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Louise Spear-Swerling

Achieving Good Outcomes in Students with Learning Disabilities

November 2005

A long line of research in psychology has focused on the concepts of risk and resilience. This work studies youngsters who are at risk for a variety of reasons – including poverty, developmental problems, or family instability – and the factors that seem to enable some at-risk children to do well in the face of adversity. More recently, a number of researchers have begun to apply the risk-and-resilience framework to learning disabilities. Specifically, what kinds of factors promote good outcomes in students with LD?

The Variability among Individuals with LD

A hallmark of learning disabilities involves specific, not generalized, learning problems. That is, learning disabilities are characterized by patterns of strengths and weaknesses. A youngster with a mathematics disability may excel in reading, whereas one with a reading disability may have grade-appropriate skills in math. Both types of children may have strengths in domains such as art, music, or sports, or an extensive knowledge base about an area of interest such as history. Learning disabilities may also vary greatly in severity. All of these factors may influence the long-term outcome for a particular child. Nevertheless, research does suggest some general conclusions for those interested in helping individuals with LD to be successful, with "success" defined in broad terms, to encompass not only educational and occupational attainment, but also life satisfaction and social adjustment.

Factors that Promote Good Outcomes

Quality of education is certainly one important factor for helping individuals with LD to be successful in the long term. Early intervention is highly desirable because learning problems often become more complex and difficult to remediate over time. Across a variety of domains involving learning disabilities, studies typically favor instructional approaches that are direct, explicit, and systematic. As children advance in school, the development of compensatory strategies, acquisition of study skills, and opportunities for continued remediation and support, all are vital.

Although high-quality educational programming is very important, researchers interested in the risk-and-resilience framework have emphasized the significance of a broader constellation of factors in helping students with LD to be successful. These factors include a number of key skills, talents, and personal characteristics beyond the academic realm. Successful individuals with LD typically are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and tend to pursue occupations that are a good "fit" to their abilities. For example, although the student with a severe LD in math may never be successful in a career that demands high levels of mathematical achievement, she or he may do quite well in many other professions that do not make these demands. Other qualities that tend to characterize successful individuals with LD include the willingness to persist at difficult tasks, making use of available support systems, setting goals that are ambitious yet attainable, and the flexibility to recognize when changing or abandoning a goal is the right course of action.

Although remediation targeting the disability area is essential, youngsters with learning disabilities also need opportunities to pursue their passions, their interests, and their areas of strength. Not only are these pursuits a potential vehicle for developing academic skills – for instance, motivation to read about a topic of interest may help the youngster with a reading disability build fluency – but areas of strength can enable children to develop a sense of competence and self-worth. Ultimately, these assets may provide a direction for a career in adult life. Parents, teachers, and other concerned adults can help students with LD by fostering their strengths and interests, as well as by making sure they receive appropriate remediation for their weaknesses.

A Lifespan Perspective

The risk-and-resilience framework is particularly valuable in providing a long-term perspective on the challenges of life. Although genuine learning disabilities are a lifelong condition, the difficulties and stress experienced by students with LD may lessen over time. During formal schooling, children are constantly being compared and evaluated on a relatively narrow range of academic tasks that are often not the strong suit of the child with LD. However, in adult life, many other abilities, talents, and personal qualities besides academic achievement are important to job success and life satisfaction. Furthermore, unlike children, adults can make choices about the kind of education or occupation they wish to pursue. This is not to minimize the real difficulties that continue to face many adults with LD, but rather to emphasize that a given set of problems may be experienced quite differently at various points in the lifespan; problems that seem insurmountable at one stage of life can be much more manageable at another stage. Providing this long-term perspective is another key way that adults can support youngsters with learning disabilities.

Examples of Sources

Peer-reviewed journal articles:

Fink, R. P. (1996). Successful dyslexics: A constructivist study of passionate interest in reading. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 39, 268-280.

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 and Practice, 18, 222-236.

Meltzer, L., guest editor. (2004). Resilience and learning disabilities: Research on internal and external protective dynamics (special series). Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 19, 1-70.

Vogel, S. A., & Adelman, P. B. (1992). The success of college students with learning disabilities: Factors related to educational attainment. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 430-441.

Other helpful sources:

Reiff, H.B., Gerber, P.J., & Ginsberg,R. (1997). Exceeding expectations: Successful adults with learning disabilities. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Werner, E.D. & Smith, R.S. (1989). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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