Researchers have identified certain traits that lead individuals with learning disabilities toward success.
Let me start with self-awareness. The successful individuals in our study were very aware of their strengths and their weaknesses, whether they were in academic areas like reading and math, or in non-academic areas like their emotional states, or in their physical functioning and coordination. Also included were various academic-related things like attention and organization. So, successful people were very aware of their strengths and limitations. They were very open and specific about these. They could discuss them very easily. But probably one of the key elements regarding self-awareness was the successful individual’s ability to do what we call “compartmentalize” their disability.
What that really means is that they are able to see their difficulties as only one aspect of themselves. They were not overly defined by their difficulties. I have a quote that is an example of this from a woman in our study, about 33 years old. She said, “You know, everybody comes with a package. And, yeah, there are things that I am good at and things that I am not so good at. Some of my limitations are reading and writing, but boy, when it comes to putting things together, reading plans, and chasing down problems, those are some talents, some skills that I was born with. I carved a different path and my whole life has been that way.”
I think that’s a pretty good example of being able to say, “Yes, I have this difficulty, but it’s not going to limit me or really keep me down. I see it as only one part of myself.” It’s one thing to be aware of your problems; it’s another thing to be able to accept them, and that’s another thing that we found with our successful individuals — they were able to do both.
They really came to a level of acceptance of their problems, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and were able to integrate those ideas and feelings into themselves. Now, another interesting area has to do with the individuals’ strengths and weaknesses and how they matched those strengths and weaknesses to the activities they pursued in their life. I think employment is a good example. We often call this “niche picking.”
The idea here is that successful individuals with learning disabilities are able to recognize their strengths and limitations and find the jobs and employment situations that best fit their strengths and limitations. So, for example, you have an individual who has exceptional skills in woodworking. They might find a successful career in cabinetmaking, rather than knowing that they also have great difficulties with reading and writing and trying to be a copy editor.
It seems kind of obvious, but it was amazing how many times we saw individuals who were not doing that well who had great difficulty in making that match. Along the same lines, you might find someone with very poor reading and writing skills, but excellent oral language skills, who decides to pursue a career in sales, rather than a job that really requires them do a lot of reading and writing. And, again, the unsuccessful individuals had great difficulty in niche picking, or trying to make this match.
The next success attribute is proactivity . And you may remember that word. I think it was quite in vogue in the business community But what we refer to as proactivity has to do with being actively engaged in the world, politically, economically, and socially involved in community activities. This is one of the things that the successful individuals with learning disabilities were able to do. They were really a part of a number of communities. And with this involvement came the idea that they could control their own destiny, that they could affect the outcome of their lives. They were active players in their own lives, as opposed to many unsuccessful individuals who really responded to events, were passive in their lives, and were more “victims.”
And along with that, they were also individuals who would tend to blame other people for the problems that they were having, unlike the successful individuals, who assumed responsibility for their actions and the outcomes of their actions.
Again, these are attributes and behaviors and attitudes that are important for anyone, for all children, but especially for kids with LD.
The next attribute that we found in our study has to do with — I often think of the Eveready Energizer bunny that just keeps on going and going and going — is perseverance. They don’t give up. Now, I do have to say that even those individuals who were eventually termed “unsuccessful” — and I want to be really careful with the term “unsuccessful” because, remember, these were ratings that we made in our research based on a multidimensional view of success that, in other settings, environments, or countries, might not be seen as unsuccessful. But, at least for our purposes, the unsuccessful individuals, while they also persevered, would say things like, “I’m not a quitter. I’ll never give up.” The successful individuals, on the other hand, demonstrated an additional ability of knowing when to quit.
I’m somehow struck by how the successful individuals also knew when they needed to shift gears. While they generally didn’t give up on an overall goal, they knew when to back up a little bit or change the path a little bit to get there.
