Handbook of Resilience in Children || Resilience and the Child with Learning Disabilities

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<ul><li><p>15 Resilience and the Child with Learning Disabilities </p><p>Nancy Mather and Nicole Ofiesh </p><p>In this chapter we address how the factors of risk and resihence affect children with learning disabilities. Because learning disabilities encompass varied disorders associated primarily with difficulty learning, our central focus is upon children attending school. Both positive and negative school experiences shape children's self-perceptions and contribute to their academic self-concepts. Unfortunately, for many children with learning disabihties, their lowered academic self-perceptions and self-concepts are influenced by difficulties in both the academic and social aspects of school (Vaughn &amp; Elbaum, 1999). In the first part of this chapter, we discuss how self-concept and, subsequently, resilience are shaped by school experiences. In the second part, we review various ways to help children with learning dis-abilities increase their resiliency and preserve their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. </p><p>LEARNING DISABILITIES AND RISK FACTORS </p><p>For the child with learning disabilities, the school environment is riddled with conditions that place the child at risk for negative experiences. Risk can be defined as the negative or potentially negative conditions that impede or threaten normal development (Keogh &amp; Weisner, 1993). These conditions can be internal characteristics or external character-istics of the family, school, and community environments (Morrison &amp; Cosden, 1997). Risk factors then are the hazards or adverse events that increase the likelihood of negative outcomes (Spekman, Herman, &amp; Vogel, 1993). Children who are at risk for failure often experience chronic multiple risks, rather than a single risk factor (Wiener, 2003). Because of their difficulties learning, children with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to stress and experience ongoing challenges to the integrity of their development </p><p>Nancy Mather and Nicole Ofiesh Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and School Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721. </p><p>239 </p></li><li><p>240 Nancy Mather and Nicole Ofiesh </p><p>(Spekman, Goldberg, &amp; Herman, 1993). These students feel less competent than peers in academic, social, and behavioral functioning (Smith &amp; Nagle, 1995). Essentially, they become members of what Steele (1995) has described as an ability-stigmatized group. </p><p>School Failure Although a learning disability in and of itself does not predict positive or negative outcomes (Morrison &amp; Cosden, 1997), many students with learning disabilities have a mul-titude of school failure experiences that erode their feelings of confidence and self-worth. Failed attempts at completing or mastering tasks result in feelings of frustration rather than accomplishment (Lemer, 2000). In describing a student with writing difficulties, Mather and Gregg (2003) provided the following illustration: On one afternoon, Ms. Jaffe, a third-grade teacher, asked her students to write a description of their favorite animal. Edward wanted to write about the giraffe, but because he could not think of how to spell the word, he decided to write about his pet rat. He thought for several minutes and then attempted to write the first sentence. Feeling unhappy with both the content and the appearance of his writing, he ripped the paper in two. After recess, Edward asked Ms. Jaffe for some tape. Ready to try again, he taped the pieces back together, and wrote the following note, pre-sented in Figure 15.1, on the top of his paper: "Sorry I ripped it." Children who struggle academically are often misunderstood. As Lemer (2000) observed: "School is often a place that makes no allowances for the shortcomings of these students, a place where teachers are unable to comprehend their difficulties" (p. 538). </p><p>During an evaluation to document her learning disabilities and provide justifications for accommodations, Shawn, a college freshman, shared her school experiences (B. J. Wendling, pers. comm., February 1,2003). Shawn described school as being fun until first grade when it all changed. She was placed in the bottom reading group but that was not low enough so the teacher made a new, lower group just for her. She then repeated first grade and remained the sole member of the lowest reading group. Shawn was first tested for learning disabili-ties in second grade in the public school. Although she had significant discrepancies between her intelligence and basic reading and writing skills, the school determined that because her full-scale intelligence score was in the superior range, she did not require services at that time. </p><p>In third grade, the teacher wrote on her report card that Shawn was painfully aware of her reading difficulties. She was evaluated again this year