In a 20-year longitudinal study of struggling learners, researchers uncovered six success attributes associated with dyslexia success. The good news is these are all things that you as a parent or teacher can foster in your kids in the day to day.
I vividly remember the overwhelm and confusion I felt when one after the other, my kids were diagnosed with dyslexia. As they struggled through school everyday, I wondered how they would ever find success in a world that seemed to revolve around reading, writing, and higher education. As we bumbled our way through those early years, we unknowingly cultivated these attributes of success that research now proves are essential for success. Of our 7 kids with dyslexia, 4 have graduated from high school are doing well. I can really see how these success attributes affect their levels of success in the world after high school.
The research I’m referring to is based on a 20-year longitudinal study from The Frostig Center that followed the lives of people with learning struggles from childhood into adulthood. I don’t know about you, but the research geek in me is singing Hallelujah!
The study was conducted in the hopes of identifying the characteristics and experiences that had the biggest impact on future success and to provide a clear guide to those of us on the journey of parenting and educating our own struggling learners.
You can read more about this research from the Frostig Center here.
Let’s Define Success
Definitions of success will vary based on our own priorities and backgrounds, but for the purposes of this study, success was measured in the following ways:
- Educational attainment
- Employment status
- Social relationships
- Psychological health
- Family relationships
- Independent living
- Life satisfaction
As a parent, I appreciate this well-rounded definition of success. Growing up, I believed that the sure path to success was through formal education. However, once my kids got to the high school years and beyond, I knew that college was not going to be in the cards for some of them. As I watch my adult kids thrive in the world some with and some without a college degree, I strongly believe that success is far more than academic achievement.
What are the Success Attributes?
If you’re like me, you just want to cut to the chase. What are these attributes that will lead my kids to success?
- Goal Setting
- Effective Support Systems
- Emotional Coping Strategies
These success attributes are all things that we can foster and encourage in our kids!
A few important facts about these success attributes:
- They are dependent on one another. Self-awareness is needed to be able to be proactive and being able to persevere is dependent (in some ways) on having effective support systems.
- These positive attitudes and behaviors develop over time and teaching these skills takes time.
- Strongly developed success attributes are a better indicator of success than IQ or academic achievement!
How to Teach the Success Attributes
Because these attributes develop over time, it is important to start teaching them early on. Kids will begin to internalize them and apply them to their lives as they grow into the teen years and beyond.
I’ve been working with my son for several years on cultivating self-awareness and perseverance. As a kid with executive function weaknesses, dyslexia, and dysgraphia, he tends to be easily overwhelmed. Over the past few years, as we shifted our thinking towards having a growth mindset, I am watching him internalize these ideas and strategies. It isn’t an overnight change but the changes are happening and he is doing SO much better!
Success Attribute #1: Self-Awareness
Successful people with learning struggles are aware of the types of problems that they have such as problems with reading and writing, attention and organization, and non-academic issues like emotional or behavioral problems.
One important quality they have is the ability to compartmentalize their learning challenges. They are able to see their challenges as only one part of who they are. They are aware of their issues but don’t let these struggles define them.
Our homeschool co-op has weekly art lessons. My son with severe dysgraphia consistently has a hard time with this part of the day. This often resulted in meltdowns, tears, and refusal to do the project. As I observed him each week, I was able to point out to him that although drawing and painting were difficult for him, he excelled in the weekly presentations that the kids prepared for class.
I pointed out how another kid in his class, although good at art, was terrified of the weekly presentations and often hid behind the teacher in an effort to avoid them. In comparison, my son was calm, eloquent, and funny – engaging the class with relative ease.
Over time, he has begun to see his weakness in anything to do with handwriting or drawing as just one part of himself. As he has become more self-aware, his ability to persevere through these difficulties has improved dramatically.
Self-awareness in the older years
Helping our older kids to become more self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses (which is one of the HUGE benefits of homeschooling them) also helps them be more accurate in choosing their career paths.
A parent’s role in teaching self-awareness
In the Frostig Center research, successful people with learning challenges recognized the important role key adults played in their lives by supporting their interests and passions while helping them to compensate for their learning challenges.
One of our sons was super motivated to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. He was really struggling with all of the paperwork involved in completing his Eagle Scout project. I felt like he should complete the paperwork on his own since the rank of Eagle Scout was so prestigious. At the encouragement of his tutor and other Boy Scout parents, I decided to help him complete the paperwork.
