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Practical Resilience with Dr. Katie Rosanbalm


Katie Rosanbalm, PhD is a Research Scholar at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. She lives in Durham, North Carolina. She's friendly, optimistic and informed, blending academic smarts with kindergarten teacher warmth and enthusiasm.

I saw her give gave a presentation that included talking about self-regulation last summer. But first, she led an audience of over 150 people through a brief breathing exercise. She is the real deal when it comes to making theory and research immediately practical and applicable. For those of us here, who appreciate research work that supports kids in real time as early and as often as possible, her work is important. Here's more from our back and forth exchange, some of which was quoted in Putting resilience and resilience surveys under the microscope, a story published on ACEsTooHigh.  

Q)What is resilience?         

To me, resilience is a very broad term that can be used to describe many different aspects of a person’s functioning, outlook, attitudes, and behaviors.

In general, resilience is continued (or re-acquired) wellbeing in the face of challenges, struggles, and trauma. It is overcoming obstacles to achieve one’s goals. Just what “wellbeing” or “goal achievement” means can vary significantly from person to person, however.  Some might define resilience as determination and perseverance, others might define it as acceptance and peace. Some might see a person as resilient if they achieve great things professionally or academically despite their obstacles, others might see a person as resilient if they maintain strong interpersonal relationships, a positive sense of self, and an optimistic outlook on life.  I think resilience can be any and all of these things – but at its heart, is about becoming the truest and best YOU despite adversity.

My work focuses on the “self-regulation” part of resilience – successfully managing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to reach positive goals (like any of those above). I believe that self-regulation is a skill that can be taught, coached, and nurtured at any age. Things like coping skills to use when one feels overwhelmed, or the ability to problem-solve and make good decisions.  And “co-regulation” – or support by others – is a huge part of this.

Do you think resiliency scales, surveys,  and quizzes are helpful or useful to families and/or professionals?                                            

Certainly, this would depend on the measure, how well constructed it is, what specifically it measures, etc. – but yes, in general, I think resiliency scales could be quite helpful.  This is because, as with self-regulation, I don’t think resilience is a static thing.  It is impacted by our temperaments, for sure, but also by our skills, supports, environment, opportunity to enact change, etc.  Therefore in measuring resilience, we seek to learn where a certain person is at the moment, and how we might best help that person to develop new skills and supports so that they can become MORE resilient.  The assessment is simply a tool that teaches us about areas for growth and how best to promote change.

Can resilience be measured in children? Is it important to measure the resilience of children?                                                      

Absolutely – we tend to be “deficit” based in many assessments, but resilience is a crucial strength that we can build on!  Or, alternately, that we can seek to enhance if we know some aspect of resilience is lacking.  Again, it is a multi-factor construct – so measuring resilience could be about measuring self-regulation, or motivation, or attitudes, etc. etc.  So it is important to think about what EXACTLY you want to be measuring when you pick a tool.

Is resilience a protective factor or do protective factors build a child's resilience?                                                                                      

BOTH!!  A child might have temperamental resilience – just an easy-going optimism, determination, etc. – that is quite protective against adversity.  On the other hand, I think it is more common that protective factors such as nurturing relationships with supportive adults will build a child’s resilience – in which case, if you are a statistician, you would consider resilience as the mediator that leads to positive outcomes.  In other words, it may be the mechanism by which the other protective factors promote positive outcomes. Either way, I think resilience and other protective factors are mutually supportive and create a positive cycle that builds over time. Resilient kids draw other protective factors to them (I always tell my kids that you are a magnet for the things you focus on), protective factors make kids more resilient.

Can adult resiliency be developed?

ABSOLUTELY!!!  It is a set of skills, habits, and attitudes – it takes shifts in behavior and thinking, but it can absolutely be developed at any point.  I like to think of it as changing the story you tell yourself.  We all tell ourselves stories about the world and our place in it every day – and if you change the story, you change your world.  This may take a lot of time and support, but it can also happen in a giant shift in the blink of an eye, where one’s whole life view just changes.

What resilience research do you refer to or rely on in the work you do?

As I said, my work focuses mostly on self-regulation and co-regulation.  How do we teach people (kids in my case) the coping skills and social-emotional skills that they need to really experience their feelings yet not be overwhelmed and controlled by them?  And how do we teach caregivers how to build the warm, nurturing relationships AND the create the structure and skill-building to support child regulation?  I think these two together go a long way to building resilient kids with positive outcomes.  That has led me to my current work on building trauma-informed schools – positive climates where WHOLE kids are nurtured, not just drilled with times tables.

I also love TF-CBT and DBT because they focus on shifting perspectives and changing the stories that we tell ourselves.

Any preferences (on resilience scales used) when working with children and/or adults?

I’ve used the DESSA and the DECA a lot (also Devereux scales) as screening tools and to assess change over time. Right now I’m working with preschoolers and using the Denham scales on Affect Knowledge and social problem solving (Challenging Situations Task).



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