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Glass, plastic or steel?

A prominent child psychiatrist, E. James Anthony, once proposed this analogy about children: There are three dolls, one made of glass, the second of plastic, the third of steel. If struck with a hammer, the glass doll shatters and the plastic doll is scarred. But the steel doll proves invulnerable, reacting only with a metallic ping (Gelman, 1991). In the face of life's many adversities, why is it that some children are resilient while others remain vulnerable? For years, I have worked with adolescents engaged in a desperate struggle simply to survive each and every school day. One child stands out in my mind--a seemingly invulnerable child who gave me great hope.

Vulnerability vs. Resiliency

Most researchers would agree that a variety of factors contribute to a child's vulnerability. Those variables, and the individual child's perceptions of and reactions to them, affect the child's inner strength. Poverty, death, abuse, mental illness, physical disabilities and inappropriate parenting styles are all risk factors (Gelman, 1991; Richman & Lansdown, 1988). The range of these risk factors and the consequences they have for children are frightening, yet increasingly commonplace.

What are the protective factors necessary for resiliency? Werner (1984) identified several characteristics that resilient children have in common. They appear to be active in solving life's problems and perceive their experiences constructively. From birth, they are able to gain positive attention from others and maintain a fundamental optimism. Resilient children find escape in hobbies and creative interests, which assist in building self-esteem. Within the family, they establish a close bond with at least one primary caregiver.

Protective factors outside the family also come into play. Resilient children tend to be well liked by their classmates and have at least one close friend (Werner & Smith, 1982). They look to neighbors, peers, teachers and others for help and advice in times of crisis. They like and do well in school, learning to use their potential to the best of their abilities. I had the pleasure of knowing one such resilient young lady.

Profile in Resiliency: Amy

With confidentiality in mind, she will be called Amy. Amy had a staggering set of strikes against her. Her father abandoned her when she was just an infant. During Amy's early childhood years, her mother maintained relationships with various men. Amy was frequently confined to her bedroom after dinner. The door would be locked until the next day, allowing her mother to abuse drugs and engage in sexual activities. During her confinement, Amy had to withhold bowel movements for periods of 12 hours or more. Amy's mother clothed and fed her, but rarely communicated with her.

Upon entering school, Amy was withdrawn and passive. Her development in every area was arrested. She was soon diagnosed as having a hearing impairment, thought to be related to frequent, neglected ear infections. After Amy was referred to Children and Youth Services, a review of her case raised questions as to whether she had been sexually abused, possibly by her mother's boyfriends. With this revelation, Amy's mother began a series of moves because she did not want the truth exposed.

Years later, Amy's mother settled into a long-term relationship with a responsible man who became Amy's stepfather" and tried to exert total control over the household. The man was a dwarf, a physical attribute that caused Amy embarrassment from time to time.

I met Amy when she entered the 8th grade. Her grades were far below average, and she seemed unable to relate to peers and adults. The most pressing problem, however, was her body odor. Her clothes were dirty, she was obese and her general appearance kept all of us away. She was referred to her family doctor, but her parents refused to acknowledge the problem. Eventually, she was removed from school and placed on homebound instruction.

The principal pleaded with me to become Amy's homebound instructor. Although I had ambivalent feelings about working in Amy's home, I accepted the challenge. To my surprise, I discovered her apartment to be clean and comfortable. Both adults held steady jobs. Amy and I soon developed a very dose relationship. Removed from the school setting, she was warm, affectionate and talkative. I was astounded by her sense of humor and creativity. She pursued several hobbies and interests. Even so, she remained an underachiever in her school subjects.

A month later, the authorities decided that Amy should not return to school until her health problems were under control. Her parents finally decided to consult a doctor. Amy was so panic-stricken that she bit the doctor and kicked the nurses. She did not want to be physically touched in any way. She was then sent to a psychiatrist for further study. Under sedation, doctors learned that Amy was impacted with approximately 20 pounds of bowel matter, toilet paper and feminine napkins. Her parents finally accepted the extent of her problems and voluntarily committed her to yet another, more prestigious hospital in order to take care of things once and for all.

