Shifting Paradigms: Easier Said Than Done

Sybil Wolin, Ph.D.
Steven Wolin, M.D.

Resiliency in Action Magazine - Fall 1997

As ideas go, the concept of paradigm shift is "in." Educators, preventionists, clinicians, and policy makers everywhere are decrying the drawbacks of an "at-risk" paradigm for understanding, serving, and programming for children and youth. The alternative they advance is a resiliency model which breaks with a long tradition of research and practice emphasizing problems and vulnerabilities in children, families, communities, and institutions burdened by adversity. Instead, the resiliency model credits people with the strength and the potential to recover and bounce back from hardship. It honors their power to help themselves, and casts professionals as partners rather than as authorities, initiators, and directors of the change process.

We agree. An important part of our own work has been to develop a resilience paradigm and to advocate for a shift away from the risk paradigm. At the same time, we have learned from our experience training hundreds of teachers, school and agency administrators, counselors, therapists, youth workers, and others that paradigm shifts are much more easily talked about than accomplished. Resistance is both natural and expectable.

The Case of Anita

The case of Anita, a 14-year-old student in an inner city junior high school illustrates the nature of the task. Upon entering junior high school, Anita was immediately identified as an "at-risk" student. She was brought to the attention of the guidance office and the special education screening team by her teachers who supported their dim view of her with the following observations: Anita is disruptive in class, frequently calling out and making inappropriate remarks. All of her academic skills are two to three years below grade level. Her school record does not indicate a home address or the name of her father. Her mother, who was a teenager when Anita was born, is addicted to crack cocaine. Anita is frequently absent or late to school. Notes sent home about her absences, her behavior, and her poor academic work are unanswered.

This recitation of "facts" is the data usually marshaled to support the risk paradigm and from which its conclusions are typically drawn. By documenting one problem after the next, the paradigm gives the impression of Anita as a teenager who is well on the way to repeating her mother's life. It predicts that because Anita is academically deficient and behaviorally and emotionally impaired, she is more likely than not to drop out of school. With few skills and little idea of a work ethic or the rules of the marketplace, she will be pushed to the margins of society. According to the risk paradigm, little in her past gives a reason to be hopeful about her future.

Using a resiliency paradigm leads to an opposing conclusion, not by denying the facts cited by the risk paradigm but by looking at another part of the picture - her social and emotional intelligence. For instance, at home Anita takes care of both her mother and her brother. Because her mother resists treatment, Anita escorts her to the drug treatment center and often waits many hours for her to be seen. She also goes along to the supermarket to be sure that her mother buys food rather than getting sidetracked and spending her money on drugs.

Anita cooks and prepares meals for her brother. When there is not sufficient food to go around, she cuts down on her own meager portion so that he will not be hungry. She insists that he attend school, even when she does not. Anita has woven a safety net for herself by cultivating a relationship with her Aunt Edith. It is to Edith's house that she goes with her brother whenever her mother disappears or brings home a man who is frightening.

Acknowledging these "facts" as well as Anita's school records and psychological and educational assessments, a resiliency paradigm holds out hope for her. It views Anita as someone with inherent strengths and the capacity to direct her future provided she is given the right support. Specifically, she is a mature individual - even wise beyond her years. She is moral and has a deep sense of obligation to her family. She is self-sufficient and has considerable common sense. In the training we have conducted, we have tried to instill doubts about the risk paradigm by introducing this type of positive information. We have tried to convey a sense of hope to those who would see Anita exclusively in terms of her problems and who, on that basis, would write a scenario of doom for her. We have encouraged participants entrenched in the risk paradigm to broaden their perspective and to consider information that is normally omitted in risk assessments. We can't say that we have always been successful. On the contrary, we've had to learn and understand what we are up against.

Impediments to Change

Shifting one's paradigm requires personal change, and personal change requires hard work. Consider how difficult it is to make even small personal changes. How often have you vowed not to blow up at your teenager only to find yourself in that very act the next day or the next hour? Or to begin a diet, or to start exercising, or to put your credit card away, or to stop procrastinating?

