In my tenure as a school psychologist I have worked with a multitude of students with learning disabilities, each with their own unique set of challenges that affect their progress and academic achievement. I have had the fortunate experience to work with students who have overcome their learning challenges, exceeded expectations and transcended their disability to high scholastic achievement. While other students despite the availability of interventions and resources, failed to overcome their learning challenges. An essential difference in these two types of students is their resiliency in overcoming a learning disability.
When concerns arise regarding student’s growth and progress, the IEP team comprised of parents, the classroom teacher, a special education teacher and school psychologist assume responsibly to adapt, modify and strengthen the existing provision of services to foster academic achievement. In a collaborative effort, educators and parents work diligently to identify the optimal provisional of academic support to enable student growth and progress.
Through my service on IEP teams, one salient factor that is an integral component of student success is often not considered. The crucial role of resiliency in overcoming learning challenges is undervalued and essentially overlooked in the important consideration of student growth.
Children with learning disabilities present with fundamental weaknesses in their cognitive functioning that impedes academic achievement. For example, a child with a reading disability otherwise known as Dyslexia, presents with weaknesses in phonological processing, reading fluency, and reading comprehension, often medicated by cognitive delays in working memory and processing speed. Typically diagnosed early in elementary school, these children experience more emotional difficulties than their nondisabled peers. Learning disabled children are more susceptible to bullying, more likely to suffer from depression and socialization difficulties.
Competency: The precursor to resiliency
In development of resiliency for learning disabled students, the main precursor enabling students to overcome challenges is competency. Competency is the capability to apply or use a set of related knowledge, skills and abilities required to perform a task. It is developed by pushing just beyond the limit of the child’s capabilities and comfort zone. In educational terms, this zone is referred to as the “zone of proximal development” first coined by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.
The zone of proximal development refers to the difference between what a student can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from the teacher. Through the process of Scaffolding, the teacher services as mediator in enabling the child to achieve a goal that would be beyond his or her unassisted efforts. In essence, children learn to attempt tasks beyond their independent capabilities with guided support. Scaffolding is one of the most important techniques educators and parents can use in promoting competency in children.
Through this process of pushing beyond their comfort zone, children learn to take personal responsibility for their learning, behavior and effort. The embracement of personal responsibly enables children to take ownership of their educational pursuits and provides the pivotal foundation towards self-development. Learners who are personally responsible will constantly look for ways to improve themselves through their own volition. Personal responsibility underscores the level of commitment that students are willing to make in setting clear goals and then assuming full responsibility for their achievement.
Most importantly, from the process of attaining competency, children learn to deal with adversity, failure and how to persevere through challenges. This promotes determination and resolve which are essential tenants towards resiliency.
Resiliency is the capacity to cope in spite of setbacks, barriers and limited resources. It is the mechanism responsible for the advancement of the human ability to evolve, adapt and grow, despite the most vicious onslaught of environmental and psychosocial stressors.
Simply stated, resilience has to do with emotional fortitude. It is the toughness that mediates the ability to persevere. Resiliency is the essential trait which enables students with learning disabilities to overcome their limitations and serves as the ultimate driving force to reach their potential and provides a roadmap for how to lead productive lives as adults.
Over the past decade, schools have advanced in their commitment to supporting children with learning disabilities through the careful implementation of evidenced based interventions. As the educational community and society as a whole, has a deepen empathy and willingness to provide effective services for these children, a fine line has emerged between providing support and shielding children from the important opportunity to develop resilience through over protection and over-advocation.
Good intentioned parents and educators are cautioned to the overprotection of learning-disabled children from facing adversity and depriving them of opportunities to develop competency. Learning to succeed in the face of adversity is a fundamental trait that separates those from who succeed and those who fall short. Competency can only be gained, and resiliency can only be developed when opportunities exist for children to expand just beyond the point of their comfort zone.
With this expansion, children will learn to failure with personal responsibility, regroup and develop new strategies for success. It is only through the process of confronting adversity head-on and moving just past the point of their comfort zones that children will have the opportunity to emerge as competence learners.
Competency will promote resiliency which enables children to deal with challenges with determination and fortitude. Resilient children have the capacity to recover from difficult life events, enabling those with a learning disability to withstand obstacles, overcome adversity and reach their full potential.
Amerongenm, M. & Mishna, F. (2004). Learning Disabilities and behavior problems. Psychoanalytic Social Work, 11(2), 33-53.
Masten, A.S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56 (3), 227-238.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.