U is for Michael Ungar: Developing Resilience In Children

Michael has helped many parents, teachers and children to learn about resilience.

He is the author of a regular blog in Psychology Today. This is called Nurturing Resilience: Raising children to be competent and caring.


In video above Michael describes factors that have been shown to predict resilience across cultures and contexts. Here are some of the principles he believes that can help students to develop resilience.

Shape the student’s environment to support their development.

Some children may be resilient by nature. But nurture can provide the right support for children who come from chaotic backgrounds. So create an encouraging environment that enables children to develop their resilience.

Most disadvantaged students need the most help and support.

Everybody needs encouragement. When it comes to disadvantaged students, however, the research shows that they can benefit massively from support. School can provide a sanctuary and stimulating place to learn.

Early intervention is better, but it is never too late to provide help and support.

‘Earlier is better’, but it is never too late. The support we provide is ‘money in the bank’. The efforts we put into children early on pays dividends later in lives, even into their twenties.

Complex problems require complex solutions.

It is important to build a wide network of support for the child. This may include help in the classroom and, whenever possible, support for the family and support from the wider community.

More is not necessarily better.

Children can be inundated with multiple services. Some may have thick files regarding their behaviour over the years. This has been compiled by many different people from different agencies.

In later years, however, individuals report that they have often been helped most by having one significant helper who acted as an advocate for them.


What Students Need To Succeed
– Seven Core Elements

Michael goes on to explain the seven key things that children need in order to grow. These include, for example:

To enjoy positive relationships with an advocate, mentor or role models.

To develop a sense of identity.

To feel in control of their lives.

To be treated fairly and experience social justice.

To be able to fulfil their basic needs by having access to basic services.

To have a sense of cohesion, purpose or spirituality.

To develop a sense of their own culture, whilst also respecting the cultures of others.

Michael shares his vast experience and wisdom in the video. He is a family therapist and Killam Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the Network Director of the Children and Youth in Challenging Contexts Network.

He is also the founder and Co-Director of the Resilience Research Centre, which co-ordinates research in a dozen countries. The research focuses on resilience among children, youth and families. It looks at how they survive adversity in culturally diverse ways.

What Is Resilience?

Michael takes a holistic view of developing resilience. This is outlined on The Resilience Research Centre web site. Here is their overall definition.

Most commonly, the term resilience has come to mean an individual’s ability to overcome adversity and continue his or her normal development.

However, the RRC uses a more ecological and culturally sensitive definition. Dr. Michael Ungar, Co-Director of the RRC, has suggested that resilience is better understood as follows:

“In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways.”

This definition shifts our understanding of resilience from an individual concept, popular with western-trained researchers and human services providers, to a more culturally embedded understanding of well-being.

Understood this way, resilience is a social construct that identifies both processes and outcomes associated with what people themselves term ‘well-being’.

It makes explicit that resilience is more likely to occur when we provide the services, supports, and health resources that make it more likely for every child to do well in ways that are meaningful to the individual, his or her family, and the community.

In this sense, resilience is the result of both successful navigation to resources and negotiation for resources to be provided in meaningful ways


How Summer Camps Can
Help Children To Grow

Michael has also written extensively about the vital role that summer camps can play in helping children to develop.

Below are extracts from an article he wrote on this topic for his blog in Psychology Today. It echoes many of the themes mentioned above. You can find it at the following link.


Summer Camps Make Kids Resilient

I recently spoke to 300 camp directors about how to make children more resilient to life stress.

Summer camps, we discovered, are perfect places to help children optimize their psychosocial development.

The best camping experiences offer these opportunities for manageable amounts of risk and responsibility, what I term “the risk takers advantage” (see my book Too Safe for Their Own Good for more examples).

The worst camps pander to children as if they are entitled little creatures whose parents are paying big sums of money.

Children at camp can’t be treated like customers if they are going to get anything out of the experience. They need to be treated like students whose caregivers, the counselors, know what the kids need to grow.

Camps that pull this off and make kids, especially teens, put away the makeup, stash the iPods, get a little dirty and even a little frustrated while having fun and making new friends, are the kinds of camps that offer children the best of what they need.

Looking at those experiences from the vantage point of my research on resilience, I know that camps help our children develop great coping strategies when they provide seven things all children need:

1) New relationships, not just with peers, but with trusted adults other than their parents.

Just think about how useful a skill like that is: being able to negotiate on your own with an adult for what you need.

2) A powerful identity that makes the child feel confident in front of others.

Your child may not be the best on the ropes course, the fastest swimmer, or the next teen idol when he sings, but chances are that a good camp counselor is going to help your child find something to be proud of that he can do well

3) Camps help children feel in control of their lives, and those experiences of self-efficacy can travel home as easily as a special art project or the pine cone they carry in their backpack.

Children who experience themselves as competent will be better problem-solvers in new situations long after their laundry is cleaned and the smell of the campfire forgotten.

4) Camps make sure that all children are treated fairly.

The wonderful thing about camps is that every child starts without the baggage they carry from school. They may be a geek or the child with dyslexia.

At camp they will both find opportunities to just be kids who are valued for who they are.

5) At camp kids get what they need to develop physically.

Ideally, fresh air, exercise, a balance between routine and unstructured time, and all the good food their bodies need.

6) Perhaps best of all, camps offer kids a chance to feel like they belong.

All those goofy chants and team songs, the sense of common purpose and attachment to the identity that camps promote go a long way to offering children a sense of being rooted.

7) And finally, camps can offer children a better sense of their culture.

Camps give kids both cultural roots and the chance to understand others who have cultures very different than their own.

That’s an impressive list of factors that good camping experiences provide our children.

Whether it is a subsidized day camp in a city or a luxurious residential facility up in the mountains, camps can give our kids a spicy combination of experiences that prepare them well for life.

Add to that experience the chance for a child’s parents to reinforce at home what the child nurtures at camp, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll find in our communities and schools amazing kids who show the resilience to make good decisions throughout their lives

You can read more about Michael’s approach at his web site.


He has also written a novel called The Social Worker. Here is a video in which he talks about the book.

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