SPARK Resilience in Education©

Professor Ilona Boniwell, CEO Positran; Programme Leader, MSc in Applied Positive Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University; Visiting Professor, University of East London


Psychological research concurs on the importance of the development of emotional resilience and coping strategies in children. All over the world, and especially in developed countries, rates of depression are increasing sharply. This reflects both population growth and the proportional increase in the rate of depression among the most at-risk ages. According to WHO, being young is a risk factor nowadays.

A recent US study (Lu, 2019) that examined nearly 100, 000 young people has concluded that the depression increased steadily from 8.3% to 12.9% over simply five years (between 2011 and 2016). Another study (Twenge et al, 2018) has confirmed the trend, pointing out a stunning 63% increase in depression rates between 2009 and 2017. The increase is most prominent for the 18-25 generation, and much weaker for the older adults, with the authors concluding: “Cultural trends contributing to an increase in mood disorders and suicidal thoughts and behaviours since the mid-2000s, including the rise of electronic communication and digital media and declines in sleep duration, may have had a larger impact on younger people, creating a cohort effect” (Twenge et al, 2019, p. 1). In the UK, Patalay & Gage (2019) have compared two birth cohorts and found a similar increase in depression from 9% in 2005 to 14.9% in 2015. In France, according to Barome?tre Santé? 2017 published by Santé Publique France, the number of students suffering from depression went up by 13.3% between 2010 and 2017.


In response to this growing problem, schools are well placed to offer a strong foundation to cultivate resilience and provide students with opportunities to challenge and expand their cognitive boundaries and develop their protective assets (e.g., strengths, relationships) in a relatively safe environment. Universal school-based resilience-promoting programmes emerged in the 1990s in different countries around the world and have received growing attention since (Dray et al, 2017).

The SPARK Resilience Programme is one such universal school-based positive education intervention aimed at 11 to 14 years olds that builds on the resilience, cognitive behaviour therapy, mindfulness and positive psychology literature with the explicit goal of fostering emotional resilience and associated skills, as well as preventing depression (Boniwell and Ryan, 2009). The efficacy of SPARK for depression symptoms and resilience was established in a high-risk population in England (Pluess, Boniwell, Hefferon & Tunariu, 2017) and further explored in secondary school samples in the UK, Japan and France. Research outcomes suggest that SPARK improves resilience and reduces risk for depression, especially for highly sensitive children (Pluess & Boniwell, 2015; Kibe, 2014). By 2020, the SPARK Resilience Programme has been used extensively in the UK, France, Netherlands, Singapore, Japan and other countries around the world.

SPARK Resilience© Curriculum

The SPARK Resilience curriculum takes students on a journey of self-reflection and becoming more in control of their lives. Organised around the SPARK acronym, it teaches students to break simple and complex situations into manageable components of: Situation, Autopilot, Perception, Reaction and Knowledge. Through the use of hypothetical scenarios informed by consultations with students in pilot schools, students learn how an everyday Situation can trigger in them an Autopilot (feelings & emotions). These Autopilots vary for different people and different circumstances because of the unique way we Perceive these Situations. We then React to the Situation and learn something from it, that is, we acquire Knowledge about the way we are, or others are, or the world is.

To help students understand these concepts, they are introduced to ‘parrots of perception’ – imaginary creatures representing common distortions of human cognition and thinking. The programme teaches students how to challenge their interpretation of everyday life situations and consider other alternatives to decide if their parrots were right to begin with. Uncomfortable cognitive habits (e.g., the Blamer, Worrier and Whatever parrots) are contrasted with the more comfortable ones (e.g., the Wise, Confident and Optimist). Understanding their cognitive biases helps students to better recognise their automatic emotional responses and learn to control some of their non-constructive behavioural reactions. Alongside, they are introduced to the skills of assertiveness and problem solving and are helped to build their ‘resilience muscles’ through identifying their strengths, social support networks, sources of positive emotions and previous experiences of resilience.