Amy and I continued our close relationship throughout these events. During this time, I found the suggestions in Survival Kit for Teachers (and Parents) (Collins & Collins, 1975) to be very useful (see Figure 1). After Amy started seeing a counselor, she lost 30 pounds. She self-monitored her bathroom habits and strove for personal cleanliness on a daily basis. Diagnosed as having severe depression, she was placed on medication.

Figure 1: Suggestions for Working with Troubled Children

1. Conference with parents and try to recommend sources

of information, parent-education courses and counseling

in handling problem children. 2. Assign a junior counselor or peer tutor to work with the

child. 3. Refer cases to the proper authorities. 4. Acknowledge the student's achievements with praise

and reward. 5. Acquaint yourself with the history of the child. 6. Encourage communication and share feelings with the

child. 7. Ask other teachers for their impressions and suggestions. 8. Avoid embarrassing the student at all costs. 9. Anticipate problems and change the routine or activity. 10. Use the student's name often, kindly, and without

threat. 11. Talk to the child privately Whenever there is a problem. 12. Convey the idea that it is the behavior, not the student,

that is unsatisfactory. 13. Use a reward system (behavior modification, token

economy, etc.) to reinforce positive behavior. 14. Ask the child to do something important for you. 15. Set up friendly, small group situations that maximize

chances for success. 16. Hold a team meeting to gain more information. 17. Converse often, and informally, with the student, away

from the classroom setting. 18. Roleplay. Use puppets. 19. Capitalize on the child's interests. Encourage hobbies

and creativity. 20. Find a way for the student to make a genuine contribution. 21. Be a positive role model. Be that "significant other." 22. Respect the child as an individual.

From T. Collins & R. Collins (1975), Survival Kit for Teachers (and Parents). Glenview, IL: Good Y

The family moved to a new, larger home in closer proximity to the school. With a fresh start, Amy found her very first friends. Now that her body odor was gone, others drew closer to her and learned to enjoy her wonderful sense of humor. In 9th grade, she took an interest in music and experienced success in band and chorus. Her academic achievement began to rise steadily until she was an above-average student. For the first time in her life, Amy found a sense of self and reaped the benefits of her remarkable self-improvements. I was exhilarated by the entire experience.

Several resilient qualities allowed Amy to thrive and succeed despite her desperate circumstances. She was adaptable, sensitive and independent with a remarkable sense of humor. She relied on others in times of crisis and developed a positive relationship with her teacher and her new family situation. After treatment for her illness, her self-esteem improved; as her feelings of self-worth were restored, her need for achievement began to rise.

Research teaches us a great deal about what can be done to help children like Amy. The point most commonly stressed is that every child needs, to borrow a phrase from Erik Erikson, a "significant other," someone who truly cares about and respects the child as an individual. Every child also needs learning environments that allow for space, safety and freedom. In consideration of these findings, the best thing that classroom teachers can offer such children is the opportunity to become members of a community. We can do this by providing a social support system and learning environment that supply the protective factors associated with resiliency.


Collins, T., & Collins, R. (1975). Survival kit for teachers (and parents). Glenview, IL: Goodyear Publishing. Gelman, D. (1991, Summer). The miracle of resiliency. Newsweek, pp. 44-47. Richman, N., & Lansdown, R. (1988). Problems of preschool children. New York: John Wiley. Werner, E. (1984). Resilient children. Young Children, 40 (1), 68-72. Werner, E., & Smith, R. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Patricia Tarwater is a Learning Support Teacher, Penn Cambria Intermediate School, Gallitzi, Pennzylvania.
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Title Annotation:factors responsible for resiliency in children
Author:Tarwater, Patricia
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:I used to know everything!
Next Article:Personal narratives and professional development.

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