Moving from vulnerability to resilience in the COVID-19 recovery phase: a review of resilience-building for children, young people and families
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been widespread and felt most keenly by groups and communities often deemed to be ‘vulnerable’. This has been particularly stark for children, families and frontline workers living and working in areas of significant disadvantage.
This month, Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland published a new report reviewing the literature and concepts of vulnerability and resilience as they apply to children, young people and families. It also highlights areas of practice focused on building resilience with individuals, in communities, and across systems.
The terms ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ are used extensively in policy and practice, so we examine what these concepts mean. We explore what they look like in the context of our work with children, young people and communities.
This report provides a synthesis of learning in relation to vulnerability and resilience, while offering insights into the principles underpinning resilience-building approaches. We aim to support practitioners and policymakers in the COVID-19 recovery phase, informing ongoing CNS programme development and future activities.
Often groups and individuals are described as ‘vulnerable’, but this can mean different things depending on the context. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, Harkins recently highlighted that communities and population sub-groups have additional vulnerability to the crisis. These include socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, people with disabilities, black and minority ethnic groups, and people experiencing homelessness. It is also stated that talking about vulnerable groups or people suggests they are ‘deficient’ or ‘different’ in some way.
By placing a focus simply on individual deficit or vulnerability, this risks ignoring wider systemic issues which often contribute to the need for support in the first place, or in the need to address the structural causes of the problem. It’s also clear that a range of social, cultural and institutional processes or systems can influence how different groups within society are affected by shocks or crises.
In contrast, the concept of ‘resilience’ focuses on the assets – or strengths – that individuals, communities or systems already possess. By further developing and strengthening these assets, resilience-building aims to support adaptation to potential crises or change, including COVID-19. This is done through empowering communities and individuals. Social capital – community bonds and social networks that facilitate access to resources – are important, as are civic and political participation and representation.
As described in the report, resilience operates at individual, collective and systemic levels. It is emphasised that these levels are fluid, interconnected and support one another. The development of resilience therefore presents an opportunity for recovery from a crisis to bring about positive change, rather than simply returning to the way things were before.
An extensive body of international academic literature also discusses the concept of vulnerability and resilience, specifically in relation to children and young people. This research highlights the importance of the early years for the development of resilience and different examples of resilience-building approaches for children, including those who are deemed to be vulnerable.
The role of schools and educational settings are crucial in this regard. For children and young people in particular, the importance of open communication in relation to stress or crisis is highlighted. The development of adaptive coping, and socio-emotional skills within education and the family, can support childhood resilience in addition to positive attachments and relationships with adults.
Importantly, the evidence shows that resilience can – and must be – fostered in wider systems such as social welfare, not just in individuals or communities. For individuals or groups to develop resilience, social and economic systems must be prepared to support this.
Supporting the development of resilience
The report draws on the key principles from the literature, highlighting areas for developing an increased individual and collective resilience, while reducing vulnerability to current and future crises. It also presents a selection of illustrative examples which provide an applied understanding of the key theories and principles discussed.
Finally, the report offers points for consideration for future resilience-building activities for children, young people and families which can be embedded into COVID-19 recovery planning:
- Enabling individuals, groups and communities to be empowered and to develop coping skills, social capital and confidence through focusing on existing assets and strengths.
- Supporting children and young people to develop adaptive coping skills within and outside of educational settings, ensuring open communication enables their voices to be heard.
- Supporting families to cope with shocks and to provide the conditions for children and young people to develop resilience.
- Encouraging community participation and empowerment, ensuring that the voices of those experiencing adversity inform future responses.
- Working to address the root causes of certain types of vulnerability to reduce the number of ‘chronic crises’ with which people must cope.
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis undoubtedly presents a challenge for policymakers and practitioners who work with children and families. As we move into the recovery phase, the priority for many will be to ensure that people and communities are supported to be resilient to both this and future crises.
Policymakers and practitioners should continue to foreground resilience through a range of projects and programmes, at the individual, collective and, importantly, systemic levels. It is hoped that this report, along with our CNS COVID-19 specific research examining local responses to the crisis, contributes to this work.
Download the report
To cite this report:
Pirie, C., McLean, J., McBride, M., Bynner, C., and Feeney, E. 2020. Moving from vulnerability to resilience in the COVID-19 recovery phase: a review of resilience-building for children, young people and families. Glasgow: Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland.
Brown, K., Ecclestone, K. and Emmel, N. 2017. The Many Faces of Vulnerability. Social Policy and Society, 16(3), pp.497–510.
Harkins, C. 2020. Supporting community recovery and resilience in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – a rapid review of evidence. Glasgow: Glasgow Centre for Population Health.
Seaman, P., McNeice, V., Yates, G. and McLean J. 2014. Resilience for public health. Glasgow: Glasgow Centre for Population Health.