‘Pathways to Youth Resilience’ and ‘Long-term Successful Youth Transitions’ are two facets of a longitudinal research programme funded by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), that began in 2008 and will run until 2019. Its goal is to examine the ways in which services that come into contact with young people with complex needs can be successful in supporting them to thrive.

The programme began with a working definition of what is meant by ‘young people with complex needs’. Robyn Munford, a professor of social work at Massey University and co-leader of the programme along with her colleague Professor Jackie Sanders, says this means young people who generally have a number of things in common.

“It’s usually young people who’ve got disruptive attachments with their families and other positive adults. This is not just a socioeconomic thing – it’s also things like transience around housing and not having strong relationships with adults.”

The nationwide study involves 1,494 young people between the ages of 12 and 17, approximately 40 per cent of whom have been involved with two or more service systems that can include child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and additional non-mainstream education systems.

The research programme is linked to its parent study at the Resilience Research Centre in Halifax, Canada, and both have been the first in the world to examine the links between service systems, and how experiences of them can influence outcomes for youth with complex needs. Instead of focusing on the success or otherwise of a particular service or service model, the study rather takes an ecological approach.

Robyn says that an ecological approach helps them to understand what’s happening for vulnerable young people within their environment, which is why school is so important.

“School is a key domain,” says Robyn. “Young people have a number of these domains, and school is crucial among them. If you’re not in school, all sorts of things happen: you don’t get access to the resources you need.”

Evolving definitions

Robyn believes that the word ‘resilience’ is often misused: we talk so often about a resilient individual, or a resilient community, when we’re alluding to a person or group of people with the seemingly innate ability to withstand the challenges that life and chance throw their way. Robyn says this definition simply doesn’t go far enough, and actually prevents us from getting a clear understanding of what’s required to foster resilience in young people.

The good news though, she says, is that research programmes like Pathways to Youth Resilience and Long-term Successful Youth Transitions are broadening our understanding of the concept of resilience and moving it away from a character trait to both a process and a function of the environment that has so much influence on the wellbeing of young people.

“A resilient person isn’t someone who is born with the ability to bounce things off, it’s someone who has resources arrayed around them. That’s why we talk about ‘negotiating and navigating to resilience’.

“One of the real cruxes of our study is that resilience isn’t an outcome in itself. Everyone seems to be using the word resilience these days: resilient communities, resilient individuals. But resilience is a process, it’s working toward positive wellbeing outcomes.”

‘Handling it’ isn’t enough

Robyn believes also that we need to raise the bar in terms of the threshold at which we perceive a young person to be living with resilience. Simply ‘handling it’ cannot be seen as success, she says, and to do so is to fail young people who face these environmental challenges.

“A resilient person isn’t someone who is born with the ability to bounce things off, it’s someone who has resources arrayed around them.”

“We’ve previously said that ‘young people have to be resilient to manage the risk in their environment’. But that’s not appropriate is it? These are children we’re talking about! Some of our subjects were 13 and 14 when we interviewed them. They need to be resilient to achieve good outcomes, not to manage risks. Risks that young people face need to be managed by communities.

“You can be resilient and still face risk and harm, because you’ve managed to survive those circumstances. But that’s not actually good enough in New Zealand is it, that young people have, for example, dropped out of school to manage their risks, to look after their siblings or something similar. They need to be in school, they need to be enjoying sports and cultural events, and be able to participate in the normal and ordinary things in life that young people who are more fortunate than them are able to enjoy.

“Resilience shouldn’t be separated from outcomes. It’s about working with resilience to achieve good wellbeing outcomes.”

Linking up

Robyn says that she and her team are hugely grateful to MBIE for funding such a vast project, and see it as an encouraging sign that both the state and academia are getting onto the same page and recognising that those services that deal with young people at risk must talk to each other. This, says Robyn, is one of her team’s key findings so far.

“Often what you’ll find is that a study will focus on just one service, but we’ve been allowed to focus on services overall: one of our key findings has been that, even when you have one good service, if some of the other service experiences aren’t so positive, you don’t necessarily get a good outcome. So it becomes about services working together. It’s about mental health services working with care and protection, with justice, with education. A young person can have a fantastic service relationship with one provider, but if that’s not lined up with other service interventions, it can undermine outcomes.

“That’s what makes this research really exciting to be a part of – it’s sector-wide. Government is saying at the moment – and education is part of that, of course – that we have to have joined-up, collaborative services.

“[Our research] is providing an evidential basis for change, people within these services can say, ‘Look, we have to talk to each other’.”

The message for teachers

Robyn says that teachers shouldn’t fear the weight of society’s expectation, but should instead see themselves as a part of a child’s ecology. It is society’s responsibility to support teachers in helping young people to thrive.

“The message for education leaders and teachers is that keeping children in school is incredibly important, and that even if they need time out, or time in alternative education services, it’s really important that they find and navigate pathways back.

She advises teachers with young people in their classes who they know have real challenges at home to “simply make sure you include them”.

“It’s really hard, because they may be really angry. But we do have to find a pathway in. Young people say to us,  ‘As soon as somebody found that pathway in, and looked past my anger, saw that my behaviour was telling a story, which is, ‘I’m pretty mad at the world’, and they looked past my behaviour, and they saw me as a person, I felt like I wanted to engage. But when I was treated like I was a challenge, I didn’t want to engage’.

“So we need to support teachers to be able to do that. What kind of environment do we want our school to have? Do we want our school to be an inclusive environment, where we acknowledge that we have young people with challenges, but we say, ‘No young person should have to be stood down or expelled’? What are we going to do for the young people who find it hard to be in the classroom? Because the simple fact of the matter is that, if we can’t do anything to provide a safe and supportive space for young people, they’re going to end up in the criminal justice system. That’s the almost inescapable trajectory.”

This must be a schoolwide approach, says Robyn, for it to be successful.

“We have to give kids the idea that they’re part of our team, part of our community – ‘you are us’. I heard a teacher the other day talking about a ‘school clan’, and I think that’s just beautiful.”

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