SPARK Resilience aims to develop the skills of resilience across 10 lessons through the use of fun educational activities. The programme operates within the psycho-educational framework, which means it is not group therapy. Most work is based upon hypothetical scenarios, common for students of this age and adjusted for gender and cultural backgrounds. Although students are encouraged to reflect, problem-solve, discuss and otherwise take part in the programme activities, they are not necessarily asked to self-disclose.

SPARK Resilience Research

Given that SPARK has been examined in a number of trials, what are the main research take-aways?

In a first study, we explored the efficacy of SPARK on depression symptoms and resilience in a high-risk population in England. A total of 438 11 to 13 year-old girls were assigned to either a control or treatment group. There was evidence for decrease in depression symptoms directly after the intervention, 6 months later, but not after 12 months. Resilience scores, on the other hand, were significantly higher in the treatment cohort compared to the year-ahead control cohort at post-treatment and both follow-up assessments (Pluess, Boniwell, Hefferon & Tunariu, 2017).

Two other studies in secondary school samples in the UK and Japan investigated whether the personality trait Sensory-Processing Sensitivity moderated the efficacy of the SPARK Resilience Programme aimed at the prevention of depression. A two-cohort treatment/control design with one cohort serving as the control group (N = 197) and a subsequent cohort as the treatment group (N = 166) was used to test whether Sensory-Processing Sensitivity predicted depression trajectories from pre-treatment up to a 12 months follow-up assessment in 11-year-old girls from an at-risk population in England. The aim of the one-leg trail (no control group) study in a private secondary school in Tokyo was similar, testing whether the individual sensitivity moderates the effects of resilience education. Therefore, data from 528 students was collected from 2015 to 2018, measuring self-esteem and depression before, after and at a 3 month follow up post the SPARK Resilience Programme. Middle to highly sensitive children showed significant increase in self-esteem score and a decrease in depression score, both effects sustained after three months follow up. Sensitivity seems to moderate the treatment effects of SPARK (Pluess & Boniwell 2015; Kibe, 2014).

Two further trials of SPARK have been conducted in recent years, one in Japan and another – in France (both currently undergoing the publication process). The very latest study examined the effectiveness of the SPARK programme during the Covid-19 lockdown in France and has shown very promising results for increased resilience, well-being and decreased depression of participants.

In summary, research outcomes suggest that the SPARK Resilience Programme improves resilience and reduces risk for depression, especially in highly sensitive individuals.

SPARK Resilience© Reach

When first developed, SPARK Resilience Programme was delivered in four secondary schools, with over 40 teachers trained as initial programme trainers in the UK. Consequently, over 40 professionals were trained as master trainers, with the right to train either pupils or other teachers. Currently, it is difficult to estimate the total number of schools in the UK that implemented the programme at one time or another, but the number is likely to be over 100. SPARK Resilience was selected as one of the best resilience programmes in the UK by Public Health England (PHE) London and is showcased on the London Grid for Learning Portal. Recently, a major international educational charity Partnership for Children, with partners in 32 countries around the world, has acquired the rights for the SPARK Resilience Programme outside of France and Francophone territories, Singapore and Japan and is currently proposing SPARK Resilience programme as a follow-up for their existing resilience resources in primary schools, Zippy’s Friends and Apple’s Friends. Soon, resilience will be SPARKing all over the world!


Japan was another country that showed an active interest in developing resilience, due to worrisome suicide statistics (60 percent higher than global averages; Lu, 2015). Japan Positive Education Association has held the rights for delivering the SPARK Resilience Programme since 2013 onwards, and reports having implemented the programme in over 57 schools (from elementary schools to universities and teacher trainings) and other organisations, with around 20,000 students benefiting from it in its short-term and long-term (over a year) versions.