at a hospital clinic and the diag-noses were: (a) developmental dyslexia, (b) fine-motor weaknesses, (c) attentional difficul-ties, and (d) anxiety and depression. The public school agreed to provide services and Shawn received resource help through eighth grade. In high school, the counselor encour-aged her parents to discontinue special education, stating that she would have a better </p><p>XDO n/l/^lH/-/^ Figure 15.1 Sorry I ripped it. </p></li><li><p>Resilience and the Child with Learning Disabilities 241 </p><p>chance of being admitted to the college of her choice if she were not enrolled in special education. She started college last fall, but dropped out after a couple of weeks because of anxiety over the academic load. Throughout school Shawn felt she was struggling just to keep up and working incredibly hard, but having few successes. Even now she does not understand how she can be so smart about some things (e.g., oral language and math), but then struggle so much with reading and spelling. She described that recently, while reading a book to a child, she forgot how to sound out a word. When spelling, she will sometimes forget how to spell even the most common words. </p><p>As with the case of Shawn, 50% of children later identified as having learning disabil-ities are retained in the first grade (McKinney, Osborne, &amp; Schulte, 1993). Thus, a negative cycle is set in motion where the child believes that things will not improve, and this sense of hopelessness becomes a barrier to future successes (Brooks, 2001). Because the child is not reinforced through positive academic and social experiences, he or she has a lower toler-ance for failure and does not have the emotional reserves characteristic of resilient individ-uals. Furthermore, students with learning disabilities demonstrate increased levels of depression during the public school period compared to students without disabilities (Bender, Rosenkrans, &amp; Crane, 1999). </p><p>In a PBS home video on learning disabilities. Last One Picked, First One Picked On, Richard Lavoie provides an explanation using poker chips to illustrate how students with learning disabilities lose their resilience and are no longer willing to take risks. The high-achieving student has many daily gratifying experiences that help develop feelings of con-fidence and self-worth. This student has thousands of poker chips from accomplishments, as well as peer, teacher, and parental praise of acknowledgment and approval. When the cards are dealt, this student can afford to make numerous bets and take risks with little to lose and plenty of chips to spare. In contrast, a student with learning disabilities often has daily negative experiences and rejections that undermine the development of self-worth and strip away poker chips. This student clutches the small pile of poker chips firmly in one hand. Participation in a game only creates a fear of failure and the risk of losing the few remaining chips. </p><p>Even when they receive additional support and assistance, students with learning disabilities do not feel more competent scholastically over time (Smith &amp; Nagle, 1995). Figure 15.2 displays several journal comments written by Maria, an eighth-grade student with reading and spelling difficulties. She has been receiving resource services since third grade. Maria admits that school is stressful and her self-esteem is very low. Even as adults, stress, anxiety, and a negative self-concept continue to be ever-present issues (Crawford, 2002; Shessel &amp; Reiff, 1999). Maria's last comment, however, indicates that she is proud because she was able to accomplish something independently. As skills increase, so do resilient behaviors. </p><p>In discussing how poor reading skill affects an individual's development, Femald (1943) indicated that the greatest liability is not poor reading per se, but rather the emotional complex that accompanies the reading failure. More recently, Stanovich (1986) aptly described the broad impact of reading failure: </p><p>Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many aca-demic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping </p></li><li><p>242 Nancy Mather and Nicole Ofiesh </p><p>"X- cfi.4^ vJt w)Hk^ </p><p>i ^ ^ &lt; ^ i i ^^ '^^ '^ tf^ Si'^ r </p><p>Figure 15.2 Maria's comments in her journal. </p><p>into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply and sadlyin the words of a tearful 9-year-old, already failing frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, "Reading affects everything you do." (p. 390) </p><p>Unfortunately, some areas of functioning are not easily minimized, and in a society where literacy and mathematical skills are highly valued, students with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to emotional problems and school failure (Morrison &amp; Cosden, 1997; Smith &amp; Nagle, 1995). </p></li><li><p>Resilience and the Child with Learning Disabilities 243 </p><p>Negative Teacher and Peer Feedback Clearly, negative teacher and peer