Having a learning disability can make life difficult, but why do some kids manage to move beyond their disability and have satisfying, productive lives, while others struggle into adulthood? Determined to find the answer, researchers at the Frostig Center in Pasadena, Calif., conducted 10- and 20-year longitudinal studies to track the lives of individuals with learning disabilities from childhood to adulthood to find out why some achieved success and others didn’t.
Success was defined, not by whether they had a high paying job, but rather their level of independence, socialization and connection to the community, and their involvement in some type of satisfying school, work or training program. The initial study began in the 1980s and all participants were students who had attended the Frostig Center’s school for children with learning disabilities.
Researchers expected individuals with higher reading levels and Intelligence Quotients (IQs), and higher socio-economic status to fare better than those on the low end, but surprisingly, none of those factors predicted a child’s success, according to Bennett Ross, Ph.D., executive director of the Frostig Center.
Learning disabilities are neurologically based and follow kids into adulthood. “The disabilities are not going to go away,” says Ross. “But you can help kids learn how to cope with them, so they become less of an issue in their lives.”
The study identified six social and emotional characteristics and strategies that successful people were most likely to have:
- Self-awareness – They acknowledge their disability and understand how it affects their lives, but don’t allow it to overly define who they are. They recognize their areas of difficulties and capitalize on their strengths and talents by finding jobs that match their abilities.
- Proactivity – They take on an active role or leadership position in their community, social groups or neighborhood. They also assume responsibility for their actions and look for the best solutions to their problems.
- Perseverance –They pursue their goals and are persistent in the face of challenges. They are also flexible and consider other options, if they encounter repeated failures. They learn from their mistakes.
- Goal-setting – They set specific goals that are realistic and identify the steps to achieve them. They pursue goals in different areas of their life including education, career, family, spiritual and personal development. These goals take into consideration their strengths and their limitations.
- Presence and Use of Effective Support Systems – They actively seek out support from family members, friends, mentors, teachers, medical professionals and co-workers when needed. They also offer support to others and avoided becoming overly dependent.
- Emotional Coping Strategies – They anticipate stressful situations and look for external and internal ways to deal with anxiety and challenges, such as expressing feelings with trusted individuals, seeking counseling or peer support, or taking medication when necessary.
Although academic success is important, what appears to make the biggest difference in these individuals’ lives is the ability to accept their disability and interact with society. By understanding and nurturing the six success attributes identified in the study, parents can help increase their child’s chance of having a fulfilling and successful life.
“Focus on helping your kids survive the academic situation, encourage them to do the best they can, and develop ways of coping with their difficulties. And help them find some passion, some area where they’re going to excel,” says Ross. “That ends up being the critical factors for our kids. If they’ve got those social and emotional factors, then they can find their niche, and they’ve got it made.”