The unsuccessful individuals, on the other hand, would just keep beating their heads against the wall and not recognize when it was time to reevaluate the strategies or, in some cases, the goal itself. The successful individuals would say things like, “I have failed many times. I am not a failure. I have learned to succeed from my failure.” There was this idea that they could fail, pick themselves up, and get going again. They weren’t overly defeated, whereas some of the unsuccessful kids really were overwhelmed by adversity and, in many cases, finally just gave up or kept beating their heads against the wall.
Goal setting was another one of the success attributes. The successful individual set very specific yet flexible goals. Again the idea here is that they could adjust goals to fit certain circumstances and situations. These goals were in such areas as employment and family, spiritual goals, and personal development. And in many cases, they were set, at least tentatively, in adolescence. They also developed a strategy for reaching their goals and really understood the step-by-step process for attaining those goals. I have a quote from about a 30-year-old man, who made this statement, “I always look at every move. Like this particular move doing the video as a stepping stone for the next project. That’s how I’m looking at it. As I said, the area I really want to move into is to direct.” This person had a very clear picture of where he wanted to go, and how to get there.
They have to have something in mind, they have to be flexible in terms of how they’re going to reach that goal, and they have to have an appreciation and understanding of the step-by-step process for reaching that goal. A lot of children with learning disabilities need support and help to be able to do that.
Presence and Use of Effective Support Systems
The next success attribute has to do with the presence and use of effective support systems. And I think what I’ll do is finish a little bit with the goal setting because it’s a nice transition. The successful individuals also had very realistic and attainable goals. And the individuals who often supported them also had set realistic and attainable goals for them. So the people who were around them and helping to guide them also had a sense of realism. And it’s a little bit scary when that sense of realism is not there.
We had one individual — and I don’t mean to make light of it because there’s really a sobering side to it as well — but I had one individual who came in and said, “Marshall, I finally figured out what I’m going to do.” And I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “I’m going to be a professional golfer. I just watched this great golf game and I saw the winner win all this money, and this is what I’m going to dedicate my life to.” And I said, “Oh, gee, how long have you been golfing?” And he said, “Well, I haven’t started yet.”
So the whole idea was that he was very intrigued with this goal but was not very realistic about it. And that does concern us.
Both the successful and the unsuccessful individuals receive support from others. We saw that successful individuals eventually move away from that support and they were able to decrease their dependence on others while that was not something that the unsuccessful individuals could do. Many of them had difficulty cutting that cord and remained highly dependent on others.
The successful individuals were more able to do that, starting at an earlier age, as well. And the successful kids also actively sought support from other individuals. They didn’t simply wait around hoping that somebody would eventually help them, which is something that many of the unsuccessful individuals did do. They just waited passively.
Emotional Coping Strategies
The last success attribute has to do with emotional coping strategies. And we know that learning disabilities can, in the course of a lifetime, produce a lot of frustration and difficulties. In some cases it may be so significant, the stress of living with a learning disability, that an individual develops anxiety and even depression.
What we saw in the successful individuals was that they had developed effective means of reducing and coping with the stress and frustration and other emotional aspects of having a learning disability. There appeared to be three key components in this process. They were aware of the situations that triggered the stress. Secondly, they also had an awareness of the developing stress that had started building up. And thirdly, they had access to, even if it was internal, a repertoire of coping strategies.
So, to give you a more specific example, we had one individual in our study who experienced anxiety attacks. And she knew — so this is the first component here — that reading aloud in a group was one of the key triggers producing anxiety. She also then was aware — which has to do with the recognition of the developing stress, that was our second component — that as she started getting more and more stressed or more and more anxious, she would start feeling herself breathing more and more rapidly and maybe ultimately even hyperventilating. But the key here is that she also had developed strategies.
In this case, she had been working on a number of deep breathing strategies that helped calm her down and reduce her anxiety. So those three things — in terms of reducing that stress and frustration — were really paramount to her success. Now again, that’s just one example. There are many things that the successful individuals did as far as the development of coping strategies. In some cases, it was seeking counseling. It was asserting oneself, utilizing peer support, planning ahead for difficult situations. In some cases, it was just a matter of getting their feelings out, or sharing those feelings with members of their family or peer group.