Compared to the difficulty of changing behaviors such as these, shifting one's paradigm is a different order of magnitude. Paradigms are not overt behaviors such as eating too much, exercising too little, or flying off the handle. Paradigms are deeply embedded in the self. As Steven Covey (1989) explains, a paradigm is a map inlaid in the mind which determines the way you see the world. Paradigms are conditioned by inborn temperament, upbringing, family, friends, colleagues, schooling, and work environment. Deeply rooted as they are, paradigms are seldom scrutinized. Rather, they are accepted without question, driving the assumption that what you see is a correct representation of reality. One's paradigm precludes other people's realities. When contradictions arise in an encounter with someone else's paradigm, these are dismissed as inaccuracies, misperceptions, or mistakes. The whole process repeats itself again and again without notice. It is not easily interrupted.

New information does not change paradigms. Training in skills and techniques does not change paradigms. And telling others about a new paradigm in the hope that they will give up theirs and adopt yours does not often work either. As Bonnie Benard (1993) has noted, changing paradigms requires nothing less than changing people's hearts and minds. In our attempts to do that, we have identified three specific obstacles to the acceptance of the resiliency paradigm. We describe them below and make suggestions for overcoming each.

1. The distance between the resiliency and the at-risk paradigm, as each is typically described, is too great for people to cross comfortably.

The resiliency paradigm is often portrayed as the opposite of the risk paradigm. Therefore, acceptance of the resiliency paradigm requires the unlikely event that people will stop believing that the children and youth they see in their offices, classrooms, and agencies each day have been severely damaged by the hardships they face. Instead, they will begin thinking that the damage in these children and youth is not as significant as their strengths and resources that have previously been ignored.

We believe that presenting the resiliency paradigm as the opposite of the risk paradigm is a misrepresentation and oversimplification that stirs up resistance rather than paving the way to change. A more accurate representation is that the risk paradigm, which we have called the Damage Model, and the resiliency paradigm, which we have called the Challenge Model, complement rather than oppose one another.

The Damage Model shown in Figure 1 portrays the harm that troubled and dysfunctional families, communities, and societies can inflict on children. It paints children as passive and without choices or the ability to help themselves. As a result, the best they can do is to cope with hardship; but, over time, coping takes its toll and gives way to pathology. As the process continues, pathologies are layered upon pathologies, and the child becomes an adult with serious and often irreversible problems.

The Challenge Model shown in Figure 2 starts with the same sequence. It does not require demoting or overlooking the deleterious effects of hardship. It does, however, add another dimension to the risk story. In the Challenge Model, hardship is not only destructive but also is an opportunity. Children are wounded in the Challenge Model, as they are in the Damage Model, and they are left with scars as adults. But they are also challenged by troubles to experiment and to respond actively and creatively. Their pre-emptive responses, repeated over time, become incorporated into the self as lasting resiliencies.

Seen from the perspective of the Challenge Model, hardship has a paradoxical effect, causing strength and weakness simultaneously. In our workshops, we have found that this notion of paradox is more easily accepted than the idea of dropping the risk paradigm completely and working instead from a strengths angle only. We also believe that a paradoxical formulation, in contrast to the either/or alternative of risk vs. resiliency, is more clinically accurate and responsible.

2. Compared to the resiliency paradigm, the risk paradigm carries considerable authority which is difficult to question or deny.

The risk paradigm is based on a long and venerable tradition of research and practice. It stems from a medical model which seeks to identify and eradicate the cause of physical diseases. The fields of psychiatry and psychology extended this model from diseases of the body to disorders of the mind. Its medical roots leant particular authority to the innovation.

Since the 1940s, when Rene Spitz (1945) first investigated hospitalism in institutionalized infants, researchers have been studying the specific disorders of the mind associated with stress and hardship in early childhood. They have uncovered the myriad ways that children's psyches can be harmed by disruptions in their parent's, family's, and community's functioning. Their work has filled libraries with data on the maladies that beset children with schizophrenic mothers, divorcing parents, alcoholic fathers, handicapped siblings, premature separations, and other similar traumas. In conjunction with clinical observations of the ill, this work shapes the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), which sets the standard and provides the vocabulary for diagnosing mental illness. It is hundreds of pages long and is replete with categories, subcategories, flow charts, and axes.

