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Study to Examine What Makes Kids Thrive Or Struggle

Written by Dalhousie University on 29 May 2009.

“What we want to understand is what makes the difference in kids’ lives,” says Michael Ungar, the Dalhousie professor who leads an international team of resilience researchers. “How do we get them the right services so it’s going to make a difference?” Labels were starting to be affixed to 14-year-old Jesse; the Grade 8 student known to play with a switchblade was known as “dangerous” by younger kids in his neighborhood, and as “disruptive” by his teachers, when he made it to school at all.

And yet, Jesse may yet beat the odds; two years on, he’s still in school, he has a girlfriend, he even joined the school track team.

What made the difference for Jesse? Was it the school guidance counselor who hauled him into his office and asked why he was skipping school? Was it the Big Brother whom he was matched with years before? Was it the drop-in centre down the street that started opening its doors late at night for kids to play basketball?

Those are the kinds of questions the Pathways to Resilience Project is probing, comparing kids who thrive with those who struggle. The goal of the three-year study is to learn what patterns of formal service and informal support work best in different cultural contexts to mitigate risk and promote well-being.

“What we want to understand is what makes the difference in kids’ lives,” says Michael Ungar, the Dalhousie professor who leads an international team of resilience researchers. “How do we get them the right services so it’s going to make a difference?”

That effort just got a big boost with an infusion of $2 million in research funding through the International Community University Research Alliance: providing $1 million (through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to expand research in Canada and $1 million (through International Development Research Council) to be split among three partners: in the Free State province of South Africa; Medellin, Colombia; and Beijing, China. New Zealand, with $7 million in funding by its own government, is the fifth country site.

In Canada, the research builds on the study already in progress. The first wave of data collection (funded by the National Crime Prevention Centre and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) looks at 600 high-risk teens, ages 13 to 19, in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Labrador. In the first phase of the study, the young people participating complete a comprehensive questionnaire documenting the services they used and their experiences. In the next phase of the study, selected youth will be invited to take part with in-depth interviews.

“It’s a chance to really get to know their lives and understand them,” says Dr. Ungar.

In the context of the study, the services they use may include child welfare agencies, schools, mental health supports and correctional services. Informal supports include families, peers and communities. Further, “resilience” is defined as the capacity of the individual—in the face of significant adversity—to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural and physical resources that sustain their well-being; it’s less about

The new grant money will allow researchers to talk to an additional 2,000 young people in Canada alone. Director of Research Linda Liebenberg is ramping up the project: setting up offices and hiring additional staff. The methodology developed by the Dalhousie team will be shared among the international partners.

Members of the international team are expected for meetings on July 2 and 3. As well, a large conference on resilience is planned for June 2010 at Dalhousie.

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