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Research Trends: Risk and Resilience in People With Learning Disabilities

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By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D.

What the Research Tells Us

Many researchers consider Dr. Emmy Werner the leading pioneer in the study of risk and resilience research in general. Her groundbreaking research followed 698 children born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955 for a period of 40 years.1,2,3 As part of this study, Werner followed a group of 22 individuals with LD (13 boys, 9 girls) from birth to 32 years of age in an effort to identify the protective factors that lead to successful coping in early adulthood.4 Results of the study identified five "clusters" of protective factors that served to promote positive outcomes for this group of individuals with LD:

  • Temperamental characteristics of the individual that elicited positive responses from others
  • Skills and values that led to efficient use of their abilities: faith that the "odds" could be overcome, realistic educational and vocational plans, and regular household chores and domestic responsibilities
  • Parental care-giving styles that reflected competence and promoted self-esteem in the child; structure in the household; maternal education beyond high school; and, for girls, a mother who was gainfully employed
  • Supportive adults who acted as gatekeepers for the future (e.g., grandparents, youth leaders, etc.)
  • Timely opportunities at critical transition points in their lives (e.g., high school to work) that chartered a positive course to adulthood

Another key study employing a risk and resilience model in LD was conducted by Dr. Paul Gerber and colleagues. 5, 6 Gerber did retrospective interviews with 71 adults with LD across the United States to determine factors related to employment success. He found that the overriding factor leading to success is the ability of the individual to take control of his or her life. Taking control was characterized by themes falling into two main categories: "internal decisions" and "external manifestations" which are described below.

Internal Decisions

  • Desire (taking a stand and making a decision to move ahead)
  • Goal orientation (setting explicit goals to work toward)
  • Reframing (reinterpreting the LD experience from something negative to something positive)

External Manifestations (how the person adapts)

  • Persistence (willingness to sacrifice and persevere toward goals)
  • Goodness of fit (finding environments where their strengths are optimized and weaknesses minimized)
  • Learned creativity (creating strategies and techniques to enhance the ability to perform well)
  • Social ecologies (seeking and utilizing the support of helpful people)

In my own research, my colleagues and I traced the lives of 41 individuals - over a twenty-year period - who had been identified as "learning disabled" early in childhood. 7,8 These children (14 girls, 27 boys) attended a specialized school and service center for children with learning difficulties in Pasadena, California. A primary purpose of the study was to identify individual characteristics, and life situations and experiences that lead to successful life outcomes in persons with LD. Results of our study revealed a set of personal characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors that promoted life success:

  • Self-awareness (awareness of their strengths and weakness in both academic and non-academic areas; acceptance of their disability; ability to compartmentalize-not being overly defined by their learning difficulties and viewing them as only one aspect of themselves)
  • Proactivity (active engagement in the world around them and belief in the power to control their own destiny)
  • Perseverance (persistence in the face of adversity and flexibility in pursuing alternate strategies to reach a goal).
  • Goal setting (setting specific yet flexible goals, including a strategy to reach them)
  • Presence and use of effective social support systems (seeking and using the help of others, and the ability to decrease dependence in early adulthood)
  • Emotional coping strategies (development of strategies for reducing stress and frustration)

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.