This question was received during the LD@school webinar, At the Heart of the Matter: Creating Classrooms and Schools that Support Well-being; click here to view the webinar recording.
Answered by Dr. Sue Ball, Chief Psychologist, York Region District School Board
Resiliency is a key skill for everyone, not just for students with learning disabilities (LDs). The ability to overcome adversity, manage setbacks, and be adaptable to the new or difficult situations one is faced with, are central to success for everyone. It is even more essential that students with LDs develop resiliency. It is often much more difficult for students with LDs to show what they know and the strengths that they have. They also need to be able to advocate for themselves in order to access the accommodations, resources, or strategies that will help them to be successful.
Often, what makes it hard to be resilient is if students do not have the executive functioning skills that allow them to be adaptable, develop goals, resolve conflict, and regulate stress levels. If they are able to develop the skills to support themselves in these situations then they can be adaptable, they can learn, and they can access supports as they need them.
The York Region District School Board undertook a project to increase resiliency and well-being for all students, but there was a particular focus on students with LDs and mild intellectual disabilities. The five themes of this project came out of research, literature, surveys, and what our students, parents and guardians, staff and community members told us that they felt were essential components of resiliency to be addressed. Overarching everything that was done was a focus on building skills rather than just addressing deficits. Through this Resiliency Project, we actually found that students who have learning disabilities were more resilient in a way, because they knew who they were as learners. Understanding who we are as learners is essential to developing resiliency. When we know who we are, what our strengths are, what our areas of need may be, and the strategies that help support us to become successful, we are able to build a sense of self-efficacy, confidence and competence because we know we can actually activate strategies and put things in place that will make a difference for us.
As part of the project we developed advocacy cards, which are essentially a student-friendly version of an IEP, for each of the students with LDs so that they knew their strengths, their areas of difficulty, and the strategies that allowed them to be successful. The strategies were applied specifically to their unique, individual profile and they were able to carry that advocacy card with them wherever they went and their teachers had a copy of it. These advocacy cards allowed us to support students in knowing who they were and in advocating for themselves. We found that these cards made a significant difference in their ability to approach situations in which they were not sure of how to proceed. It also helped them develop a sense of competence and self-efficacy because they had strategies to help themselves.
Another big focus we had was a transition project from grade 8 to grade 9. We had our students in grade 8 go to their future high school and introduce themselves, using their advocacy card, to their new secondary team. That made a significant difference for our students in terms of their reported sense of confidence going in to grade 9, it lowered their levels of stress and our students reported a greater sense of their ability to transition successfully. It also helped the educators at the high school build a relationship with their incoming students and created a point of contact for welcoming them in the fall. We found that the educators and students who participated in the transition project reported that it made a significant and positive difference for all.
By the end of the Resiliency Project, our students had a sense of who they were, how they could advocate for themselves and had learned strategies that would help them be successful. Because we focused very much on strengths and on building skills, we also supported the development of executive functioning skills, stress management skills, self-compassion and a growth mindset perspective that we know are very important for developing resiliency.
Overarching all of these skills, was a focus on mattering, to give our students a sense that they mattered, that they were significant and had meaningful connections with others. We know from the research that students’ sense of mattering to others at school is associated with student success, motivation and a greater sense of overall well-being. A sense of mattering is key because it acts as a protective factor and is fundamental to wellbeing for all students but particularly for students with LDs.
Dr. Sue Ball is the Chief Psychologist at the York Region District School Board. Sue has spoken at LD@school’s Educators’ Institute and the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Provincial and International on topics such as supporting students with Learning Disabilities, Anxiety and ADHD, and at the National Council of Supervisors in Mathematics (NCSM) on Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities in Mathematics. She is a member of the Executive of the Association of Chiefs of Psychology of Ontario School Boards (ACPOSB) and the Minister’s Advisory Council for Special Education (MACSE). Sue’s passion is for supporting all learners to understand their unique learning profile of strengths and needs and to advocate for themselves, with the underlying belief that all students can learn and that every educator and student matters.