ScholaVie, a charity that provides training in socio-emotional skills to French schools and professionals, held the rights to represent the programme between 2016 and 2018, trained 10 trainers in the SPARK Resilience Programme and helped five schools to install this positive education solution. 86 teachers were trained, reaching over 1,400 middle school students so far. In the Reunion, in the College Les Tamarins, the programme has been running for 5 years, reaching nearly a 100 students per year.  SPARK Resilience won two prizes in 2016: the positive innovation in education price by the University of Grenoble-Alpes and the pedagogical innovation price of the Foundation “Apprendre & Réussir”. The French Ministry of Education nominated the programme as one of the top 30 innovations in 2017 (see p. 14).


Dr Boniwell was invited to give a TEDx talk on educating for resilience in 2013 that has attracted over 132, 000 views. Since then, she has delivered over 20 keynotes on resilience education in major national and international events, including at the International Conference for School Violence (Canada, 2018), GESS Education (Dubai, 2018), 8th Congress of the European Network of Positive Psychology (France, 2016), 5th Australian Positive Psychology and Wellbeing Conference (Adelaide, 2016).  Her work has appeared in popular press, including newspaper articles and interviews and even a video documentary on the use of the SPARK Resilience Programme in Japan by the NHK broadcast channel (just in case you fancy trying out your Japanese!).

SPARK Resilience© with Gratitude


The SPARK Resilience Programme is the result of hard work and collaboration between many people, who shared the spark of enthusiasm for building the better future for our young generations. Amongst them are Dr Lucy Ryan, the co-creator of the first version of the programme, whose creativity made the programme tangible and fun and from whom I learnt everything I know about making learning tangible, Lucy Airs, who has co-authored the updated edition, making insightful and practical adjustments to the contents. Thank you to Professor Michael Pluess, who headed the research into the effectiveness of the programme, and to Hiromi Imamura and Dr Chieko Kibe, who brought the SPARK Resilience to  Japan. Thank you to Caroline Egar from the Partnership for Children, whose lifelong determination to develop resilience in children is responsible for the current programme spread and implementation. Thank you to Larissa Kalisch for being on the front line and training many children and adolescents in resilience throughout the Covid-19 pandemic!


Finally, thank you, dear teacher, educator, trainer or coach reading these words, for thinking about how to bring resilience to children and young people you are working with. I hope you spark many ideas, realisations and discoveries, laying the foundations for their lifelong flourishing.

Where next?

Well, if you are working in France or any other country that uses French as the principal language, you might like to follow our Positive Education Certification that will lead you to becoming certified in the SPARK Resilience Programme.

If you are working in the UAE, Netherlands, Singapore and Japan, please contact us to discover how your school or your organisation can benefit from the programme.

If you are working anywhere else in the world, please contact the Partnership for Children to book a training course or become a licensed trainer.

Scientific references

Boniwell, I. & Ryan, L. (2009). SPARK Resilience: A teacher’s guide. London, UK: University of East London.

Dray, J., Bowman, J., Campbell, E., Freund, M., Wolfenden, L., Hodder, R. K., … & Small, T. (2017). Systematic review of universal resilience-focused interventions targeting child and adolescent mental health in the school setting. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry56(10), 813-824.

Joyce, S., Shand, F., Tighe, J., Laurent, S. J., Bryant, R. A., & Harvey, S. B. (2018). Road to resilience: a systematic review and meta-analysis of resilience training programmes and interventions. BMJ open8(6), e017858.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living, revised edition: how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Hachette UK.

Lu, W. (2019). Adolescent Depression: National Trends, Risk Factors, and Healthcare Disparities. American Journal of Health Behavior43(1), 181-194.

Patalay, P., & Gage, S. H. (2019). Changes in millennial adolescent mental health and health-related behaviours over 10 years: a population cohort comparison study. International journal of epidemiology.

Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of vantage sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences82, 40-45.

Pluess, M., Boniwell, I., Hefferon, K., & Tunariu, A. (2017). Preliminary evaluation of a school-based resilience-promoting intervention in a high-risk population: Application of an exploratory two-cohort treatment/control design. PloS one12(5), e0177191.

Seligman, M.E.P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

Twenge, J. M., Cooper, A. B., Joiner, T. E., Duffy, M. E., & Binau, S. G. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005–2017. Journal of abnormal psychology.

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