The old English proverb that ‘mighty oaks from acorns grow’ reminds us that great things do indeed come from small beginnings. This applies to initiatives – like Resilience First – as well as individuals. In fact, if we want to nurture resilience in citizens, communities and society at large then we probably need to look in the first instance at how we educate and train young people to be resilient.

Yet, resilience is not a capability on the radar of many educational establishments or even something we discuss much on home. For parents, the hope is that children become more resilient as they develop, almost by an unconscious process of osmosis coupled with real-life experiences. Rarely, for example, and perhaps because it’s understandably painful, do we discuss the anticipated hard knocks in life – bereavement, divorce, unemployment, etc – and how to develop holistic, personal strategies to cope with such major setbacks.

There are also the minor, routine experiences that require a degree of resilience. It can be important in, for example, recovering from a personal accident or illness to dealing with a new set of circumstances at home or school. Beyond any surprise or shock, a person’s response can make the difference between a positive outcome for all concerned and a negative reaction that sets back the situation and relationships. While adversity can make one stronger if the right lessons are learnt, on the flip side it can generate more stress and mental anxiety: the pandemic has shown this, particularly among young people.

Another consequence is the economic loss. According to a recent interim report, the UK economy could be boosted by £124.6bn if greater focus were given to commercial skills such as resilience, self-motivation and time-keeping within the educational system. Many employers in a recent survey by the Commercial Education Trust believe that we could better prepare children for the world of work by basic workplace skills, including ways to be more resilient.

The ingredients

Resilience is an essential ingredient of human existence. It has allowed us to survive and thrive as individuals, as communities and as countries. It embodies a sense of personal worth and social value (with responsibility), and a determination to rise above adversity and be better for it. We all have the ingredients to be resilient but often it takes external encouragement and support to be able not only to bounce back but also, importantly, to bounce forward.

So, what could a learning programme around resilience look like? It should be designed to help young people apply better coping skills to their lives and others around them whatever the circumstances and challenges. Such a programme is not meant to be prescriptive but offer some pointers for discussion and consideration. It may well be combined with other learning approaches such as outward-bound training.

Here are some key elements to include in a proposed resilience syllabus for young people:

1. Awareness. Explore the notion of situational awareness beyond one’s self so that there is greater conscious of external developments and relevant news.

2. Preparedness. Identify the knowledge, skills and tools that may help in dealing with unexpected situations which require prompt and considered actions.

3. Robustness. Determination to complete an important task or obligation means having the strength of character to find ways around problems and not be deterred by surmountable obstacles.

4. Flexibility. Where things don’t go to plan, it is necessary to consider alternatives. This means considering good and bad options and making measured decisions on the best available information at the time.

5. Wellbeing. The need to avoid letting bad things get on top of you is a feature of mental strength and mindfulness. To do this, it is necessary to identify the pitfalls and the key remedies that can make a positive difference.

6. Trustworthiness. Identifying the importance of reliability and personal responsibility are important feature of resilience. To be able to understand the bonds and rewards that can be made by proving reliability is an important lesson.

7. Creativity. Looking for novel ways of overcoming problems is a skill that comes with practice and experience. It requires determination and a problem-solving attitude if barriers are to be overcome.

Fit for purpose

The list above is are not exhaustive but it can help to form the baseline of an approach that helps to make resilience relevant for young people in an increasingly turbulent and challenging world.

It is important to remember, however, that a young person living in a refugee camp in Syria or a shanty town in Haiti probably has more resilience to extreme events than someone coming from inner London or Manchester and, therefore, may have different needs, expectations and perspectives. An interesting, situation-specific example is provided in California, a state known for its natural disasters, where Facebook provides the incentive for schools to invite into classrooms members of the International Red Cross to talk about safety measures and wider resilience practices. The model could easily be adapted elsewhere.