Preventing ESL by enhancing resiliency

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Ana Kozina

Educational resilience is related to staying in school despite high risks (e.g. low social economic status, migrant status) present in one’s life and, as such, can offer a path for preventing ESL. Enhancing educational resilience is a result of fostering protective factor(s) on either the contextual (family, school, community, e.g. parental education trainings, positive school climate improvements…) or individual level (e.g. mind-set trainings).

Resilience entails positive adaptation, e.g. doing well despite high risks or adversities. These adversities are either contextual (e.g. poverty, minority status, immigrant status, parental illness, harsh parenting…) or individual (e.g. illness, self-control impairment, learning difficulties, lack of coping skills…). Two models of resilience can be used for prevention and intervention planning: protective (a protective factor moderates the effect of a risk factor) and compensatory (a protective factor tempers a risk factor). The first one supports indicative prevention and the second universal prevention. Educational resilience is defined in terms of educational success even though there are personal attributes and environmental circumstances which reduce the likelihood of succeeding (Sacker & Schoon, 2007). Since the mentioned adversities are also related to ESL, the resilience concept can contribute significantly to understanding and preventing ESL by providing an answer to why some students stay in school even though high risks for ESL are present in their lives. The difference between individuals who are found to be more resilient than others in the face of adverse circumstances is the number of protective factors: resources (positive contextual factors) and individual assets (positive individual characteristics) found in one’s environment (Masten, 2016). The protective factors can be grouped in four categories: child characteristics, family characteristics, community characteristics, and cultural or societal characteristics. Based on a review of possible protective factors, certain practical implications of enhancing resilience are listed on the contextual level (e.g. family, school and community; such as parental education trainings, positive school climate improvement, bettering student-teacher relations) and individual level (e.g. focusing on mind-set intervention, boosting social and emotional skills, self-regulation techniques). In the conclusion, the importance of enhancing any of the protective factors is stressed – even a single protective factor can make a great difference to the life of a young person and prevent ESL.


Resilience entails positive adaptation, e.g. doing well despite high risks or adversities, and the aim of this article was thus to investigate what differentiates students who thrive notwithstanding those risks from those do not in order to identify the way this knowledge can be used to prevent ESL. The research on resiliency was prompted by the fact that some individuals at a high risk due to adversity or disadvantage appear to be functioning or developing normally or even flourishing (Masten, 2014; Masten, Cutulli, Herbers, & Reed, 2009). Signs of risky circumstances include adverse socio-economic conditions (Felner & DeVries, 2013; Masten, Cutuli, Herbers, Hinz, Obranović, & Wenzel, 2014), minority ethnicity (Abubakar & Dimitrova, 2016; Kuperminc, Wilkins, Roche, & Alvarez-Jimenez, 2009; Motti-Stefanidi, 2015) and parental ill-health (Jaffe, 2013). Resilience research has focused on competencies despite exposure to at-risk environments (Masten, 1994). Since the mentioned adversities (e.g. low socio-economic status, mental illness…) are also related to ESL (Turner, Thurston, Gaye, & Gentry, 2008), the concept of resilience can contribute significantly to understanding and preventing ESL. Thus, this article aims to identify the factors positively related to resilience in order to find a way to plan resilience enhancement to prevent ESL.


In the literature search, we used the database PsychArticles (EBSHOST) with the key words: early school leaving (in title) & resilience (in title) – 0 articles; drop out (in title) & resilience (in title) – 0 articles; early school leaving (anywhere in text) & resilience (anywhere in text) – 611 (4 selected based on reviewing the abstract). Other than the four articles, we used special issues on resilience (European Journal of Developmental Psychology) and handbooks of resilience as the main source (with extensive backward searching).


From a system perspective, resilience refers to the capacity to successfully adapt to disturbances that threaten the function, viability or development of a system. Observable success in adapting to such challenges is termed manifested resilience (Masten, 2016). Moreover, the building stones of this effective adaptation are those that can be used in ESL prevention. As stated in the resilience research, a common goal of the research has been to establish the characteristics of the processes leading to resilience in order to promote these processes in other youth at risk (Borge, Motti-Srefanidi, & Masten, 2016; Turner, Thurston, Gaye, & Gentry, 2008).

