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.

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)

It is interesting to note that despite different research participants and methodologies these three studies found a number of similar protective factors for individuals with LD. For example, Werner identified “supportive adults who fostered trust and acted as gatekeepers for the future” as an essential component in promoting positive life outcomes for persons with LD. 9 These supportive adults described by Werner parallel the social support system success attribute found in my research. Similarly, Gerber and colleagues revealed that supportive and helpful people (an aspect of “social ecologies”) play a critical role in achieving success. 5, 6

There are other similarities among these studies. Gerber stresses the importance of “goal orientation,” and Werner the “establishment of realistic educational and vocational plans,” in achieving positive life outcomes. My research also indicated that successful adults with LD showed evidence of specific, yet flexible goal setting in multiple areas, including education, employment, and family. There is also a striking similarity between the factor of “perseverance” found in my study and Gerber’s description of “persistence.” Additionally, the importance of “compartmentalizing and accepting one’s LD” is compatible with Gerber’s theme of “reframing the LD experience” from something negative to something positive.

Similarities across Studies of Protective Factors Found among People with LD

  Emmy Werner Paul Gerber Marshall Raskind


“establishment of realistic educational and vocational plans” “goal orientation” “specific, yet flexible goal setting in multiple areas”
“supportive adults” who acted as gatekeepers to the future seeking and using the “support of helpful people” “social support system”
  “persistence” “perseverance”
  “reframing” the LD experience from negative to positive “self-awareness” and the ability to “compartmentalize” one’s LD

Although they did not use long-term longitudinal research designs to study adult outcomes, other learning disability researchers have used a “risk and resilience” framework to suggest a number of protective factors for individuals with LD. Not surprisingly some are quite similar to those identified by Werner, Gerber, and myself. Merith Cosden and her associates identify as protective factors: positive temperament, self-esteem, self-perception of physical attractiveness, and self-perception of athletic skills, as well as supportive and effective teachers, and self-understanding (including understanding of one’s LD).10, 11 Judith Weiner has suggested that that a close, out-of-school friend may serve to protect children with LD who are rejected or victimized.12 A particularly intriguing and timely protective factor has been stressed by Malka Margalit, who found that computer involvement and Internet communication may help to mediate the loneliness experienced by many children with LD.13

Summing It Up

Although risk and resilience research on people with LD is limited, it has already provided us critical information that may be used to enhance the lives of individuals with LD. Further research will need to be conducted to validate the protective factors that have been discovered to date, as well as identify other protective factors that serve to promote positive life outcomes for persons with LD. Of course, our next step will be to get a clearer picture of which protective factors can be altered, so that we can develop effective interventions to foster these factors in people with LD, to help ensure that their lives are satisfying and rewarding.


  • 1. Werner, E.E., & Smith, R.S. (1989). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York: Adams, Bannister, Cox.
  • 2. Werner, E.E., & Smith, R.S. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • 3. Werner, E.E., & Smith, R.S (2001). Journeys from childhood to midlife: Risk, resilience, and recover. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • 4. Werner, E.E. (1993). Risk and resilience in individuals with learning disabilities: Lessons learned from the Kauai longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 8, 28-35.
  • 5. Gerber, P., Ginsberg, R., & Reiff, H.B. (1992). Identifying alterable patterns of
  • vocational success in highly successful adults with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 475-487.
  • 6. Reiff, H. B., Gerber, P. J., & Ginsberg, R. (1997). Exceeding expectations: Successful adults with learning disabilities. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
  • 7. Raskind, M. H., Goldberg, R. J., Higgins, E. L., & Herman, K. L. (1999). Patterns
  • of change and predictors of success in individuals with learning disabilities: Results from a twenty-year longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 14 (1), 35-49.
  • 8. Goldberg, R.J., Higgins, E.L., Raskind, M.H., & Herman, K.L. (2003). Predictors of success in individuals with learning disabilities: A qualitative analysis of a 20-year longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18, 222-236.
  • 9. Werner, E.E. (1993). Risk and resilience in individuals with learning disabilities:Lessons learned from the Kauai longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 8, 28-35.
  • 10. Cosden, M., Brown , C. & Elliott, K. (2002). Development of self-understanding and self-esteem in children and adults with learning disabilities. In B. Y. L. Wong & M. Donahue (Eds.) The social dimensions of learning disabilities (pp. 33 -49), Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • 11. Morrison, G.M. & Cosden, M. (1997). Risk, resilience and adjustment of individuals with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 20, 43-60.
  • 12. Wiener, J. (2003). Resilience and multiple risks: A response to Wong. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18, 77-81.
  • 13. Margalit, M. (2003). Resilience model among individuals with learning disabilities: Proximal and distal influences. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18, 82- 86.
Share on Pinterest
There are no images.