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Ann Masten: Children’s natural resilience is nurtured through ‘ordinary magic’

“Resilience emerges from multiple processes. It’s not one trait; it’s not one thing,” says Ann Masten.

Ann Masten, Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, is an expert on childhood resilience.
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

An Army brat, Ann Masten, Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, spent much of her childhood on the move.

Later, that sense of rootlessness underscored Masten’s interest in how young people adapt to life’s challenges.

“As a kid, I moved around a lot,” she said. “It is probably not a coincidence that I now do research on refugees, immigrants, homeless, highly mobile families. A lot of my work has focused on people who are moving around and need to adapt, whether they are migrating for positive reasons or they’re fleeing from war zones or disasters.”

Masten came to the University of Minnesota in 1976, drawn by the work of psychology Professor Norman Garmezy. She’d worked in Washington, D.C., at the National Institutes of Health, but after reading Garmezy’s research on childhood resilience, she was inspired to come to the state to follow in his footsteps.

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Early in her academic career, Masten joined Garmezy on launching Project Competence [PDF], a longitudinal study that followed a group of 200 children and families from the Minneapolis Public Schools, analyzing the adversities and protective influences in their lives. The study continued for more than two decades, following the subjects as they aged and began families of their own.

Work on Project Competence, combined with her research on resilience in children who face homelessness, war and natural disasters, has built Masten’s reputation as an international expert on human survival. Her latest book, “Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development,” was published in August by Guilford Press.  

One recent afternoon, Masten and I met in her sunny office on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus to talk about her long career, and about her focus on children facing adversity. Here is a portion of our conversation:

MinnPost: How did you get involved in Project Competence?

Ann Masten: I came right when he was starting a new study that was called Project Competence and became eventually the Project Competence Longitudinal Study. We were there right at the beginning of resilience research. It was the late ’70s. There were very few people trying to study what was the connection between adverse life experiences and how children do in life and what makes a difference, what are the protective factors that help them. So we started a very basic study of a cohort of ordinary children, they weren’t high-risk or anything. These were ordinary schoolchildren. We were interested in discovering, “What are the everyday life experiences that people have and how is this related to how kids are doing at school?”

We were just interested in seeing how life experiences related to how you do later in life. We wanted to discover the resources and influences that make a difference. We also wanted to know: What helps children? What protects children?

We had ideas about that and we expected, for example, that we would find that families and parents who had their acts together were important, that good parenting really matters when children are experiencing difficulties. We figured that some of the children’s own capabilities, their abilities to think, solve problems, to control their behavior, that those would also play a role.

MP: Can you tell me more about the study subjects?

AM: We were looking for a group of children that would be generally representative of the diversity in an urban school district. The kids were about 8 to 12 years old when we started. They were third- to sixth-graders. We were able to retain about 90 percent of the participants throughout the study, both the parents and the young people. The kids were in their early 30s when we saw them last. They would be mid-40s now. It would be an interesting time to follow them up again.

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MP: What were some of your study’s most interesting findings?

AM: One of the things we learned was that some children coming out of very difficult backgrounds show resilience from an early age, while others are late bloomers. As soon as we met the early bloomers, they were already doing well across the board. They were fun to interview, they were doing well in school, the teachers got along with them, they had friends. Then as we followed them, they continued to do well. If children were doing well early, they generally continued to do well later, too. But there were other children who bloomed later, struggling in childhood or adolescence, and then managing — with the help of mentors and new opportunities and probably a maturing brain — to turn their lives around as young adults.

MP: Do you think that some people are born with natural resilience? Can resilience be taught later on?

AM: I don’t think of resilience as inborn, because every single capability that we have and every resource that we have is always a product of our interactions with the environment, and in the case of children, all the experiences you have even before you are born, the stress level that your mother is exposed to, the nutrition that you’re exposed to, the illnesses of your mother, you’re interacting with the environment as you are developing before you were born, and even those exposures make a difference.

Of course any one of us may have specific DNA that sets some parameters, but there is an awful lot that goes into our capabilities for resilience, including our motivation, our cognitive development, we are constantly interacting with the physical environment, the other people around us, and it has a profound effect on our development. So I would never say that the resilience, which I think of as the capacity to adapt under difficult circumstances, I would never say it is an inborn trait.

I like to say that the resilience of a child is distributed. It’s not just in the child. It’s distributed in their relationships with the many other people who make up their world.

MP: So you are saying everybody has the capacity for resilience, but not everybody has the resources required for resilience? 

AM: People vary in their capacity. And resilience emerges from multiple processes. It’s not one trait; it’s not one thing. There are many different systems that contribute. And those are what I call “ordinary magic.” Many, many studies point to the same list of qualities that are associated with resilience, but one of those, for example, is having close relationships with competent, caring adults. It’s not in the child. That is in a relationship, and, unfortunately, not every child has that opportunity.

MP: Tell me more about your book’s title.

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AM: It’s because I realized some years ago that early researchers were looking for some special secret ingredient for resilience. What I concluded after a number of years of research was that the powerful engines for resilience, the most protective systems, are completely ordinary and common. Thus the title “Ordinary Magic.” 

These systems are the basic, fundamental systems that help us throughout human development. And they also help us through difficulties. Children who make it turn out it turn out to have some pretty fundamental protective systems at hand and operating.

The basic characteristics for resilience are: Caregivers and family that are looking out for you. A human brain in good working order. A human brain that has learned through interactions and training with a lot of people who care. Parents and teachers encouraging children to pay attention solve problems and control behavior. Those systems are important for adapting when things are difficult.


Want to learn more? Try this free class 

Ann Masten is conducting a MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, titled “Resilience in Children.” The free six-week course, which launched this week, is still open for enrollment. This is the first MOOC Masten has taught, and she’s exited about the mix of students enrolled: So far over 14,000 are signed up and more keep coming — from 171 countries.” It’s not too late to take the class. Masten explained that participants can “catch up easily since people pace themselves by watching videos and doing the quizzes or activities whenever they want.” The course will be open for about two months, and Masten plans to offer it again in the winter. For more information go here