To understand the specific processes that might lead to resilience, researchers have moved beyond the identification of factors and variables. They have turned their attention to the mechanisms or processes by which risk and protective factors interact to shape the life trajectory of each child or young person. Rutter (1989) identified the existence of long-term negative chain effects that intensify and entrench the ill-effects of early stress and adversity.

Subsequent research has identified fundamental protective processes and systems for human adaptation that, when operating normally, foster and protect young people’s development (Masten, 2009; p30). Young people’s exposure to risk factors, and consequent degree of vulnerability, is heightened when the influence of these key systems has been degraded and the resources and opportunities that go with them diminished (Johnson & Howard, 2007). The likelihood of serious social problems continuing from adolescence into adulthood seems linked to the extent to which resources are available to the individual and the sheer range of problems they have to contend with  (Gilligan, 2008). Also, the choices and actions of individuals are crucial in selecting and shaping their experiences. In line with this observation, Masten (2001) found that “…resilient youth appear to place  themselves in healthier contexts, generating opportunities for success or raising  the odds of connecting with pro-social mentors” (p234).

Johnson and Howard (2007) identify that “…positive and negative chain effects can often have their starting points in random, even accidental events” (p4). Opportunities and choices made at crucial junctures play an important role in the life course of resilient individuals. Thomson, Bell, Holland, Henderson, McGrellis et al. (2002) demonstrate that “…critical or fateful moments” can become turning points for a young person (p350). An effective, competent response that promotes desirable outcomes and is recognised by others is likely to be repeated. If this happens often enough, certain ways of behaving become part of the individual’s behavioural repertoire. This phenomenon is known as a “developmental cascade” or as a “progressive snowball effect” (Masten & O’Dougherty Wright, 2009, p217).

Masten (2009) explains that well-timed interventions geared to respond at critical moments have the potential to disrupt negative cascading effects or initiate healthy developmental processes and positive adaptation. Given favourable conditions, even small changes in an individual’s profile and functioning can create a ripple effect, possibly generating momentum for further change and development across a range of life domains (Gilligan, 2008; Masten, 2001). For example, educational success and/or sporting prowess often translate into forming close friendships with pro-social peers. In other words, competence begets competence.

Homel, Freiberg, Lamb, Leech, Batchelor, Carr  et al. (2006) advocate a developmental pathways approach because it captures the relative influence of risk and protective factors and is understood in the context of each young person’s biography, past and present. This approach requires investigation into the “…interconnected systems in which human development unfolds, such as families, schools, and neighborhoods” (Masten & Obradovi, 2006, p24) to determine how each  young person’s opportunities for pro-social development are either nurtured or obstructed.

The Social Development Model (SDM) (Catalano & Hawkins, 1996) provides a useful theoretical framework for explaining a young person’s commitment to pro-social development. The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (Williams et al., 2009) draws from the extensive body of research into the application of SDM to outline the dynamics by which young people adopt  pro-social attitudes and behaviours:

  • A child or young person perceives opportunities for pro-social interactions
  • Through engaging in pro-social activity and experiencing pro-social interactions, a child or young person comes to understands that he or she is positively rewarded for his or her participation
  • The child or young person develops the emotional, cognitive, and behavioural skills that allow him or her to continue earning, perceiving and experiencing positive reinforcement.

In this way, new, more productive ways of dealing with life can be substituted for behaviours that served as coping mechanisms but led to further social dislocation and poor development outcomes (Williams et al., 2009).


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