Yvonne Roberts: If only we can teach resilience to those who need it

What white working class communities lack is that capacity to bounce back

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"Sarah" came from Sierra Leone eight years ago. She and her six-year-old daughter had been captured by rebels and badly scarred. Her husband had been murdered. Sarah had no idea of the whereabouts of her two older children. In London, she had no money, no language, no possessions, but what she did have in abundance was optimism and resilience.

Gradually, over the years, she has built a new network of friends. She has learned to read and write English. She is a volunteer; her two older children, restored to her, are studying nursing and accountancy. Ann Masten, a leader in the field of resilience, calls what Sarah and her family have displayed "ordinary magic".

What Masten believes is that resilience is a magic available to all. Genes and personality help but given the right conditions, and a certain frame of mind. "Individuals are capable of astonishing resistance, coping, recovery and success in the face of adversity," she has written. "The conclusion that resilience ... arises from ... ordinary adaptive processes rather than extraordinary ones provides an optimistic outlook for intervention."

Discovering exactly what kind of intervention has recently mushroomed into a mini-industry. The think tank Demos has announced a year-long inquiry into character – of which resilience is a part – while next week the relationship charity Relate hosts a debate on how to encourage motivation in young people.

Resilience was also an unacknowledged presence this week in a report on the Government's approach to race, given by John Denham, the Communities Secretary. Denham argued that working-class children of different races had more in common with each other than with middle-class children of the same ethnic group. Well, yes and no.

Among Sarah's circle, connected by the mosque, are affluent middle-class professionals also from Sierra Leone. What they and Sarah share, but what some white working-class communities now lack, is that capacity to bounce back, to shun pessimism and, instead, to tell themselves a story of non-surrender; to believe that, however intense the level of the adversity, what they do will make a difference.

Some white working-class communities, plagued by decades of unemployment and with little hope of an economic revival, also retain their resilience. They hold fast to a story that shores up the assets they still have – their personal qualities and the strong and positive connections with family, friends and the neighbourhood.

In Exploring Household Resilience in Teesside, for instance, Dan Vale quotes one woman who says, of her own deprived background, "me Mam never seemed to eat anything... but she made sure we all ate like kings."

Mental ill health, joblessness, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction and debt obviously give an economic and social revolution a higher priority than boosting resilience. As The State of Happiness, a report published on Monday by the charity the Young Foundation points out, there's a significant difference between the resilience that allows you survive against the odds – now seen hourly on the streets of Haiti – and a resilience in which you use a setback like a spring to propel you to a better place than before. But how can this "ordinary magic" be acquired?

Studies tell us that not only is there such a thing as society, but we also take our cues from it; we learn by mimicry. So, if the community is resilient, trusting and supportive, that incubates an optimism and resilience. If, in addition, there is an individual who believes in you, and a school or church or organisation that is responsive and reliable – that's also a hothouse for resilience. Where resilience fails to flourish, everything is somebody else's business and nothing you do matters, disengagement and depression follow; pessimism becomes infectious.

Can resilience be taught? The State of Happiness details the results of the first year of a three-year project teaching resilience to 2,000 children, aged 11 to 13, in schools in Manchester, Hertfordshire and South Tyneside. Children are curious. Give them a different way to make sense of their circumstances, praise effort rather than their innate "smartness" and encourage a belief that they can and will make a difference, and well-being, motivation and resilience appear to grow.

Ordinary magic, however, isn't an opiate. Resilience as a collective asset has enormous potential in conquering individualism, greed and selfishness. It is therefore ironic and enraging that materialism, capitalism and a maladaptive welfare state have drained too many white working-class communities of the richest resource the once had: their resilient sense of self.

yvonne.roberts@youngfoundation.org

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