Coping Diversity

Coping diversity

The study “Indigenous pathways to adaptive coping” formed part of the Indigenous Pathways to Resilience (IPR) project under the leadership of Prof Liesel Ebersöhn. The aforementioned project was conducted under the aegis of the Centre for the Study of Resilience, University of Pretoria in South Africa. Participatory Reflection and Action (PRA) was used in a longitudinal comparative case study to generate knowledge on indigenous pathways to resilience.

The reference for the doctorate study which inspired this MESHGuide is:

Malan-Van Rooyen, M. (2015). Indigenous pathways to adaptive coping in rural communities. PhD thesis. Pretoria, South Africa: University of Pretoria. Available at

The thesis is available on-line and entails a more detailed literature review of coping and presents the full version of the conceptual framework.


This MESHGuide creates awareness of the diversity in ways people cope with adversity. Stress forms part of people’s daily lives irrespective of age, gender and culture. However people do not necessarily respond to stress in the same manner. Differences in coping behaviours have been ascribed to variables related to the type of adversity people face, people’s culture, their age, gender as well as the type of environment they live in. Another variable to consider in coping is the different functions of these behaviours. Certain coping behaviours might contribute to positive development which fosters resilience, whereas others might be maladaptive.

Insight into the diversity of coping strategies ie ‘coping diversity’ could benefit professionals in the educational systems in several ways, including:

  • Understanding coping diversity in learners could enable teaching professionals and educational psychologists to support learners in relevant and meaningful ways.
  • Understanding and identifying one’s own adaptive- and maladaptive coping behaviour could promote mental health.
  • Understanding the greater context of a learner and his/her caregivers could inform teaching professionals and educational psychologists about why learners and their caregivers mediate adversity in a certain way. The latter could help teaching professionals and educational psychologists to build meaningful supportive relationships with the wider system of the learner.

The MESHGuide contains a conceptual framework that was developed based on a completed doctoral study titled: Indigenous Pathways to Adaptive Coping in Rural Communities. Although the study did not focus on the educational context, it resulted in evidence of strategies communities use to cope with adversity which are relevant to any professional.

How to use this guide

This Guide provides information to help teachers work more effectively with their local communities. While the research was undertaken in South Africa, it is expected that many teachers will find that the advice about how to understand and work with local communities is transferable to their context.  

Throughout your use of the MESHGuide remind yourself of the following:

  • People cope in different ways.
  • A person’s environment informs his/her way of coping.
  • Coping goes beyond the individual.
  • Coping can either be adaptive or maladaptive.
  • Continuous use of adaptive coping behaviours forms an important part of resilience.
  • The MESHGuide includes a South African example of socio-culturally influenced coping behaviours to showcase diversity in coping.

Why is it important for teaching professionals and educational psychologists to improve their knowledge and understanding of coping? A deeper understanding of coping has both professional and personal benefits mentioned below.

Professional benefits for teaching professionals

Learner support forms part of any teaching professional’s daily work. Learner support usually involves developing coping behaviours to overcome an array of adversity which could be emotional, social, scholastic or physical in nature.

A deeper understanding of coping diversity will enable teaching professionals to:

  • Be sensitive towards different ways learners cope.
  • Be informed of how culture plays a role in how diverse learners cope.
  • Be able to align student support with a learner’s culturally meaningful coping behaviours.
  • Be aware that it is necessary to distinguish between adaptive and maladaptive coping behaviour.
  • Be aware that promoting adaptive coping could contribute to learners’ resilience.

Professional benefits for educational psychologists

Learners and their families often end up at educational psychologists because they are finding it challenging to cope with adversity. A deeper understanding of coping diversity will enable educational psychologists to:

  • Be aware of important differences in coping behaviour.
  • Be sensitive towards cultural forms of coping.
  • Adapt their interventions to accommodate clients’ unique coping behaviours.
  • Be aware of the difference between adaptive and maladaptive coping and use this insight to facilitate therapeutic processes that support resilience.

