Children's Voice July/August 2007

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Reaching for Resilience: A Lifeline to Success for Children with Learning Disabilities

By Sheldon H. Horowitz

Let's face it...school can sometimes be a stressful and tensionfilled place. For students with learning disabilities (LD), the demands of listening and taking notes in class, completing homework assignment and projects on time, meeting with teachers for extra support, and staying connected socially to peers in and out of school can be exhausting! That's why building resilience is so important.

Search for a dictionary definition of resilience and you might find:
  • the capacity of a strained body to recover after a period of stress,

  • the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune, or

  • the process of persisting in the face of adversity.
Reflecting on the challenges faced by students with LD, it's easy to see how the concept of resilience would apply to their everyday experiences. Dealing with uncertainty of academic status, worrying about their grades and their ability to keep up with peers, measuring their progress against others who seem to accomplish work with seemingly little effort--these are just a few reasons to justify working with these students to bolster their confidence and boost their resiliency.

By helping children become more resilient, the goal is not to have them deny the reality of their struggles but rather to recognize their areas of special need and help them gain insight into their talents and inner strengths. Knowing how to face up to and answer tough questions, connect with people in ways that are helpful, and deal with frustration with creativity, imagination, and even humor are all ways we can help children with LD to become more independent and enjoy success in school and in the community.

The Social Side of LD

Think about someone you know who has a learning disability. Ask yourself whether, compared with others without LD, this person is prone to any of the following challenges:
  • having difficulty adapting to new social situations;

  • not being sure how to ask for help, and from whom;

  • looking to peers for how to respond, rather than forming an independent opinion;

  • missing social cues or having trouble reading nonverbal cues (for example, standing too close to someone during conversation even when they pull away, laughing inappropriately at jokes, or telling jokes at inappropriate times);

  • feeling that, no matter how hard they try, they just can't succeed;

  • rating themselves as less capable than their peers, and lacking self-assurance; or

  • attributing their successes to luck rather than hard work, good effort, or even innate ability.
I'll bet some, if not a substantial number, of these characteristics fit the person you have in mind. Although it's safe to say that individuals with LD do not typically have significant socialemotional problems, it's also safe to say that, compared with their peers, they do run a greater risk of having problems dealing with their emotions and knowing how to behave in certain situations.

Considerable debate exists whether and how social-emotional skills can be taught, but there's little doubt that problems in this area can and do pose some of the greatest challenges for individuals of all ages with LD.

How important are these skills for people with learning disabilities? Very! Let's look at the results of a much quoted 20-year longitudinal study conducted by the Frostig Center in California. The researchers looked at the "natural history" of learning disabilities in a group of students followed over many years, and one of the main questions they asked was, "What factors promote or prevent the success of individuals with LD?" The study concluded that even more than academic skills, the factors that predicted success over time were
  • self-awareness

  • perseverance

  • goal setting

  • proactivity

  • emotional stability

  • effective support systems
So while much of our attention in helping students with LD is often directed toward improving academic performance, some of the characteristics that really make a difference in the lives of these individuals appear to fall within the social-emotional domain.

Coping with Stress, Building Confidence

In The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life (2004, Contemporary Books), Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein offer 10 guideposts to help children develop the strength and skills to cope successfully with the stresses and challenges they face:
  • Be empathetic. See the world through your child's eyes.

  • Communicate with respect. Don't interrupt or put them down. Answer their questions.

  • Be flexible. If we want kids to be flexible, we must model that behavior.

  • Give undivided attention. Children feel loved when we spend one-on-one time with them.

  • Accept your children for who they are. When children feel appreciated for who they are, they'll feel more secure reaching out to others and learning how to solve problems.

  • Give children a chance to contribute. When we enlist children in helping others, we communicate our faith in their ability to handle a variety of tasks and give them a sense of responsibility.

  • Treat mistakes as learning experiences. Children whose parents overreact to mistakes tend to avoid taking risks and end up blaming others for their problems.

  • Stress your children's strengths. Their sense of accomplishment and pride gives them the confidence to persevere the next time they face a challenge.

  • Let your children solve problems and make decisions. Instead of always telling children what to do, encourage them to come up with solutions to problems.

  • Discipline to teach. Don't discipline in a way that intimidates or humiliates your child.
Sheldon Horowitz EdD is Director of Professional Services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), New York, New York.

NCLD provides essential information to parents, professional, and individuals with LD; promotes research and programs to foster effective learning; and advocates for policies that protect and strengthen education rights and opportunities.

This article was adapted from "Research Roundup" columns in LD News, September 2004 and May 2005. Visit www.LD.org for more information about this topic and resources for families, educators, and more. For permission to reproduce this article, or to contact Dr. Horowitz, e-mail help@ncld.org.

© 2004, 2005, 2007 National Center for Learning Disabilities. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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