I now understand and appreciate that the main skills the Eagle Scout project aimed to develop were leadership, planning and organization, and service. He was excelling in all of these areas. By offering him support in the areas where he struggled, he was able to tap into the kinds of support he needed to achieve his goal with confidence. As a young adult today, he knows how to confidently ask for the help he needs.
Other Ways to Develop Self-awareness
Model. Model self-awareness by using the words ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ in your day to day life. Each member of your family will have different strengths and weaknesses. Point them out. Celebrate the strengths. Acknowledge weaknesses without judgement.
Books and movies. Use characters of books or movies to practice observing strengths and weaknesses. This can be easier than discussing our own weaknesses.
Don’t be afraid of labeling. For most kids with learning challenges, knowing that they are dyslexic is actually a big step in becoming self-aware. Read why I think ‘labeling’ kids with dyslexia is good.
Learning about their specific weakness, what causes it, and the strengths of dyslexia can be hugely empowering.
Characteristics of Self-Awareness
People who are self-aware are:
- Open and specific about their difficulties
- Accept their difficulties
- Able to compartmentalize their difficulties
- Able to recognize their talents
- Able to find jobs that match their abilities
Success Attribute #2: Proactivity
Successful people with learning challenges believe that they have the power to control their own destiny and affect the outcome of their lives. They take initiative, engage in the world around them, and make things happen for themselves.
It’s important to note that this success isn’t a straight shot without difficulties. One of our adult sons has taken off as an entrepreneur. He has amazing vision and is proactive about pursuing that vision. He consults with others in his field for guidance and is able to weigh their input as part of his decision making.
It is important to note that he still encounters challenges as a businessman. However, he is able to take responsibility for his part in things and not blame others. He is able to pivot his actions when necessary and move past these difficulties.
In contrast, the less successful members of the research study often did not recognize that situations could be altered, or that there were multiple solutions to a problem.
Allow them to struggle. What I mean by this is not to jump in too quickly to help your child when they are struggling. As homeschooling parents especially, there is a tendency (at least for me!) to help our kids at the first sign of struggle. Now, I am a big proponent of modeling to teaching academics and life skills. It seems that for many of our kids, they need to be explicitly shown how to do things until they are able to do them on their own. Once our kids have some of the skills needed to complete a task, we can help them to learn to be more proactive if we can step back just a bit and wait for them to ask for help.
Ask questions. When your child is struggling in some way and it is time to step in to help, start by asking a question. An example of this is with math. If a kid comes to me for help with a math problem, I start by asking them how they think it should be solved. I can ask, “Are you adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing?” It can be tempting to just tell them what to do and get to the next kid and there are times when I do that, but try to make a habit of asking them to figure out how to get started in the thinking process.
Encourage planning. Sometimes I feel like I am dragging my kids through the school day. If I list the things that need to be accomplished before we are finished for the day, I can allow my kids to choose the order of what gets done before the after school fun and freedom begin. They also have a visual of the plan for the day and how far long we have come. For older kids, have them break down assignments and add them to a student planner each week. Check in each day to make sure they are on task and troubleshoot anything that isn’t getting done.
Motivate them with their interests. I am a HUGE believer in using rewards and consequences to motivate my kids. If there is a subject or activity they dislike or repeatedly procrastinate on, create some kind of reward system so they can earn something important to them (a movie, a toy, etc) by consistently completing that task. Our kids have a calendar where they can mark off the days they complete their rhythmic writing for their tutor. Once they have 25 days, they earn a gift card to a store they like.
Normalize their struggles. Oftentimes people procrastinate because they are afraid of failure. Encouraging your kids to understand that others (including you!) have had the same struggles can normalize those struggles so they don’t feel alone and are more willing to take a chance.
Characteristics of Proactivity
People who are proactive are:
- Actively engaged in the world
- Believe in their power to control their destiny
- Make decisions and act upon them
- Take responsibility for their action
Success Attribute #3: Perseverance
Perseverance is continuing to work at a goal despite setbacks. People with learning challenges like dyslexia are known for their amazing tenacity and attitude of not giving up despite what appears to be insurmountable odds.
However, another aspect of perseverance that is important is the ability to know when it is time to shift gears or choose a different path to get to their goal. Successful people could experience failure of some kind but get back up and keep trying, by trying a new path or a different method to reach their goal.
