Voices in Education

Teaching Purpose for Resilience and Flourishing
Adversity and trauma are all too common experiences for children and adolescents. Among the many challenges they pose, these experiences can be detrimental to school engagement and academic performance. According to one report, 48 percent of children and adolescents in the US have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) and 22.6 percent have experienced more than one.1 These experiences, which include parental divorce, witnessing domestic violence, abuse, and poverty, among others, are associated with impediments to school success, such as absence, disengagement from school, learning disabilities, and repeating a grade. 

Some young people show greater resilience to adversity. Those who do are less likely to suffer the impact of ACEs on school outcomes; they are more engaged at school and less likely to repeat a grade. An important source of resilience is having a sense of purpose in life. Purpose, defined as a commitment to make a meaningful contribution to the world, gives direction to life and is associated with physical, social, and psychological well-being. People with purpose see themselves as having something important to contribute—to their family, their community, to society, or to the world—and are driven to do it.

In one study of purpose and adversity, people with a greater sense of purpose showed better emotional recovery following a negative experience.2 Highly purposeful people, the authors argued, might be more inclined to use positive coping methods following a negative experience, and less inclined to ruminate. This appears to be the case among young adolescents we surveyed: those with stronger purpose were more likely to use positive coping strategies, such as looking for the good in something bad, in response to negative life events. 

Although purpose can foreshadow resilience to adversity, it is also possible that adversity creates purpose in life. In our study of adolescent purpose development, many described finding their purpose in response to negative events, such as pursuing a medical research career after a beloved aunt died of cancer or mentoring younger teens in a community youth group after getting caught up in drugs and violence.3

Of course, those who have been exposed to trauma or adversity can find a purpose for their life that is unrelated to those experiences. Rather than leading directly to a specific purpose, a traumatic event could, in the right circumstances, activate the processes associated with developing purpose. Following trauma exposure, some engage in post-traumatic growth processes, including efforts to make meaning from the experience, values reassessment, and commitment to new life goals.4 These are essentially the same processes anyone can use to develop purpose in life: finding meaning in life experiences, reflecting on core values, and committing to meaningful life goals.    

Purpose is clearly an asset for promoting resilience in the face of adversity. But more than that, it is essential to the well-being of all students and a worthy outcome for schools to aspire to. Can schools use this asset to promote not only resilience but greater well-being and better academic outcomes for all students? I profiled some purpose education programs in my book, Teaching for Purpose, and found that a growing number of educators see developing students’ purpose as not only possible but essential.5 They make classroom time for students to engage in the purpose-developing processes—exploring and reflecting on their core values, considering their role in society and what they can contribute to their community, and setting goals that guide them into the future mindful of their values and their desire to make a positive contribution to the world—and they are seeing results. 

These educators report that students are more open and more willing to take risks in sharing their values, dreams, and personal stories in the classroom, suggesting that students feel a greater sense of belonging and safety among their teachers and classmates. Some schools report fewer behavior referrals and suspensions after starting these programs, suggesting that students are finding more positive ways to address their challenges at school. Students report that they have a more positive outlook on the future and feel more empowered to pursue meaningful goals. Anecdotally, educators report that these programs are especially effective for students who struggle with challenges outside of school, supporting the research claims that purpose-development processes following adverse experiences can lead to growth.

For schools seeking ways to support their adversity-exposed students, purpose education is an approach that emphasizes positive development, personal growth, and expansive dreams for the future. School becomes a community where all students feel safe to explore who they are and who they want to become, and where all students learn to see their own value in contributing to the community, regardless of what they have experienced.


1 Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (2013). “Overview of Adverse Child and Family Experiences among US Children.” Data Resource Center, supported by Cooperative Agreement 1‐U59‐MC06980‐01 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB). Available at www.childhealthdata.org

2 Schaefer, S. M., Boylan, J. M., van Reekum, C. M., Lapate, R. C., Norris, C. J., Ryff, C. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Purpose in life predicts better emotional recovery from negative stimuli. PLoS ONE, 8(11).

3 Moran, S., Bundick, M. J., Malin, H., & Reilly, T. S. (2012). How supportive of their specific purposes do youth believe their family and friends are? Journal of Adolescent Research, 28(3), 348-77.

4 Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). TARGET ARTICLE: "Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence." Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

5 Malin, H. (2018). Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


About the Author: Heather Malin is the director of research at the Stanford University Center on Adolescence, where she conducts research on diverse aspects of purpose development. She is the author of Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning (Harvard Education Press, 2018).