feedback contribute to feelings of low self-worth. </p><p>At times, students' completed products are greeted with comments that suggest that the assignment is not their best work and reflects limited effort. Jason, a second-grader with severe fine-motor weaknesses, was assigned a worksheet for handwriting practice. After evaluating the worksheet, the teacher placed a comment on the top of the paper that stated: "Work carefully, please." This feedback suggests that Jason is not putting forth his best effort and lacks motivation. Similarly, a comment on Jason's paper from third grade, "Can't read" conveys the teacher's frustration over his poor handwriting, rather than providing instructive, positive feedback. One is tempted to respond to the comment with a succinct reply: "Can't write." Although the teachers' feedback is most likely well intentioned, children frequently perceive these types of comments in a negative and accusatory way (Brooks, 2001); they can cause disappointment, increase vulnerability, and contribute to feelings of incompetence and inadequacy. </p><p>During the day, the child may attempt to hide from peers his or her lower levels of academic competence. In her autobiography, Veronica Crawford (2002) described how she would try to avoid humiliation in third grade by sitting in a beanbag chair pretending to be reading. She noted: </p><p>I couldn't even understand what I was reading; I couldn't remember any of what the teachers had taught us. I wanted it to end. I would run away in my mind to a place that was safe, my own world in which I was the winner, in which I was recognized for what I could do. NO MORE BOOKS! With the tears streaming down my face, I would still pretend to read, but I knew the truth; I knew it was useless, (p. 71) </p><p>Smith (1989) describes the different types of masks that students with learning disabilities wear to hide their poor skills. As with Veronica, they first put on these masks in first or second grade when they realize that they cannot read like the other students. </p><p>Some individuals will even refuse to do a task or participate in an activity, rather than risk humiliation by revealing incompetence. When called upon in class, the child's appre-hension and fear of failure are often readily apparent. Instead of being supportive, the school environment often exposes what children do not know (Brooks &amp; Goldstein, 2001). </p><p>We are reminded of the Peanuts character Peppermint Patty who has trouble staying awake in class. When she is not sleeping, she spends time analyzing the probability patterns of true/false tests, rather than attempting to read and actually answer the questions. In one cartoon, the teacher asks Peppermint Patty to come to the front of the room to work out an arithmetic problem on the blackboard. Patty ponders this request and inquires "in front of the whole class . . . at the blackboard?" As she walks up to the board, she comments: "Black, isn't it?" For children with learning difficulties, the fear of making mistakes is a hidden presence that casts a dark shadow over what happens in the classroom (Brooks &amp; Goldstein, 2001). </p><p>Even when teachers are supportive and understanding, students with learning disabili-ties are often humiliated by their classmates' performance in comparison to their low levels of academic skills, as well as their difficulties mastering specific tasks. The child feels like an impostor worried about exposure, and the wounds caused by early experiences never heal (Salza, 2003; Shessel &amp; Reiff, 1999). Spence, a fifth-grader, recalls the parting words of a classmate retreating from a playground argument: "Well, guess who goes to the resource room. Guess who has a learning disability. You're a retard, man." Although Spence shared the experience with his teacher and the young man was rebuked, the damage </p></li><li><p>244 Nancy Mather and Nicole Ofiesh </p><p>to Spence's self-esteem had already been inflicted. Many individuals with learning disabil-ities experience failure early in their school careers. Spekman, Goldberg, and Herman (1993) observed: "They may enter school eager to learn and with expectations for success, but then run head-on into academic difficulties, extreme frustration, feelings of being different or retarded, peer rejection, and resultant low self-esteem and confidence" (p. 12). </p><p>Many adults with learning disabilities have shared painful experiences of being teased, bullied, and ridiculed (Higgins, Raskind, Goldberg, &amp; Herman, 2002). Their perceptions of being different resulted in feelings of fear, confusion, and anger. These adults described these school-age misunderstandings as being traumatic and as resulting in humiliation, emotional insecurity, and self-doubt (McNulty, 2003). The combination of the disability and people's responses to it create personal disruption and devastation (Crawford, 2002). Crawford recalls her feelings about failure: "There's nothi...</p></li></ul>


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