Palti G. (2002): “Dyslexia and Resilience”

The diagnosis of dyslexia in children is likely to cause a variety of stresses and concerns for the parents of these children. The attempts of the dyslexic pupils at mastery of tasks lead to feelings of frustration, rather than feelings of achievement, leading to lowered self-esteem. As a result of their failure, their parents experience feelings of anxiety and frustration, which may result in rejection or overprotection.

At school, underachieving children may be perceived as ‘lazy’ and ‘not trying hard enough’, and their failure may be viewed in terms of poor behaviour and attitude. Teachers tend to perceive pupils with specific learning difficulties as less co-operative, less attentive, less socially acceptable and less desirable to have in class
(Palmer et al., 1982). Increased impatience and an attitude of blame on the part of the teacher intensifies the children’s anxiety, frustration and confusion, and bring adverse consequences to the ego.

In addition, some studies show that children with specific learning difficulties experience rejection by their peers and are perceived as unpopular (Siperstein and Goding, 1983).

Some dyslexic pupils may show vulnerability specific to education and not other problems, while others may generalise this vulnerability to socio-emotive problems. Some may cope effectively by maintaining a firm control over their environment and/or by remaining positive and hopeful. Others may generate ineffective response to stress such as behavioural problems. These negative responses further interfere with effective functioning at school or at home.

However, despite the risk factor of dyslexia, some dyslexic individuals have managed to cope effectively with their difficulties and achieve relative academic and/or social success.

Individuals who develop as well-adjusted and coping adults, and are successful in some areas, despite adverse life circumstances, are referred to in the literature as "resilient individuals". The concept of resilience has been developed by theorists mainly in the field of psychopathology, social work or community health. To date, reviews of studies on dyslexia and educational achievement suggest that the concept of resilience has not been applied to dyslexic children, though there is a good reason for doing so. There is evidence that some dyslexic individuals have managed to cope with their specific learning difficulties and achieve educational and/or social resilience. It is assumed that various socio-emotive factors may have contributed to their success.

Resources of coping with risk factors have been identified under different categories such as personal and social resources, and these include internal locus of control, social competence and, attachment and a significant other person.

Internal locus of control

Researchers have shown that resilient individuals demonstrate an internal locus of control (Luthar, 1991), i.e. they believe in their ability to control the environment, rather than believing that the circumstances are determinative. Also, internal locus of control suggests that the individuals accept the responsibility for their own performance, and as a result take an active part in dealing with stressful situations. The importance of locus of control in education lies in the effect that it has on pupils’ attitudes toward school-related tasks. Those with internal locus of control are found to exhibit high levels of perseverance on difficult tasks, to delay gratification, and to seek and retain information. Conversely, children who possess an external locus of control generally feel that they have little impact on the outcome of tasks and that task difficulty, luck or fate control their success and failure.

Social competence

Another factor that is found to correlate with resilience in the literature and to require active involvement of the individual in the resilience process is social competence (Garmezy, 1981). Individuals with competent social skills are found to elicit positive responses from their social surrounding and to positively affect the child-significant other relationship, which in turn enhances resilience. Rutter (1979) found that disadvantaged children with positive social resources were far less likely to become the victims of incessant parental criticism than children without them.

The social support may take one or more of the following components: emotional support, which involves intimacy and receiving reassurance; tangible support, or the provision of direct aid and services; and informational support, which includes advice concerning solutions to one’s problems and feedback about one’s behaviour.

Dyslexic children are at risk of lacking this support particularly in situations where academic success is important and there is a high level of competition. They may be rejected by their peers and generate negative feelings in adults (teachers or carers) because of their inefficiencies. They may, therefore, need to invest more effort and find various ways to fulfil the need to be accepted and this may not always take a positive form. There is a risk that they may use disruptive behaviour as a way to gain attention from others, not always understanding that the attention gained does not mean acceptance.

Attachment and a significant other person

Competent parenting and a good (warm) relationship with at least one primary caregiver has been shown to have a major role in developing high self-esteem, self-worth and other important attributes. These attributes are found to be instrumental for the development of resilience.

Research demonstrates that early attachment to a significant other person may help in the development of the children’s ability to master difficult and challenging tasks. In addition, it helps them face problems confidently and enthusiastically, and develop flexibility when confronted with stressful situations. Osborn (1990) suggested that the attitudes and behaviour of the parents contributed most to the probability that socially disadvantaged children achieved competence. He described these parents as showing non-authoritarian attitudes, they practice child-centered parenting and have strong positive attitudes to the children’s education. In addition, parents who have the personal resources to cope with stressful circumstances, and take an active and positive interest in their children and their education, increase the chances of these children achieving competence in the face of adversity. Fonagy et al. (1994) summed up this as resilient children are “securely attached” children.

Good relationships with a teacher may generate the positive attributes required for the child’s positive adjustment to the environment. In addition, the feelings associated with positive and reinforcing learning experiences may be transferred to other situations, enhancing the ability to deal with stressful situations effectively. A significant other, who can be a teacher, a friend or any other adult, not only takes keen interest in the child, but is also a source of help in enhancing self-esteem, providing emotional support, acting as a motivator, and as a source of inspiration as well as a model to the child.

In summary, the above review of the literature suggests that there is evidence of a range of emotional and social skills deficits associated with problems in learning, and these are common to children with specific learning difficulties. These children are vulnerable to negative reactions from parents, teachers and peers, and may show feelings of shame of failure, feeling of inadequacy, low self-esteem, hopelessness and helplessness.

Clearly, in order to face their difficulties, dyslexic children should be helped in developing some educational and socio-emotive resilience. It is suggested that there is no single factor or a multiple of factors that can explain the complex process of resilience. The social, familial and individual factors transact to detract or to promote resilience, and educational resilience is no exception in this process.

It is reasonable, however, to assume that each of the above factors helps to reduce the level of stress induced by the dyslexia risk factor, and that the more facilitating factors the individual has the easier it would be to cope effectively with the risk factor. Lack of facilitating factors in the presence of risk factors may have a detrimental effect on the well being of the individual, particularly on those dyslexic pupils who are very vulnerable.

In our modern society, where education is highly valued, dyslexic pupils are at a higher risk than ever, and provision must be made to strengthen their resilience.


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Garmezy, N. (1981). Children under stress: Perspectives on antecedents and correlates of vulnerability and resistance to psychopathology. In A.I. Rabin, J. Aronoff, A.M. Barclay and R.A. Zucker (Eds.). Further explorations in personality, pp. 196-269. New York, Wiley.

Luthar, S.S., (1991). Vulnerability and Resilience: A study of high risk adolescents. Journal of Child Development, Vol. 62, pp. 600-616.

Osborn A. F. (1990). Resilient children: A longitudinal study of high achieving socially disadvantaged children. In Early Child Development and Care. Vol. 62, pp. 23-47.

Palmer, D.J., Drummond, F., Tollison, P., and Zinkgraff, S. (1982). An attributional investigation of performance outcomes for learning disabled and normal-achieving pupils. Journal of Special Education, 16, 207-219.

Rutter, M. (1979). Protective factors in children’s responses to stress and disadvantage. In M.W. Kent, and J.E. Rolf (Eds.) Primary prevention of psychopathology: Social competence in children, Vol. 3. pp. 49-74. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England.

Siperstein, G., and Goding, M.J. (1983). Social integration of learning disabled children in regular classrooms. Advances in Learning and Behavioural Disabilities, 2, 227-263.