Personal benefits for teaching professionals and educational psychologists

The demands of being educational professionals can often be experienced as stressful and overwhelming. Continuous experience of high demands has been associated with career related adversity such as job burnout. A deeper understanding of adaptive - and maladaptive coping might enable teaching professionals to become more aware of their own coping behaviour and enable them to adapt their coping behaviour in a way that contributes to their well-being. 

Research site

The evidence for diversity in adaptive coping as a pathway to resilience was obtained in two South African rural communities. The research sites had to fulfil two criteria. Firstly, there had to be chronic adversity and high need which will demand continuous coping. Both research sites faced chronic adversity such as poverty, unemployment, chronic illness such as HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, limited access to education and health services. Natural resources such as water were also a problem. Secondly, it was important that these communities were indigenous in order to allow access to indigenous knowledge systems. Both these communities had indigenous community members.


The study included participants older than 18 years. In the end, the sample consisted of 72 adults which was stratified by age (youth=48, elders=24) and gender (women=41, men=31). In these indigenous communities older community members play an important role in the lives of young ones as the elders are expected to pass down the indigenous knowledge systems that inform how to manage their environment. Working with the adults provided valuable insight into why these communities coped the way they did. Another advantage of working with indigenous communities was it allowed for the documentation of ways of coping that might differ from western cultures which in turn promotes awareness of coping diversity.


The study was conducted over three years, both sites were visited once a year. Two visits focused on collecting data, whereas the third visit was reserved for member checking in order to make sure that the data was correctly interpreted.

Coping references

Aldwin, C. M. (2007). Stress, coping, and development: An integrative perspective (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Kim, U., Yang, K. S. & Hwang, K. K. (2006). Contributions to Indigenous and Cultural Psychology. In U. Kim, K. S. Yang & K. K. Hwang (Eds.), Indigenous and Cultural Psychology: Understanding People in Context (pp. 3-25). New York, NY: Springer.

Kuo, B. C. H. (2011). Culture’s consequences on coping: Theories, evidence, and dimensionalities. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42(6), 1084-1100. doi: 10.1177/0022022110381126

Kuo, B. C. H. (2012). Collectivism and coping: Current theories, evidence, and measurements of collective coping. International Journal of Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/00207594.2011.640681

Nilson, D. (2007). Adapting coping theory to explain the concept of adjustment. Social Work in Health Care, 45(2), 1-20. doi: 10.1300/J010v45n02_01

Skinner, E. A., Edge, K., Altman, J. & Sherwood, H. (2003). Searching for the structure of coping: A review and critique of category systems for classifying ways of coping. Psychological Bulletin, 129(2), 216-269.

Skinner, E. A. & Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2007). The development of coping. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 119-144. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.58.110405.085705

Skinner, E. A. & Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2009). Challenges to the developmental study of coping. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2009(124), 5-17. doi: 10.1002/cd.239

Skinner, E. A. & Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2011). Perceived control and the development of coping. In S. Folkman (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of stress, health, and coping (pp. 35-62). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Thoits, P. A. (2013). Self, identity, stress, and mental health. In C. S. Aneshensel, J. C. Phelan & A. Bierman (Eds.), Handbook of the sociology of mental health (pp. 357-377). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Tolan, P. & Grant, K. (2009). How social and cultural contexts shape the development of coping: Youth in the inner city as an example. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2009(124), 61-74. doi: 10.1002/cd.243

Tweed, R. G. & Conway, L. G. III (2006). Coping strategies and culturally influenced beliefs about the world. In P. T. P. Wong & L. C. J. Wong (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural perspectives on stress and coping (pp. 133-153). New York, NY: Springer

Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. & Skinner, E. A. (2008). Adolescents Coping with Stress: Development and Diversity. The Prevention Researcher, 15(4), 3-7.

Resilience references

Cicchetti, D. & Curtis, J. (2007). Multilevel perspectives on pathways to resilient functioning. Development and Psychopathology. 19, 627-629. doi: 10.1017/S0954579407000314

Cicchetti, D. & Rogosch, F. A. (2009). Adaptive coping under conditions of extreme stress: Multilevel influences on the determinants of resilience in maltreated children. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2009(124), 47-59. doi: 10.1002/cd.242

Cicchetti, D. (2010). Resilience under condition of extreme stress: a multilevel perspective. World Psychiatry. 9, 145-154.