On the flip side, less successful people had a tendency to ‘beat their heads against a wall’ lacking ability to recognize when it was time re-evaluate their strategies or even their goal itself.
Model it. One of the most powerful ways to teach character is to model it for our kids. Show them how you persevere through something that, although difficult, is important to you. It can also be powerful to use characters from books or movies to illustrate the idea of perseverance. One of our favorites is the biography of Thomas Edison who famously said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have found 10,000 ways that did not work.”
Acknowledge it. As we make the idea of perseverance a character trait that is valued in our homes, look for ways to acknowledge and praise your kids for even the smallest amount of perseverance. Research on students’ mindsets has shown that kids will repeat behaviors that are praised or appreciated. As you acknowledge your childs’ efforts at perseverance and praise them they will become more prone to persevere again and again.
Encourage the use of strategies. When your child hits a wall with a task, say a school assignment, encourage them to think about how to get around the issue. Ask questions. Can they ask for help? Can they ask for an accommodation or modification to the assignment? Being able to problem solve is important in overcoming obstacles that we all face.
Decide when enough is enough. Remember, successful people persevered but they also knew when it was time to shift gears. Modeling how and when to decide to do this is important. While we don’t want our kids to give up, we want them to be able to acknowledge when something isn’t working and to be flexible with their plans.
Characteristics of Perseverance
People who persevere:
- Show an ability to persevere despite setbacks
- Learn from hardships
- Demonstrate flexibility (knowing when to quit)
Success Attribute #4: Goal Setting
Successful people in the Frostig study set specific yet flexible goals. They also developed a strategy for reaching their goals and understood the step by step process for achieving their goals. These goals were concrete, realistic, and attainable.
However, those who were less successful tended to set goals that were vague, unrealistic, or grandiose. Their goals did not accurately take into account their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Because of this, they were unsuccessful at reaching their goals and experienced frustration and stress. This success attribute is strongly affected by how self-aware a person is.
Teaching Goal Setting
Identify the steps. If your child wants to plan an activity, help them think through the process of organizing that activity. What are the steps? How long will they take? How much will it cost? Do I need the help of an adult? What kind of help? Help your child make a to-do list of the tasks required and check them off as they are completed so they can visually see themselves getting closer to their goal.
Anticipate setbacks. There are always setbacks on the path to success. Remember Thomas Edison! Help your child anticipate what kinds of setbacks to his or her goals they may encounter and plan a work around.
Model it. Again, modeling behaviors is one of the most powerful ways to teach. Remember, more is caught than taught! Show your child how you work through a task sheet. In our homeschool, I often have a list of goals for the day. As the day progresses, I check things off the list. As afternoon approaches I reassess my goals. Do we have time to finish my list? Can I reschedule a subject for another day? Talk about this kind of goal setting and goal shifting with your kids. Model a calm (I know, not always easy) attitude as you experience setbacks and strategize work arounds.
Use planners. My older kids all have student planners where they write down their weekly assignments. I taught them how to break these assignments down into daily chunks. This helps them to see if they are on track or not. Checking in with them frequently helps to keep them realistic about their progress and provides an opportunity to help them develop a work around for any goals they are having trouble reaching.
Characteristics of Good Goal Setting
- Goals are specific
- Goals are realistic and attainable
- Goals have a step-by-step action plan
Success Attribute #5: Effective Support Systems
Everyone needs support at times as they go through life. Our kids with learning differences need unique kinds of support as they learn and grow. From a supportive parent, teacher, and possibly tutor or school counselor, having the right kinds of supports have a big impact on an individual’s level of success.
The key to effective support is regular interaction with support givers so that any new struggles can be addressed. For younger kids this is usually parents, teachers, and tutors and as they grow up it may be support through a counselor or some kind of school or government office or agency.
Successful people actively seek the support they need and gain strength from these kinds of support, but also gradually wean themselves from the support.
Less successful people with learning challenges were often unable to actively seek out support or transition away from the support they required while younger. Unlike their successful counterparts, they remained highly dependent on others as they became adults.
Teaching How to Cultivate Effective Support Systems
Teach self-awareness. This was success attribute #1 remember? Help kids to recognize the areas where they need help. Then they can learn to find and ask for the kinds of help they need.
