support all members of the school community

Children, parents and staff to develop an understanding of risk and resilience so that it underpins school improvement in an informed way. This is not a one off activity but a process of learning and development over time that is greatly facilitated by regular opportunities for structured reflection. It is an iterative process through which individuals learn and then behave differently and that different behaviour then enables further learning. 

Focus on strengths

Identify what you are good at, recognise it, value it, celebrate it and build on it. All of us, and all children, are good at something, but in our society and our schools some competences are more readily acknowledged than others. The work of Howard Gardener [7] offers one basis for thinking differently about strengths. Identifying and building on the strengths of children, families, staff and the whole school as a social organisation will begin the journey towards a resilient school community.

Promote connectedness

Research consistently shows the positive impact of one supportive adult or one adult who a child knows is thinking about them even when they are not there. For most children that will be a parent or carer but for some it may be a member of staff in school. Be that supportive adult, or help to connect a child to someone who can. For older children especially, peers are important so promote peer relationships and friendships. Identify opportunities wherever possible for children and young people to meaningfully participate in the activities of the school and to have their views listened to and acted on. A sense of belonging is critical to our wellbeing and our ability to engage with learning and to achieve.

Become better observers

Observation is about noticing and reflecting on behaviour (the visible spectrum) in order to understand what is going on in the areas of our experience that are hidden from others. This includes, but is not confined to, observing children’s behaviour. If you feel angry, frustrated, sad, confused, distressed and deskilled in the presence of a particular child there is a good chance that you have absorbed some of what they are feeling. Being aware of our own feelings and what might be evoking them can help us to see beyond the visible spectrum and understand what is going on inside a child’s mind. It can also help us to better manage the associated stress in ourselves.

Model emotional regulation

The last thing you need if you are a young person who feels out of control and distressed is an adult who reacts to your high display of emotion with an equal level of anxiety and distress. Our emotions are real and powerful and can drive our actions in an unthinking way: but they don’t have to. We can develop the capacity to use the rational parts of our brain to regulate emotions and manage our behaviour, but some children will find this difficult or even impossible if they have not had the opportunity to learn it in infancy. The more we can model that for children, parents and colleagues the more they will learn to respond in a similarly contained manner. It’s OK to feel anxious, upset or angry at times, and acknowledging this, for adults and children in school, can be helpful in itself. Asking for help should be seen as a sign of strength, not a weakness. Some children will need help to manage difficult emotions but will feel unable to ask for that support unless the school ethos, which includes the behaviour of adults, consistently gives the message that it’s OK to do so.

Find out more

TED talk on Making Resilient Moves, by Angie Hart, academic, psychotherapist and adoptive mother of three children with complex needs.

Centre for confidence
Audios from Karen Reivich from the Penn Resiliency Project and from Brigid Daniel on resilience.

UK Resilience Programme (UKRP)
London School of Economics and University College London, interim evaluation of UKRP.

Resilience Research in Children
University of Pennsylvania,
Research underpinning the Penn Resilience Programme and other work at the Positive Psychology Centre.

YoungMinds, Building Emotional Resilience in Denny Schools (pdf)
Evaluation of an action research programme to build resilience in a school cluster in the Denny area of Falkirk, led by YoungMinds in partnership with Falkirk Council and the Scottish Government and Heads Up Scotland.

Resilience Research Centre
Academic collaboration with a range of resilience research activities and publications from around the world.

Boing, Boing
Centre for resilience research and practice based at the University of Brighton providing UK and international research evidence.

C4EO (Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People's Services)
Sector led research review: Narrowing the gap in educational achievement and improving emotional resilience for children and young people with additional needs.

University of York Centre for Reading and Language
Evaluation of emotional resilience materials for primary school children (power point presentation).

Teaching Resilience in Schools
The Young Foundation. Articles relating to the foundation’s work with schools in Hertfordshire, Manchester and South Tyneside engaged in the UK Resilience Programme.

The Resiliency Resource Centre
What schools can do and resources to support resilience work.

Centre for Confidence
Positive psychology and resilience resources.

American Psychological Association
Resilience guide for parents and teachers.

Action for Happiness in Schools
Part of the Action for Happiness website that aims to create a movement of schools that are genuinely committed to putting happiness and wellbeing at the heart of their ethos and activities.


Daniel, B and Wassell, S (2002) the early years; assessing and promoting resilience in vulnerable children (1) London, Jessica Kingsley

Daniel, B and Wassell, S (2002) the school years; assessing and promoting resilience in vulnerable children (2) London, Jessica Kingsley

Daniel, B and Wassell, S (2002) adolescence; assessing and promoting resilience in vulnerable children (3) London, Jessica Kingsley
Practical tools and theoretical summaries based on the domains of resilience model.

Gilligan, R (2009) Promoting Resilience, supporting children and young people who are in care, adopted or in need, London, BAAF
Ideas and examples to help you adapt the work you do to better address the needs of the children and families you work with.

Hart, Blincow and Thomas (2007) Resilient Therapy: Routledge, Hove
A framework for practical work using the resilience evidence base to inform the way in which we engage with children, young people, parents and carers and our colleagues in other agencies and services.

Morris, I (2009) Learning to ride elephants, teaching happiness and wellbeing in schools London, Continuum
The theory and practice of positive psychology in school as implemented at Wellington College.

Seligman, M., Reivich K., Jaycox L., and Gillham J (1996) The Optimistic Child, New York, Harper Perennial
Seminal work in positive psychology.

Luthar, S S (ed) (2003) Resilience and Vulnerability; adaptation in the context of childhood adversities, Cambridge University Press
Compilation of chapters from leading researchers and writers in the field of risk and resilience.


[1] Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-238 (pdf)

[2] For a good summary see Children and Young People in Mind, final report of the CAMHS Review (2008) 19-23.

[3] Rutter, M (1990) Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms 9, 181-214 in Rolf J, Masten A, Cicchetti D and Nuchterlein K, risk and protective factors in the development of psychopathology. Cambridge University Press

[4] Masten A and Yates T M (2004) in Newman T (ed) What works in building resilience, Barkingside, Barnardo's

[5] Newman T (2002) Promoting resilience: a review of effective strategies for child care services, Centre for Evidence Based Social Services, University of Exeter

[6] Hart, Blincow and Thomas (2007) Resilient Therapy: Routledge, Hove

[7] Gardener, H (2006)