National Writing Project

The Importance of Resiliency in Learning and Writing

By: Art Peterson
Date: February 3, 2009

Summary: Bonnie Benard discusses the role that schools and communities play in supporting the biological drive for normal human development and triumphing over adversity: resiliency.


Bonnie Benard
Bonnie Benard

A number of years ago, Bonnie Benard, who will keynote NWP’s Urban Sites Conference in Louisville this April, was in her young son’s classroom.

His teacher was talking to another parent, pointing out a child in the class. “His father is an alcoholic. His mother is an alcoholic. You can be sure where he is going to end up.”

Benard wasn’t sure. At the time—a time when Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” approaches were the norm—she was employed at the Illinois Prevention Resource Center, and was becoming familiar with the work of researchers such as Richard Jessor . Jessor was directing educators to focus on the strengths rather than the deficiencies in adolescent behavior.

“At the time,” says Benard, “if you were going to get money for your program, you had to label kids—negatively.” In this environment, Benard found Jessor’s work a breath of fresh air. But there was a problem. Jessor’s research was couched in the prescribed language of academia. “He was doing important work, but few teachers were going to read him.”

Benard convinced her employer to allow her to start a newsletter, “Bonnie’s Research” distributed widely to educators. The publication popularized the ideas of researchers in the field that has become known as resiliency research.

Resiliency—an Innate Human Characteristic

Benard had found her niche. As a senior program associate at WestEd in Northern California she has been a leading advocate for the idea that resiliency—the ability to triumph over adversity—is an innate human characteristic.

She points to the “consistent and amazing” finding of studies that establish that 70 to 75 percent of young people who live in high-stress conditions such as poverty, community violence, and parental alcoholism or incarceration, are able to experience successful lives.

How does this happen and what can educators do to produce such successful results? Helping teachers in hundreds of workshops, Benard returns to the three “protective factors” that are at the core of her message. She says schools and teachers need to promote (1) caring relationships, (2) high expectations, and (3) opportunities for participation.

“A big part of promoting caring relationship is taking notice,” she says. “When we asked kids how you know a teacher or an adult in your school cares about you, the most consistent response was that the adult says hello and greets me using my name. Caring can be something as simple as recognizing a child has been absent. Most of all, it is conveying to the student the idea that ‘you are important in the world, you matter.’”

Sharing the stories of resilience through writing is powerful testimony to the human spirit.

Benard tells the story of her own son who was, as a youth, an addicted reader—but not necessarily of the assigned material. One day after school he was sitting on the school steps reading when a teacher paused to ask him about his book. When he told her, she responded she was reading the same title, and they launched into a discussion of the book. To this day, says Benard, her son remembers this as one of his most positive school experiences.

Benard makes clear that the protective factors she proselytizes are linked in significant ways. By example, she quotes a teacher named Bruce Wilkenson whose student Becky handed in as her first composition a “wadded up ball of a paper that when smoothed out had ketchup smeared on the bottom right corner. Immediately I put an F at the top of the paper,” he said. But when she handed in her second paper, he responded differently.

“At the top of Becky’s paper I wrote ‘I believe this paper does not truly reflect your true talents and abilities. I can’t wait to see what you can really do. I didn’t place a grade on the paper. What good would another F do?’”

Slowly, Becky’s writing improved until she emerged at the end of the semester an A+ writer. Years later, Becky wrote Wilkerson “You are the first person in my entire life who ever believed in me. You changed my life.”

Benard sees this anecdote as the meshing of two protective factors. Wilkerson expected a lot of Becky, and he also cared a lot about her.

Sharing Stories of Resiliency

When Benard works with teachers and observes classrooms, she is also cognizant of the third leg on the resiliency stool, the need for participation and contribution.

“I’m impressed by classrooms where students help set the rules. They can be the ones who propose that only one student speaks at a time, and the ones who forge other agreements. And when students are learning cooperatively, helping their buddies and younger kids, they are participating and contributing.”

A school that offers service learning and cross-age teaching projects is taking steps toward creating a resiliency-promoting environment.

At her workshops Benard eases into the idea that resiliency is a universal possibility. She’ll tell a group stories like the one about Becky above and she’ll ask them to find some common characteristics in the anecdotes: “The teacher is listening,” “The students have some choice.” The teachers identify these and other resiliency-promoting behaviors.

The next step is to help teachers understand that they too have had significant resiliency experiences. Benard tells of one faculty in Oakland, California, whose members were a bit reluctant to speak of these experiences. After the group did some writing, “finally, one man, a faculty leader, shared the unknown fact that he had spent ten years in prison. He told of the experience and the ‘protective factors’—though he didn’t call them that—that had led him to where he is. After that, everyone wanted to talk.”

When members of the Louisville Writing Project became aware of Benard’s work and her book Resiliency: What We Have Learned (WestEd, 2004), teacher-consultants at the site collectively began to read the text and put her ideas into practice. The group became so impressed by Benard’s thinking that they made her their first priority as the keynote speaker of the National Writing Project’s 2009 Urban Sites Network Conference, which their site is hosting.

As with Benard, the Louisville teacher-consultants see the clear link between resiliency as a concept and the teaching of writing. Benard puts it this way: “Writing helps young people understand the power they have to see themselves and their lives in a new way, which is, to me, what resilience is all about. Sharing the stories of resilience through writing is powerful testimony to the human spirit.”

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