Ebersöhn, L. (2013). Building generative theory from case work: The relationship-resourced resilience model. In M. P. Wissing (Ed.), Well-being research in South Africa (pp. 97-121). Dordrecht: Springer.

Ebersöhn, L. (2014). Teacher resilience: theorizing resilience and poverty. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 20(5), 568-594. doi: 10.1080/13540602.2014.937960

Masten, A. S. (2014). Global perspectives on resilience in children and youth. Child development, 85(1), 6-20.

Masten, A. S. & Reed, M. J. (2002). Resilience in development. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 74–88). New York: Oxford University Press.

Masten, W. & Wright, M. O. (2010). Resilience over the lifespan: Developmental perspectives on resistance, recovery and transformation. In J. W. Reich, A. J. Zautra & J. S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience (pp. 213-237). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and Psychopathology, 24(02), 335-344. doi:

Ungar, M. (2008). Resilience across Cultures. The British Journal of Social Work, 38(2), 218-235. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcl343

Ungar, M. (2011). The social ecology of resilience: Addressing contextual and cultural ambiguity of a nascent construct. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(1), 1-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1939-0025.2010.01067.x


Various definitions of resilience exist, of which most reflect the notion of being able to adapt successfully to some form of disturbance (Masten, 2014). However, the complexity of resilience calls for a more detailed description as provided by the socio-ecological view of resilience:

“Where there is potential for exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural and physical resources that build and sustain their well-being, and their individual and collective capacity to negotiate for these resources to be provided and experienced in culturally meaningful ways” (Ungar, 2008, 225).

The socio-ecological definition of resilience highlights several important factors of resilience, including:

  • the presence of significant adversity
  • the presence of resources
  • action on individuals’ part, namely finding their way to resources (navigation) and using the resources that they ascribed culturally relevant meaning to (negotiation)
  • adapting to adversity in such a way that well-being is maintained
  • interaction between individuals and the environment

An example of a resilient learner will be someone who is able to perform scholastically well despite having a specific learning disorder in reading and writing. It is important to consider that resilience might not manifest in the same way across contexts as variables in individuals, among individuals and in environments are important considering factors in understanding resilience. For instance, in an indigenous (non-western) context, resilience might manifest as collective resilience which is defined as: “the result of accessing, mobilising, networking and nurturing sustained resources use for communal positive adaptation because of collectively appraise stressors” (Ebersöhn, 2013, p. 110).


Coping in general is seen as behaviours aimed at mediating stress. However, the function of coping can be either adaptive or maladaptive. Adaptive coping is more than merely dealing with stress in that a person copes in such a way that over time adverse effects are mediated and positive development is fostered (Skinner & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2011). Adaptive coping involves the effective use of coping resources (Kuo, 2012). In the instance where coping behaviour promotes positive development, coping becomes an important variable that could promote resilience (Cicchetti & Rogosh, 2009). Educational or therapeutic support aimed at fostering reliance will focus on strengthening existing adaptive coping behaviours and/or establishing new adaptive coping behaviours.

Coping behaviours might not always be healthy. When coping behaviours relieve stress but do not reduce or eliminate the adversity causing the stress, the coping behaviour’s function is considered as maladaptive. Maladaptive coping will hinder positive development and not promote resilience. Examples of maladaptive coping within the learning context might be a learner who avoids going to a certain class because they experience too much anxiety in that specific class. The aforementioned behaviour might reduce stress but only temporarily and could increase adversity in the long run.

Coping resources

Coping resources, also referred to as protective resources, are resources individuals utilise when they need to mediate with adversity (Thoits, 2013). The resources a person has at their disposal plays a role in how they cope.

