Resiliency is the heart of the matter

International centre is based at Dalhousie and headed by Professor Michael Ungar.

- June 27, 2011

Professor Michael Ungar is a research professor in Dalhousie's School of Social Work.
Professor Michael Ungar is a research professor in Dalhousie's School of Social Work.

A young teen in rural Thailand loses his father and younger sister in a tsunami. It is traumatic, yet he finishes school, secures satisfying work, marries, starts a family and describes his life as “happy.”

An adolescent in Tampa, Florida is diagnosed with ADHD. He is neglected but not abused by his blue-collar parents. They provide food and shelter but basically leave him and his siblings to their own devices. He drops out of school and descends into a life of drug addiction and petty crime.

Why are the outcomes for these two teens, both immersed in challenging situations, so radically different? And how can experts in fields such as social work, psychology, health statistics, education, and child and youth studies—not to mention policy makers—learn from those experiences?

Bringing together experts

That’s what the Resilience Research Centre (RRC), an international partnership based at Dalhousie University, aims to find out.
The centre brings together leaders in the field of resilience research from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds. Partners across six continents are employing methodologically diverse approaches to the study of how children, youth and families cope with adversity, whether it be poverty, racism, sexual exploitation, or natural disaster. The focus is on the social and physical ecologies that make resilience more likely, looking beyond individual factors to aspects of family, neighbourhood, community, school, culture and political and economic forces.
Recently, the centre was invited to become an institutional member of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. “We appreciate your support in promoting UNESCO’s values in Canada and look forward to future collaboration,” wrote David Walden, Secretary-General, Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
“The centre’s program of research has focused on developing understanding of the social ecology of resilience, opening up new possibilities for support to disadvantaged young people, families and communities,” says Dorothy Bottrell, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, Australia. Dr. Bottrell is engaged in a project focusing on patterns of supporting and enabling resilience by asking how disadvantaged young people experience and respond to their schools and communities.
Meanwhile, back in Halifax, Michael Ungar, a research professor in the School of Social Work – and the heartbeat of the RRC – is busy Skyping with colleagues in Moscow, putting a Minnesota researcher in touch with an arts-based charity in Baghdad, and emailing information to a Kurdish researcher concerning a child soldier initiative at Dalhousie.
“That’s a normal day at the office. The model of governance is more about trying to create a woven mat, rather than spokes on a wheel,” says the affable 47-year-old, who serves as the RRC’s director of research.
“It’s a complex weave of relationships that 99 per cent of the time works very well,” says Dr. Ungar.
There’s no doubt Dr. Ungar’s work is well-known. Whether he’s writing about unsettling trends among North American youth, starring in a YouTube video or blogging about hot-button trends at – the five things most likely to ruin your child’s life, for instance – his reach is undeniable. In 2011 Pottersfield Press published his novel The Social Worker, a provocative story of what it means to reach out to the most vulnerable.
But his work with the RRC ( – which he helped found in 2003 – is not so high-profile, even though the centre has four research projects running in a dozen countries.
They include Negotiating Resilience, which uses video and photography to capture relevant aspects of young participants’ lives; Pathways to Resilience, to illustrate how youth navigate formal services like child welfare, education and youth justice; Stories of Transition, which explores factors informing career decisions among young people in five areas of Canada, including Halifax; and the International Resilience Project, intended to validate the culturally sensitive Child and Youth Resilience Measure. The series of 28 questions takes into account risk factors, strengths and services. Developed by the RRC, it has since been adopted by hundreds of researchers worldwide.
“The Resilience Research Centre has a generous and open approach to sharing its research methodologies, instruments and findings,” notes Dr. Bottrell.
Macalane Junel Malindi, a senior university lecturer in South Africa, agrees.
“I think we owe much of what we know about the resilience phenomenon to the diligent work of the centre,” says Dr. Malindi, who’s employed by the School of Educational Sciences at North-West University in Vanderbijlpark.
“The fact that its influence is far-reaching means that we can benefit from the knowledge it generates. Its contribution to theory and practice in social sciences is second to none,” she says.
“Have you read The Secret?” asks Dr. Ungar, referring to the bestseller about the power of positive thinking. “We are everything The Secret is not. We are the antithesis to The Secret. It’s not that positive thoughts don’t work, but it’s only a very small portion of what makes you survive well.”
So it’s true: the cliché “kids are resilient” – a construct popular among American researchers – is just that. Good schools, safe streets, attached parents, fewer prisons, among other factors, also play a role.
“If you scratch the surface, in eight out of 10 cases, the reason most children do well is not because of their temperament, but because there was a teacher who greeted them at the door of the classroom, there was a coach, there was a facilitative environment,” muses Dr. Ungar.

It takes a village

And while there are commonalities, those factors can be very specific depending on community and culture, whether research subjects live in Sheshatshui, Labrador; Montreal, PQ; Winnipeg, MB; Vancouver, BC; Tampa, Florida; Jinan, China; Guwahati, India; Tel Aviv, Israel; Medellin, Columbia; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; or Palmerston North, Manawatu-wanganui, New Zealand.
“Some cultures, for example, are more accepting of surrogate parenting by extended family or friends. In South Africa, where the term ‘AIDS orphan’ is frequently
employed, 90 per cent of children are actually still engaged with extended family,” says Dr. Ungar.  “We can’t define it by our own standards, in such a tiny box.”
Social justice means one thing to a teen living in an individual-focused society, and something altogether different to one who resides in a place where it’s expected you will give up some of your personal rights for the good of the whole.
And what response would you get if you asked your own teens: how often did you cook for your family? How often do you look after your younger siblings? Yet it’s de rigeur in many cultures.
“There are some universal truths,” he confides. “We couldn’t find a society that didn’t value education.’ “
Dr. Ungar, whose speaking engagements have taken him from Singapore to San Francisco in the past year (including a submission to the European Parliament), has been working with troubled kids since the 1990s as a clinician and therapist.
“As a research professor, what I’ve tried to do is take the pure research and use it to inform the professional applications,” he says.
“Partners overseas, particularly in the developing world, are more interested in that aspect. If you’re dealing with AIDS orphans, you’re not really worried about measuring intrinsic attachment – you want to know what supports a grandparent needs to make a successful family.”
Dr. Ungar doesn’t want to always be “exporting our ideas … it’s about thinking outside the box – what is happening there that we should be bringing here.”
A good example is the model of restorative justice – long-ingrained in the culture of the Maori of New Zealand and adopted in countries around the world (including Canada) during the past few decades.
“That is something that came out of a marginalized culture and entered into the dominant culture,” says Dr. Ungar.
Now in his 10th year at Dal, Dr. Ungar says the “reciprocity” amongst RRC projects and communities – communities, governments, charitable organizations, front-line workers – has contributed to its success.
Each collaborating partner potentially becomes part of the research, included in resulting data, invited to co-author articles in professional publications. The centre is also in the process of establishing itself as a “major player” with SOS Children’s Villages.

Huge potential

“They’re sitting on a data set of over one million children, and they’ll need an evaluation program,” explains Dr. Ungar. “The potential is huge.”
“We try to enter into partnerships where people will take away more from the table than they had. It’s a buffet table – and they all leave with dishes more full than when they came,” says Dr. Ungar, who is married with two teens of his own.
For his part, Dr. Malindi believes his collaboration with the RRC will have tangible results in his own African backyard.
“The findings and recommendations are going to improve how we can ameliorate the social problems that affect masses of vulnerable children,” he says.


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