The characteristics of individuals found to be more resilient than others in such adverse circumstances are the number of resources or protective factors present in one’s environment (Masten, 2016). The more protective factors there are in one’s life, the more capable the individual is of adapting to adverse circumstances. The role of protective factors depends on the model of resilience. Two key models of resilience are identified in the literature: the compensatory model and the protection model (Schoon, 2006). In the compensatory model, the existence of protective factors cancels out the effect of adversity or risk. A compensatory resilience model assumes that resources and assets are independent of the risk factor; that they have a direct effect on an outcome; and that they fully or partially compensate or counteract the effects of the risk. The protective model assumes that positive factors buffer or moderate the negative influence of exposure to risk.

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Figure 1. The compensatory and protective models of resilience

The two models hold different implications for potential intervention. With the protection model, the policies that target at-risk populations are indicated (the interventions are directed at at-risk groups in order to accommodate intervention in characteristics of the at-risk group), whereas the universal provision of resources is suggested by the compensatory model (where the protective factor is independent of the risk factors and therefore has a positive effect on its own, for everyone). Sacker and Schoon (2007) propose an additional model (the “reserve capacity” model) in which the protective effect of promotive factors appears with some time delay (Sacker & Schoon, 2007), indicating that when one is exposed to protective factors this may not result in an immediate positive change, but can accumulate and have a positive effect later in life. Protective factors comprise individual assets (such as confidence, coping skills) and contextual factors (such as parental support). Stressing the importance of both: individual factors and contextual factors result in the definition of resilience as a process and not a fixed trait (Ostaszewski, 2012). This is related to contemporary research and theory on resilience, which understands resilience as an outcome of individual–context relations and not as a resilience trait that is inherent to the individual (Kaplan, 2013; Masten, 2016). Some children who face stressful, high-risk situations fare well in life, but their chances of doing so depend on the extent to which the risk factors in their lives are balanced by protective factors, both individual and environmental (Jackson & Martin, 1998). A key feature of resilience in the face of adversity is that it requires the existence of protective factors that reduce the prospect of a negative outcome or increase the likelihood of a positive one (Sacker & Schoon, 2007).

Resilience and ESL

Educational resilience is defined in terms of educational success despite personal attributes and environmental circumstances that reduce the likelihood of succeeding (Sacker & Schoon, 2007). Due to the complexity of resilience itself, the question of how we can use resilience theory to prevent ESL is multifaceted. Students more prone to ESL are also students who come from an at-risk environment (e.g. low SES, harsh parenting…) or have individual vulnerabilities (e.g. mental health issues, learning difficulties…). ESL may be understood as a non-resilient outcome – the interplay between individual characteristics and the context has not yielded positive outcomes. Therefore, the intervention or change can be directed to enhancing one or possibly several protective factors.

The main findings in relation to remaining in education beyond the mandatory leaving age and preventing ESL follows the hypothesis that promotive factors (either at the individual or contextual level) can act independently and cumulatively to support educational aspirations. Regarding ESL prevention, the compensatory model of resilience (fostering protective factors in order to reduce the effect of risk factors for ESL) is more useful (Sacker & Schoon, 2007). When looking at the important protective factors, these vary according to the developmental period one is in. For instance, in early life, reserve capacity for education was topped up predominantly from interpersonal (i.e. family) resources whereas in later life it is predominantly from individual assets (i.e. self-regulation, peer acceptance…) (Grolnik, Friendly, & Bellas, 2009; Sacker & Schoon, 2007).

Further on, we will examine the promotive factors that assist young people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds to remain in education or increase their chances of gaining further qualifications later in life. As mentioned, promotive factors that help young people avoid the negative consequences of socio-economic disadvantage may be described as either assets or resources.

Based on extensive research, Masten (2007) came up with a so-called short list of protective factors supporting overall human development that can also be used in preventing ESL. These are:

  1. Child characteristics (social and adaptable temperament in infancy; good cognitive abilities, problem-solving skills, and executive functions; ability to form and maintain positive peer relationships; effective emotional and behavioural regulation strategies; positive view of self (self-confidence, high self-esteem, self-efficacy); positive outlook on life (hopefulness); faith and a sense of meaning in life; characteristics valued by society and self (talents, sense of humour, attractiveness to others);
  2. Family characteristics (stable and supportive home environment (e.g. harmonious inter parental relationship, close relationship to a sensitive and responsive caregiver, authoritative parenting style (high on warmth, structure/monitoring, and expectations), positive sibling relationships, supportive connections with extended family members), parents involved in child’s education; parents have individual qualities listed above as protective for child; socio-economic advantages; post-secondary education of parent; faith and religious affiliations;
  3. Community characteristics (high neighbourhood quality (e.g. safe neighbourhood, low level of community violence; affordable housing, access to recreational centres, clean air and water); effective schools (e.g. well-trained and well-compensated teachers; after-school programmes; school recreation resources (e.g. sports, music, art)); employment opportunities for parents and teens; good public health care; access to emergency services (police, fire, medical); connections to caring adult mentors and prosocial peers; and
  4. Cultural or societal characteristics (protective child policies (child labour, child health, and welfare); value and resources directed at education; prevention of and protection from oppression or political violence; low acceptance of physical violence) (Masten, 2007).