Coping resources can be classified as individual resources (such as positive personality traits and positive personal experiences), social resources (relationships), cultural resources (religious practices, heritage, cultural practices), institutional resources (for example schools, clinics, NGO’s, services) and society based resources (including policies, social grants and nutrition programmes).

Within the learning context an example of intrapersonal coping resources might be a learner with exceptional organisational skills. An example of social coping resources might be having a sibling or tutor who is able to assist with homework. Cultural resources are less obvious and relates to how individuals view themselves, what they find meaningful, how they relate to others and how they manage their environment (Kim, Yang & Hwang, 2006). An example of a cultural resource is having a collectivist orientation where drawing on social resources is considered a strength. In such a case a learner from a collectivistic culture will know how to ask for help and engage with other people to overcome adversities. Institutional resources can be tutor services at a school or learning support equipment. Society based resources could include a homework centre, policies of inclusion or having a feeding scheme for learners from a low socio-economic background.


Similar to coping resources, sources of stress (adversity) can be located within a person (intrapersonal), between people (interpersonal) or located within the physical environment. Adversity can also be episodic or chronic (Ebersöhn, 2013).

An example of intrapersonal adversity might be a learner faced with a specific learning disorder. This type of adversity is chronic in nature and the learner will have to cope with it throughout their educational career. An example of intrapersonal adversity that is episodic in nature could be a learner who falls ill but recovers over time. The learner has to cope with this adversity for a specific period of time only.

Interpersonal adversity might be a learner who grows up in a high conflict, adverse family environment. The learners experience this adversity as chronic. Episodic interpersonal adversity might involve a learner losing a significant other.

An example of adversity located in a learner’s physical environment is when a learner grows up in poverty. If the poverty is not elevated the adversity is chronic and often accumulative. Temporary loss of income is an example of episodic adversity located within the physical environment of a learner. 

Knowledge Systems

All of us have certain knowledge systems from which our choices and behaviour stem. For this specific study the knowledge system was indigenous in nature, and accordingly indigenous knowledge systems formed an important part of understanding the coping behaviours of the participants. Indigenous knowledge systems refers to “the total knowledge and skills a specific group of people in a specific location possess which enables them to manage and benefit from their environment as much as possible” (Odora Hoppers, 2008, p.29). Such knowledge systems are saturated with cultural values that could affect coping in the following ways (Aldwin, 2007):

  • culture can influence the type of stressors individuals experience
  • culture can affect the appraisal of the stressor
  • culture can affect the choice of coping strategy
  • culture can provide different institutional mechanisms to help an individual cope with stress

In our rapidly developing world teaching professionals and educational psychologists are faced with the responsibility of working with diverse learners. Getting to know learners’ knowledge systems could provide valuable information about how they mediate with adversity and why.


In the study an individual’s environment was considered as multi-dimensional. Teaching professionals and educational psychologists should embrace the multi-dimensional nature of learners’ environments by taking into consideration the following dimensions:

  • cultural dimensions
  • social dimensions
  • physical dimensions (including socio-economic factors, infrastructure and location)

Conceptual Framework

Note: This conceptual framework is a shortened version of the original conceptual framework presented in the actual PhD thesis.

When faced with adversity individuals experience stress, which necessitates coping. Coping involves using coping resources in attempts to mediate adversity. The environment (cultural, social and physical) in which an individual is situated determines the following:

  • the type of adversity individuals face.
  • which coping resources individuals have at their disposal.
  • the way in which individuals use these resources.

The outcome of coping can reduce, sustain or increase adversity. Over time the function of coping can either contribute to a person’s resilience (in which case the coping is considered as adaptive coping) or hinder a person’s resilience (in which case the coping is considered as maladaptive coping). Insight into the knowledge system which underpins an individual’s coping behaviour could provide insight into their behaviour aimed at mediating adversity and could eventually guide support provided to these individuals.

The following questions can be deducted from the conceptual framework:

  • which cultural values (as reflected by an individual’s knowledge systems) guide the learner’s behaviour?
  • what adversity is the learner facing?
  • what coping resources does the learner have?
  • how does the learner use the coping resources?
  • which of the coping behaviours are adaptive?
  • which of the coping behaviours are maladaptive?
  • how can existing adaptive coping behaviours be reinforced?
  • how can new adaptive coping behaviours be established?
  • how can maladaptive coping behaviours be eliminated?