Acknowledging support. Make a point of discussing the people in your child’s life who are in their support system. Is it a special teacher or tutor? Maybe a family member helps them with their math homework. Point out the support that your child has and the impact this support has on your child’s learning. Being aware of their supports and discussing their benefits help increase awareness of the importance of support in their learning success.
Teach self-advocacy. Parents are their child’s best advocate. However, it is important to transfer this responsibility to our kids so that they can advocate for themselves as they grow older and more independent.
- First they need to recognize when they need help. Can they clearly explain the help that they need?
- Next they need to know how to find that help. This will vary depending on circumstances. In the younger years, this may be a parent, teacher, or tutor. As kids get older it could be a career or college counselor.
- Our college-aged daughter has learned to anticipate learning struggles she may have and has developed a strategy for visiting with her professors early on as well as accessing the free on-campus tutoring. This has made a huge impact on her ability to persevere through the difficulties of higher education.
Characteristics of Effective Support Systems
Effective support systems:
- Help individuals have realistic expectations regarding goals
- Provide guidance to identify and achieve realistic goals without being harsh or critical
- Help change direction or modify goals when necessary
- Are consistent in their role as a sounding board for goals and ambitions
Success Attribute #6: Emotional Coping Strategies
Living and learning with learning difficulties can be stressful. Prolonged stress in the learning environment can result in anxiety or depression. Developing effective emotional coping skills involves knowing which situations lead to stress (ie. reading out loud), recognizing what stress feels like, and applying effective strategies to cope with the stress.
Coping strategies can be proactive (anticipating the stressful event) or reactive (once the stress has already begun).
Successful proactive coping strategies:
- Being able to express or assert oneself
- Asking for help
- Taking a break from stressful activities
- Planning ahead for situation you know will have challenges
Successful reactive coping strategies:
- Deep breathing
- Walking away from a stressful situation
- Changing perspective such as finding humor in the situation
- Talking about the stressful situation with a trusted friend or family member
Successful people are able to recognize potentially stressful situations and use coping strategies while less successful people were often taken off guard with stressful situations. Also when they did get stressed over a situation, they lacked the ability to think of how and where to get help to reduce the stress and get back on track.
Teaching Emotional Coping Strategies
Successful people learn to identify their feelings and use specific strategies to deal with stress, frustration, and obstacles.
Identify feelings. Help your kids express their feelings in day-to-day activities. Are they frustrated because they lost a game? Are they sad that a friend or sibling is sick? Help kids to identify their feelings.
Recognize physical signs of stress. Kids with poor emotional regulation often fail to recognize that a situation is getting out of control until it is too late, resulting in a meltdown due to overwhelming emotions. If they can begin to recognize the feelings of stress (fast heart beat, sweaty hands, or upset stomach) and implement efficient coping strategies, they can learn to avoid this overwhelm. One program that we have been working with is called The Zones of Regulation. It systematically teaches kids to recognize how they are feeling and what appropriate coping strategies might be.
Find what works for your child. Everyone deals with stress differently. Try out the different coping strategies and find what works for your child, knowing that not every strategy will be a good fit.
Offer support. Whether you find a counselor or therapist to help your child cope with overwhelming emotional stress or you yourself offer an understanding ear, find someone to support your child in ways that he or she needs. Being able to talk about the frustrations associated with learning difficulties is super important for kids to learn to accept them, overcome the obstacles to learning and bit by bit adopting the six attributes of success.
Characteristics of Emotional Coping Strategies
People with successful emotional coping strategies:
- Are able to recognize stress triggers
- Develop the use of coping strategies that work for the individual
- Are able to turn negative thoughts around and have a positive attitude
Teaching the Success Attributes
Teaching kids to adopt these attributes in their own lives involves a lifestyle of communicating these important qualities to our kids. They can be taught throughout any school subject or after school activities as we walk alongside our kids modeling and providing the right kinds of support so our kids can thrive.
It is also important to make a continual habit of looking for and acknowledging our kids’ areas of strength. There should be a good balance between overcoming obstacles and pursuing things of interest that provide joy and satisfaction.
Resources for Teaching Success Attributes
This book, The Six Success Factors for Children with Learning Disabilities, is an excellent resource that provides ready-to-use activities for teaching the success attributes to kids in grades 3-12.
All four of our adult dyslexics are out in the world pursuing careers in their areas of strength. They have varying degrees of these six success attributes and I can see how they directly relate to their levels of success and life satisfaction.