The protective factors identified as being most strongly associated with later educational success were: (1.) stability and continuity of relationships and contexts; (2.) learning to read early and fluently; (3.) having a parent or carer who valued education and saw it as the route to a good life; (4.) having friends outside care who did well at school; (5) developing out-of-school interests and hobbies (which also helped to increase social skills and bring them into contact with a wider range of non-care people); (6.) meeting a significant adult who offered consistent support and encouragement and acted as a mentor and possibly a role model; and (7.) attending school regularly (Jackson & Martin, 1998).

As we can see, numerous protective factors are related to overall positive development and also educational success and so an answer on how to use these protective factors in preventing ESL is not straightforward.

Resilience enhancement

Some examples of possible ways to enhance protective factors are presented on both the contextual and individual level. The idea behind it is that, instead of focusing on the potential weaknesses and identifying potential ESLrs, we should instead focus on developing protective factors that can offer protection against adverse situations (Hupfeld, 2007).

Contextual level

Contexts (such as family, school, community, peers…) play a significant role in resilience enhancement (Motti-Stefanidi, 2015). One of the strongest protective factors is a positive relationship with at least one adult (Walsh, 2016). For instance, when researchers (Jackson & Martin, 1998) in a school setting compared high achievers and a comparison group at the level of encouragement to go into further education by a parent or a significant adult, they found that the high achievers were given greater encouragement in general than the comparison group. Parents or carers of high achievers were significantly more likely to attend school events and show an interest in the child’s educational progress than those in the less successful comparison group. In more detail, parental expectations were found to be more important than parental aspirations, suggesting that aspirations alone are not as effective in changing behaviour as expectations are. The level of educational expectation is related to the support and guidance, e.g. parents who expect their children to stay in school pay more attention to their schooling and provide more support. Alternatively, children and adolescents whose parents expect them to stay in school also have their own high expectations and may be more likely to expect to stay too (Sacker & Schoon, 2007; Turner et al., 2008), also in an immigrant population (Motti-Stefanidi, 2015). There are several effective parental programmes that can be of use in building a promotive environment and also have an effect on academic outcomes (Sandler, Ingram, Wolhik, Tein, & Winslow, 2015; Sheridon, Sjutts, & Coutts, 2013; Walsh, 2016). Since parental support is especially crucial early in childhood (Grolnick et al., 2009), the interventions should start early.

If in the family environment the adversities also relate to the lack of a supportive person in the family setting, the school can be of great value by providing an additional caring and supportive relationship to students (Cadima, Erico, Ferreira, Verschueren, Leal, & Matos, 2016; Wenzel, 2009). As established by Hupfeld (2007), it is very hard for students to gain and sustain resiliency skills in difficult circumstances without supportive adults to provide guidance, support and recognition. Interestingly, by asking students about the support they received from their teachers, and teachers about the level of guidance they provided to students, the researchers discovered that a positive student-teacher relationship worked as a strong protective factor and reduced ESL rates by half. This impact was even higher for students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and those who had previously experienced academic underperformance (Cadima et al., 2016; Hupfeld, 2007). On the other hand, when schools do not provide support and develop protective systems this leads to greater school disengagement and potential ESL in students who are at risk (e.g. immigrant students) (Motti-Stefanidi, 2015). In the school setting, we should stress that educators have little or no control over family characteristics (or the innate abilities of students or community demographics); nevertheless, many resiliency skills can be taught to students or provided in the school and classroom environment that move students towards academic achievement (Doll, 2013; Hupfeld, 2007). Of the educational assets, academic achievement is the most important predictor of remaining in education (Sacker & Schoon, 2007). If students were unsuccessful at school, they were still more likely to reintegrate into education if they had higher general ability and reading and mathematics test scores. This underlines the important role of school in building students’ core competencies that can be used as a personal reserve to be drawn on when needed throughout the life span (Sacker & Schoon, 2007). Success and academic achievement are also related with confidence that has been shown to be especially effective for getting back to school even after having already left school early. When addressing the role of resilience in ESL, we have to consider that resilience is both multidimensional and changeable: individuals may achieve resilient adjustment in one domain of functioning but not in another, and at one point in time but not another. An example of this is shown by Luthar et al. (1993) in their examination of adolescents’ resilience. They showed that an at-risk individual might demonstrate good educational attainments but simultaneously experience behavioural problems. Within the educational domain, an individual may develop successfully at primary level but fail to succeed in secondary school. This highlights the importance of continuous care for enhancing promotive factors. Importantly, despite the findings that resilience in one domain of functioning does not always promote resilience in another domain, it was established that confidence and competencies in areas such as sport, music and art can have that effect, which is they can promote educational resilience (Sacker & Schoon, 2007). From a practical point of view, this is particularly important because confidence can be developed not only through academic performance, but through recognition of being able to do well in a variety of settings. Therefore, the school should focus on a wider range of school activities to provide young people with experiences that can assist in shaping their ambitions and supporting their confidence (Sacker & Schoon, 2007).