Intervention implications

In order to gain insight into the mentioned questions teaching professionals and educational psychologists need to hear the answers from the learners’ perspective. Naturally this will demand obtaining answers through the use of age appropriate activities in a safe space. The learners’ perspective will be embedded in knowledge systems they hold which was influenced by their environment (cultural, social and physical). The latter implies that in order to truly understand the knowledge systems which underpin learners’ behaviours teaching professionals and educational psychologists need to gain an understanding of the wider system in which learners live. In other words, significant others who form or contribute to the livelihood of the learner, such as guardians, need to share their answers to the stipulated questions. Teaching professionals and educational psychologists should also answer these questions from their perspective as they form part of learners’ environment. An integration of all the role players’ answers should provide a basis for support plans.

The stated questions are also relevant to teaching professionals and educational psychologists who can use these questions to guide introspection. The process should enable them to reflect on and identify:

  • sources of stress
  • coping resources
  • adaptive coping behaviours
  • maladaptive coping behaviours

Insight gained from introspection could enable teaching professionals and educational psychologists to reinforce existing adaptive coping behaviour, establish new adaptive coping behaviours and eliminate maladaptive coping behaviours. A continuous process of maximising adaptive coping behaviours could help address and prevent career related adversity to the extent that teaching professionals and educational psychologists can promote their own resilience.


This case study illustrates coping diversity in a context where community members hold indigenous knowledge systems. Indigenous knowledge systems are associated with non-western cultures (such cultures are found in Asia, Africa, India, Latin America and the Middle East). Non-western cultures are known for their collectivistic orientation (which emphasises relationships and the relational self), whereas western cultures are often associated with an individualistic orientation (which places the individual at the centre and focuses on individual behaviour). Differences between having a collectivistic orientation versus an individualistic orientation can manifest in fundamental differences in the way in which people cope with stress.  It is important for teaching professionals and educational psychologists to be aware of such differences in order to provide meaningful and relevant support.

The case study is presented in the format of answering the questions stipulated by the conceptual framework. The case study further provides an example of valuable information that can be obtained if teaching professionals and educational psychologists engage with a learner’s wider system. In this case the wider system involved perspectives from the boarder community.

Note: A good way to approach the case study is to pretend that you have a learner in the classroom who needs support and comes from a community similar to the one in the case study. You can even think of ways you can provide support in such a context.

Case study

Which cultural values guided behaviour in the community?

Two core values reported by the participants were reverence for traditional authority and collective connectedness. Reverence for traditional authority refers to a normative value of respecting the leadership of indigenous authority structures. The indigenous authority structures consisted of certain community members who were chosen to represent and guide the community in mediating adversity. These authority structures consisted of a hierarchy of members. At the top of the structure was the chief (also referred to as the headman), followed by chief messengers who conveyed messages from the community members to the chief.

The second value collective connectedness entails strong use of social coping resources and consists of attributes such as trust, reciprocity as well as collective action and participation. In sum the second value refers to meaningful relationships that create a space where adaptive coping can be fostered.

What adversity does the community face?

The participants indicated that they experience stress due to adversity related to:

  • poverty
  • unemployment
  • poor infrastructure (including under-resourced schools, either a lack of or under-resourced clinics, a lack of shops and water scarcity)
  • a lack of access to health services and educational services
  • problems related to alcohol abuse

What coping resources does the community have?

In terms of individual coping resources the participants identified being religious, personal skills, personal belongings, knowledge and wisdom as coping resources. However, because of the core value of collective connectedness, they viewed these resources as “ours” (belonging to the community) rather than “mine”.

Social resources were reported the most and included: traditional authority members, neighbours, friends, families and the pastors from the church. Cultural resources included having a traditional authority government and cultural days where younger people are introduced to cultural principles.

