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Research Trends: Risk and Resilience in People With Learning Disabilities

Read what research tells us about protective factors that help kids with learning disabilities succeed despite their challenges.

By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D.

What are "Risk" and "Resilience?"

When parents of a child with learning disabilities (LD) think about the child's prospects for future success and satisfaction in life, they may feel hopeful one day and discouraged the next. They wonder: Will my child's strengths and talents prevail over the challenges he faces? Scientific studies reveal some interesting findings about risk factors and resilience in the lives of people with LD. Research suggests that children with LD are at increased risk for academic failure, social difficulties, psychological problems, behavior disorders, prolonged dependence on parents or guardians, and employment difficulties. In this regard, an LD - in and of itself - can be considered a "risk factor." Although definitions vary, in general terms, a risk factor is any condition, circumstance, or event that increases the likelihood of a negative outcome in an individual's life. Research outside the area of LD has identified a number of risk factors (personal and environmental) that lead to negative life outcomes, including:

  • difficult temperament
  • medical conditions
  • chronic poverty
  • mental illness in a parent
  • family discord
  • malnutrition

Although research suggests that an LD may place an individual at greater risk for negative outcomes, it also indicates that many of these individuals are able to overcome the risk associated with LD and are well adjusted, personally satisfied with their lives, productive, and successful. Individuals who manage to overcome risk and achieve positive outcomes in their lives have been termed "resilient." In efforts to more fully understand why some individuals are resilient, researchers have investigated the personal and environmental characteristics that serve as "protective factors" to protect, buffer, or mediate risk in an individual, and promote resilience, which in turn promotes positive outcomes.

Research on Protective Factors: Strengths and Limits

Although scarce, research on protective factors in individuals with LD does exist. One of the reasons there are so few studies investigating risk and resilience is that they require researchers to trace the experiences of individuals over an extended time period, in "longitudinal" studies. These studies are complex and expensive to conduct. In some longitudinal studies, researchers begin following individuals when they are children, and continue to collect data on them as they move toward adulthood ("prospective" studies), while other studies begin with adults, who are asked to recount pertinent experiences or conditions in their lives back to childhood ("retrospective" studies). Longitudinal research is critical for investigating cause-effect relationships between protective factors in people with LD and their life outcomes. It is important to emphasize that while research may help clarify the relationships between risks and protective factors in an individual with LD, those relationships are very complex. In any individual's life, there is a dynamic and ever-changing interplay between:

  • the nature of the LD itself, including severity and types and number of difficulties
  • the protective factors
  • the presence of risk factors other than LD
  • the influence of numerous personal and environmental variables

In other words, we cannot assume that there is a simple one-to-one relationship between the presence or absence of any specific protective factor in an individual child with LD, and his life outcomes. Knowing that a child has or does not have particular protective factors does not necessarily mean that we can predict how that child will turn out. It should also be stressed that, while adults may be able to promote some protective factors in children, they may not be able to impact other such factors. Nonetheless, I believe that if parents, teachers, and other professionals have a general understanding of the protective factors associated with positive outcomes in individuals with LD, this knowledge will help us in our efforts ensure that each child reaches their full potential.

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., is a learning disability researcher. He is a frequent presenter at international LD conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well-known for his research on assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the life span.