Well, there is an easy answer and a more complex one. First, let’s start with the meaning of the term, resilience, which refers to “phenomena characterized by good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development.”1 In many, if not most, cases, the children and youth that are recruited into mentoring programs are selected because they face the types of adversity in their lives – chronic poverty or illness, an incarcerated parent, victimization by bullies – that raise concerns about the young people’s long term development. The belief is that engaging those children and youth in a relationship with a caring adult or older person will provide the boost that will help them overcome the adversities in their lives. So, when we measure outcomes like academic achievement, goal setting skills, civic engagement, and healthy behavior, what we are doing is looking for indicators of competence – of meeting everyday challenges. The Measurement Guidance Toolkit has measures for each of these indicators of competence, and every time we can show that mentoring has an impact on improving those outcomes, we can infer that there is some resilience going on. So that’s the easy answer – if you’re looking for measures of resilience those measures are already included in the Toolkit.
That brings us to the more complex answer. Going back to the definition of resilience, we first need to recognize that resilience is a process, not an outcome. Achieving competence is an ongoing task that unfolds over a lifetime. There are ups and downs. Meeting a challenge means a new, bigger challenge will follow. Failing to meet a challenge means getting up and trying again. If we want to understand resilience, we can’t pay attention only to young people’s successes. We also have to pay attention to their journeys. What are the adversities (risks) children face and how do those adversities affect the child’s development? What are the personal and environmental resources (protective factors) that children can draw upon to overcome adversity in their lives?
Resilience can be found in the everyday achievements of young people who face difficult circumstances in their lives. We see resilience when young people that society views as being “at-risk” nevertheless accomplish the everyday tasks of succeeding in school, resisting troublesome behavior, forging and maintaining close relationships with peers and adults, volunteering in their community, building their self-confidence and planning for the future. Resilience is not a capacity that is lacking in some kids and present in others. Instead, it is what Ann Masten2, a leading resilience researcher, refers to as “ordinary magic.” What this means is that each of us has the capacity to overcome adversity, or risk, if we have access to protective factors that can offset the negative consequences of risk.
So, the complex answer is that understanding, and “measuring” resilience involves a series of judgments about every element of the definition. By definition, a child cannot be viewed as resilient unless she faces some significant adversity in her life. So, first we need to document and understand the nature of the adversity. For example, how does having an incarcerated parent bring risks to a child’s life? Increases in family stress, stigma, and economic challenges are among the factors that can derail the child’s development. Second, we need to consider the types of protective factors – both personal qualities and supports in the child’s environment -- that can serve to keep development on track. The NMRC’s Measurement Guidance Toolkit includes measures of several types of risk and protective factors that can be used to understand the level and type of adversity a child is experiencing and the personal and environmental resources they are able to draw on. Third, we need to consider what it means to achieve competence, and pay attention to a broad range of outcomes. After all, because we all have strengths and weaknesses, it’s important to recognize that being competent in one area does not automatically imply being competent in another area.3 Fourth, recalling that resilience is a process, we need to note that there are at least three pathways to resilience, which we could refer to as steady competence (maintaining a positive level of competence even in difficult circumstances), bouncing back (returning to a positive level of achievement after being temporarily derailed), and growth (gaining strengths from the experience of adversity).
In the mentoring field, when we apply these ideas about the process of resilience, we begin to see multiple ways that a mentor may be able to play a positive role. The most obvious is that a mentor can add a supportive resource: Feeling cared-for, loved, and supported by a mentor may directly offset or weaken the effects of risk and thereby help the youth to succeed in school, resist problem behaviors, and demonstrate robust emotional health. In this way, a mentor may contribute to both the steady competence and the bouncing back pathways. A less obvious way that mentoring may play a positive role is by strengthening the other resources in a child’s life. Mentors may help build personal strengths, like self-confidence and problem solving skills. Mentors may also function to fortify resources external to the child, such as by enhancing children’s connections to school, peers, and their communities or by easing parental stress. These personal and external resources, in turn, may sustain or bolster the child’s ability to overcome risk. In this way, the effects of mentoring may also contribute to the growth pathway, by helping to expand the child’s “toolbox” of resources that can enable her to meet new challenges in the future.4 We all know that a lot goes into effective mentoring, and that helping young people along these pathways to resilience is a complex undertaking. Digging into the concept of resilience as a process – not simply an outcome measure – can give us a better idea not just of whether mentoring makes a difference in young persons’ lives, but exactly how it works, for whom, and under what conditions. When mentoring programs conduct evaluations that dig into the process of resilience, they stand to gain critical insights about how to train and support mentors for maximum impact on youth development.
Gabriel Kuperminc is a Professor of Psychology and Public Health at Georgia State University, and Associate Chair of the NMRC Research Board. Learn more about his work here.
1 Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-236. Quote on p. 228.
2 Masten, A. S. (2015). Ordinary magic: Resilience in development. New York: Guilford Press.
3 Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71, 543-562.