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Overcoming Obstacles

3 Keys to Fostering Resilience in Children with Learning Disabilities and ADHD


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Overcoming ObstaclesNot long after the New York Giants won Super Bowl XVI, Coach Tom Coughlin spoke to the media about a call he had received from President Obama. “He was very gracious,” Coughlin said. “He praised our football team. He praised our mental toughness, our resiliency, our leadership, the great ability that this team possessed to finish, to win so many games in the fourth quarter.”

While we often hear about resilience in such a context, it is more than just a quality of athletes or sports teams. It is a quality that is important for everyone, especially for children who face learning challenges.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability of individuals to bounce back from adversity, overcome setbacks, and thrive despite obstacles in their lives. Resilient people have social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, a sense of purpose, and a bright future.

Through the study of children who have overcome challenges to become adults with these characteristics, we have learned a great deal about what adults can do to enhance children’s resilience. Much of what we know today comes from research begun in the 1950s by Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith. The team studied nearly 700 children who had been exposed to factors generally associated with lifelong difficulties, such as poverty and parental mental illness.

As they followed these children into their 40s, Werner and Smith discovered that the overwhelming majority were doing very well. When they looked closely at these resilient survivors, they noted that they shared a number of positive experiences and characteristics that seemed to help them overcome their difficulties—protective factors that counterbalanced their early risks.

Counterintuitive Findings

When later researchers looked specifically at young people with learning disabilities (LD), they found that this group had an even greater tendency to be resilient. Cathy Hall and her colleagues looked at college students with LD and matched them with a group of typically learning peers. They found that the students with LD had significantly higher scores for both resilience and the need to achieve, while showing lower levels of stress than the students in the control group.

Fostering Resilience

So what are the key factors that help foster resilience—and how can you help your child develop these characteristics?

 Encourage Interests

Engaging in activities of interest and affinity is important. As Werner and Smith noted, “Most of the resilient children in
our high-risk sample were not unusually talented, but they took great pleasure
in interests and hobbies that brought
them solace when things fell apart in their home lives.”

 Recognize Strengths & Deficits

Researchers Drs. Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein have identified the importance of having a balanced view of one’s strengths and challenges, something they call a “resilient mindset.” These children are aware of their challenges but perceive them in the context of their strengths.

 Seek Out “Turnaround People”

Perhaps most important in helping change the trajectory of children who face challenges is the role of adults to help them reframe their adverse experiences. Werner noted that these adults can include members of the child’s extended family, neighbors, and mentors in youth groups or churches. But aside from a family member, it was a favorite teacher who most often provided the support and served as a role model for children under stress. 

These “turnaround people” help children put a difficult situation in context, and they help them to see that they are not the cause of the problem, that it is not a permanent situation, and that it need not define them. These individuals can play a key role in helping children move beyond seeing themselves as victims and building high expectations for themselves.

So many of the children I see in my practice are their own harshest critics, exaggerating their weaknesses and diminishing their strengths. Helping children appreciate their strengths and talents is often the first step to fostering resilient thinking.

The work of seminal researchers has been built upon by others to give us a sense of how parents, teachers, and other adults can help to foster resilience in the children in our lives. It is up to each of us to look for ways to be the “turnaround person” for struggling students. f


Take Action

  • Become the “turnaround person” in your child’s life to help her reframe adverse experiences.
  • Let your child know that everyone has challenges.
  • Remind your child of his strengths, and give him opportunities to build them.
  • Don’t label your child by her disabilities.
  • Be specific about where breakdowns in learning are occurring and what to do about them.
  • Combine caring and high expectations.

Allyson’s Story: How Parents Can Build Resilience

Allyson had significant reading problems, and she could not read until well into elementary school. She had to deal with the daily indignity of not being able to read aloud in class and suffered the impatience of her teachers and the teasing of her peers. And yet, when Allyson came to me, she was a graduate student in a prestigious program, needing only some additional learning strategies to help with her high-level studies. She was confident and clearly gifted in her chosen field. I asked her how she held onto her self-esteem in the face of learning issues that might have sapped the confidence of another student. “It was my mother,” she said. “Every day when I came home from school there was a big celebration, complete with uplifting music. She made me feel that I was the most special child in the world and that there was nothing that I could not do if I set my mind to it.”


 Dr Yellin is the director of the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education. He is also an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics. Reprinted with permission from Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities®

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