Institutional resources (even though some of these resources were in itself under-resourced) included houses, farms, churches, schools, shops, cultural centres and sport centres (which often referred to a soccer field). Society based resources identified included social grants and a feeding scheme at the high school.

How does the community use coping resources?

The participants used coping resources through collective consultation and collective participation. Collaboration plays a central role in mediating adversity.

Collective consultation refers to:

  • consulting with friends, families, neighbours and pastors about personal issues
  • consulting with traditional authority structures about community issues
  • consulting with municipal structures if the community is unable to resolve the issue at hand

Collective participation involved:

  • collective recreation: participation in communal activities such as soccer were seen as a good way to prevent drug abuse
  • collective spirituality: going to church were seen as good way to reduce stress
  • collective citizenship: participating in communal meetings helped to discuss and resolve communal problems
  • collective arts: participating in cultural events, such as traditional dances, were seen as a way to reduce stress and teach younger generations about cultural values

Which of the coping behaviours did the community experience as adaptive?

The participants reported all coping strategies as being adaptive. The notion of sharing resources and capitalising on social relationships appeared to underpin the adaptive function of the coping behaviours. Collective action and sharing resources were especially important since the community faced a lack of resources due to poverty, unemployment and being far removed from services.

Which of the coping behaviours did the community experience as maladaptive?

The participants did not identify any of the coping behaviours as maladaptive. However it did appear as if consulting with the municipality did not lead to timely support.

How can existing coping behaviours be reinforced?

The community’s strength evidently lies within their ability to work together to mediate with adversity. Any attempt to reinforce existing adaptive coping behaviours should acknowledge the collective nature of already employed strategies. Support could then focus on how resources can be shared optimally and which strategies can maximise relationships between people.

If we had to apply this to the educational context, teaching professionals and educational psychologists would naturally have to think of intervention plans that include these collective resources and collaborative behaviours. If an educational professional attempted to support a learner from such a community by focusing on the individual and individualistic behaviour their support might become irrelevant.

How can new adaptive coping behaviours be established?

If teaching professionals and educational psychologists feel the need to establish new adaptive coping behaviour they might need to start with a process where they collaboratively decide with the people involved about which new adaptive coping behaviours will be feasible. New adaptive coping behaviours would naturally have to be compatible with the collective nature of the background of learners and their families.

How can maladaptive coping behaviour be eliminated?

Although the community members did not report instances of maladaptive coping it appears as if resources and services that need to be provided by the municipality still fall short. New ways to collaborate with the municipality can be explored.

Final Remarks

The case study creates awareness of how diverse coping is influenced by a unique environment. If teaching professionals and educational psychologists ignore the unique knowledge systems of the learners and families they work with, support efforts might become irrelevant and ineffective. Taking time to understand the context from which children come could benefit both educational professionals and the learners. One way to include socio-cultural considerations in the classroom is through collecting detailed background information to incorporate for individualised education plans. Classrooms can become more inclusive through inviting elders. Themes could be included in the curriculum which highlight unique socio-cultural characteristics of local communities. Educational psychologists could include questions focusing on socio-cultural influences when collecting background information which should then be considered during assessments and therapy.

Lastly, if educational professionals take time to understand their own knowledge systems from which their coping behaviours stem, they can enable themselves to maximise their adaptive coping behaviour and foster resilience in ways that aremeaningful and relevant to them.


Strength of Evidence


The strength of evidence in this study, whilst conducted within a bounded system, is strong for practitioners in developing country contexts.  Due to the high level of descriptiveness in this study, the findings are especially useful for teachers and educational psychologists working within similar paradigms on the continent of Africa.



The study has high transferability in high-risk, low-resource educational contexts.  The concept that different communities have different strategies for dealing with challenges in their environment is an important concept for teachers to understand. The case in this guide is from a community in South Africa. We welcome summaries of other similar work so that we can look for similarities and differences in communities. Adding cases from different settings would strengthen the Transferability rating.

Editor's Comments

This study has been selected by academics in the African Deans of Education network and it provides a model for translating research from a PhD into usable knowledge for teachers.