“It’s actually not as bad as it seems” : understanding the process of resilience for children with a visible difference during the secondary school transition

Clifford, Katharine (2021) “It’s actually not as bad as it seems” : understanding the process of resilience for children with a visible difference during the secondary school transition. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


Secondary school transition (the move from primary to secondary school in the UK) involves a shift from a known environment (primary school) to an unfamiliar environment, which can result in feelings of anxiety and distress. This thesis explores the importance of resilience in that transitional process, and it does so for ‘children with a visible difference’, namely: children with a cleft lip and/or palate (cleft). This normative ecological transition, in which a child has to negotiate new roles and relationships, was the setting to examine resilience as a process. The studies were framed in the theoretical context of Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) Bioecological Process-Person-Context-Time (PPCT) model, which locates the child at the center of a nested circular structure, and where social interaction within school and home are paramount. Indeed, the social and developmental context of the child - their immediate microsystems, including the home (family), and school (peers), which are embedded in a broader mesosystem - was central to the analysis. The research questions were: (i) During the school transition, what protective mechanisms underlie the resilience process? (where, when and under what circumstances do these operate)? (ii) What processes are involved in the enactment of resilience among children with a cleft starting secondary school (Can we recognise or name these steps or links during this process)? And (iii) how does the social context in which the child is immersed shape the resilience process during the secondary school transition year? A longitudinal mixed-method qualitative design was employed, which included three core studies. (Study 1) a key informant interview study with experienced professionals working with children with or without a visible difference in healthcare, education and policy. (Study 2), a group school transition study with children and parents interviewed at different time points during the first term at secondary school, and (Study 3) two case studies of children, who were shadowed in their first year of secondary school. Data collection methods included family interviews, online interviews with the children, a focused ethnography with teacher and peer interviews, and vlogging (video blogging). The key informant study identified everyday common-sense interpretations of resilience as an individual reaction to adversity, the role of navigation and reflection, which was in contrast to the range of qualitative findings which conceptualises resilience as a process that facilitates autonomy and independent action in the child through effective communication. In short, resilience is a child’s ability to access these resources (which can only be achieved when the social context is adequately maintained) and to use them to good effect. The main implications of this work are that professionals need to be trained to (i) move away from individualising and representing resilience, such as perpetuating the belief that resilience is something that the child possesses either through inheritance or training and (ii) to ensure that microsystems and the communication within them that facilitate resilience, are aligned, monitored and maintained.

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