Worthy as the investigation and identification of pathology have been, we believe it is a one-sided endeavor, painting a distorted picture of human frailties and vulnerabilities and the insufficiencies of children to master their problems. On the other hand, the resiliency model which fills in the picture is a relative newcomer that is not yet fully enough developed to balance the distortions of the risk paradigm. Less than two decades old, it lacks the aura of legitimacy that history, research, and a medical background bestow upon the risk paradigm. Next to the risk lexicon, a resiliency vocabulary is scant and pallid. The paradigm itself is only just beginning to enter the clinical arena.

As a result, the resiliency paradigm is no match for the risk paradigm. Talking about the human capacity to repair from harm, inner strengths, and protective factors, professionals feel that they have entered alien territory. They grope for words and fear sounding unschooled and naive when they replace pathology terminology with the more mundane vocabulary of courage, resourcefulness, hope, creativity, competence, and the like. Putting it all together, many prefer the familiarity and safety of the risk paradigm to the struggle of adopting a new mode of thinking. We believe that the struggle can be tipped in the other direction by offering a systematic, developmental vocabulary of strengths that can stand up to the pathology terminology that is standard in the field. Our own work has taken that direction. We have also found that some of the skepticism that is typically associated with the resiliency paradigm dissipates with information about the growing and promising field of resiliency research.

3. Talking about strengths in children who are suffering provokes moral hesitations.

As sentient beings, people are more apt to think in risk rather than resiliency terms. Professional adults as well as lay people feel a natural protectiveness toward children. Their small size, their weaknesses and dependencies, and their injuries stir people's deepest sympathies. Innocent children who are needlessly hurt ignite moral outrage. It is an appalling spectacle when they are homeless, hungry, abused, or uneducated. In the face of such suffering, talking about strengths in children of hardship seems all wrong. This sense of incorrectness stands in the way of widespread acceptance of a resiliency paradigm. Feeling on shaky moral ground, professionals tend to retreat to the safety of the risk paradigm and are reluctant to move out of its enclosure.

In our workshops, we have found that the most effective way of lowering this resistance is by discussing it directly. The interchange is usually thoughtful and sobering, encouraging participants to examine and question, some for the first time, the paradigm that governs their work.

We have approached the topic in several ways. One of the most successful has been to ask workshop participants to view Salaam Bombay, a movie about Krishna, a young Indian boy who has been abandoned on the streets of Bombay. His trials and pains are monumental. They can be discussed without inhibition. His strengths and integrity of character, which are equally compelling, cause internal conflict within the viewers. On the one hand, participants see the strengths and want to acknowledge them. On the other hand, they fear that mentioning the strengths of children like Krishna who suffer terribly will dampen the moral outcry the movie is meant to rouse.

We use this conflict as a jumping off point to discuss the basic underlying issue. Do individuals become party to the world's injustice by focusing on Krishna's strength rather than taking action or advocating for change on his behalf? In general, does an emphasis on strengths in children of hardship dilute society's obligation to disadvantaged populations?

Although we rarely reach clear answers, an open airing of these questions at least begins the process of opening people's minds and hearts. We have found that most of participants, in the course of this discussion, become curious about their own paradigms and the reasons that keep them in place. And more than a few reach the conclusion that while talking about resilience in children of extreme hardship can go against the grain, it can be done responsibly, and it can result in benefits to children.

Understanding Resistance to Change as a Starting Point

Traditionally, the fields of education, prevention, and therapy for children who struggle with hardship have been dominated by an at-risk paradigm. The results of this approach have been disappointing to professionals and the public alike. Hence, from all quarters, there are urgings for something new and better. The most talked about alternative is a resiliency paradigm which honors the strengths of youth and children and their capacity to recover from hardship. We join with those calling for this shift. At the same time, we have seen that the expectation that people can shift easily from one paradigm to another is naive. Therefore it behooves trainers and supervisors who wish to encourage change in the direction of the resiliency paradigm to understand the nature of the resistances and what is entailed in lowering them. We hope this paper serves as an effective starting point.


Benard, B. (1993). Turning the corner from risk to resiliency. Portland OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
Covey, S. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change.New York: Simon and Schuster.
Spitz, R. (1945). Hospitalism. An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood. The psychoanalytic study of the child, IUP, New York, 53-74.

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