When protective factors on the family level and the school level are lacking, the community can step in. For instance, Jackson and Martin (1998) reported on social workers who had made a significant contribution, most often by organising financial help for a young person to continue their education after school, or occasionally by assisting a child in returning to school after a period of exclusion or a change of placement (Jackson & Martin, 1998). The community also has power to influence more systemic risk factors like poverty and homelessness by introducing prevention and intervention programmes and support (Masten et al., 2014).

Individual level

On the individual level, enhancing coping skills together with social and emotional skills development lead to better adaptation, higher resilience and prevent ESL (Shure & Aberson, 2013; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004). Another possible and effective tool for building resilience is mind-set trainings (Dweck, 2006; Yeager & Dweck, 2012). Dweck (2006, 2008, 2012) describes ability mind-sets as people’s implicit theories about the malleability of abilities: these mind-sets can be placed on a continuum from fixed mind-set or entity self-theories, believing that their abilities are fixed traits, to growth mind-set or incremental theories, believing that abilities can be developed through efforts and education. Recent studies show that a growth mind-set is associated with various benefits and may be enhanced using simple interventions (e.g. O’Rourke et al., 2014; Panesku et al., 2015; Yeager et al., 2014). Research shows that the growth mind-set is related to positive outcomes in different domains: individuals with such a mind-set are more open to learning and confronting new challenges, more persistent when coping with difficult tasks and more resilient – i.e. capable of recovering from failures (Ahmavaara & Houston, 2007; Dweck, 2000). Consequently, they perform better when facing challenges; for example, Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck (2007) reported that students’ implicit theories of intelligence predicted their academic performance over time, particularly when facing challenging work. A growth mind-set is likely to be associated with higher motivation for acquiring new skills, putting greater effort into academic or work tasks, and better recovery after setbacks. The very recent study by Claro, Panesku and Dweck (2016) indicates that students from lower income families are more likely to hold a fixed mind-set. Research also shows that mind-sets can be affected by environmental cues and can be deliberately changed (Blackwell et al., 2007; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003). Thus, the growth mind-set can be systematically enhanced by interventions (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). The reported interventions (i.e. Dweck, 2012) focused on enhancing students’ learning about the malleability of the brain and how to adopt growth mind-sets based on that understanding. Within these studies, authors found that mind-set interventions build a student’s perseverance when encountering difficult academic tasks (Paunesku et al., 2015).


The paper presents the complexity of resilience. Even though resilience is an important concept in ESL, the question of why some students stay in school despite the adversities in their lives and others do not remains without a straightforward answer. The response offered by the research literature lies in fostering the promotive factors on either the individual or contextual level so as to help students thrive educationally and otherwise. Despite the complexity, we would like to finish by again highlighting the fact that any, and in many cases even a single, protective factor counts. For instance, in qualitative analyses based on semi-structured interviews with people who finished school despite high adversity, several cases are recorded of students who only reported one significant protective factor that made a difference in their life (Jackson & Martin, 1998). The only protective factor of one girl mentioned in the research literature (Jackson & Martin, 1998) was early reading skills and an English teacher who supported her reading. Therefore, we should foster the promotive factors existing on any level: either contextual or individual. For example, offering parent programmes that will empower parents in their role in their child’s educational path, fostering positive models of school–home cooperation; developing teachers’ social and emotional competence (SEC) so they are able to become the supportive caring person the student is lacking, bringing in music, sport and art to support a sense of competencies and confidence for a wider range of students, involving the community with positive role models and adult support for students at risk and building students’ resilience using mind-set training, SEC training or self-regulation techniques.

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