What Protective Factors Lead to Resilience in Students with Dyslexia?

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By Stephanie L. Haft and Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D.

December 2016

Students with developmental dyslexia (i.e., reading disorder or specific reading disability) typically have core deficits in phonological processing (i.e., phonological memory, phonological awareness, naming speed). Phonological-awareness weaknesses often result in difficulties with associating letters (graphemes) with the speech sounds (phonemes) that the graphemes spell. These students often experience “downstream” deficits in spelling, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Eventually, these cognitive challenges, and the frustration and stress they cause, have socioemotional effects: Students with dyslexia often experience anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem at levels far above their peers without dyslexia (Mugnaini et al., 2009).

Students with dyslexia often experience anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem at levels far above their peers without dyslexia (Mugnaini et al., 2009).

Despite these significant risks, many students with dyslexia display remarkably adaptive functional outcomes. Using a resilience framework to understand both the cognitive and socioemotional outcomes for students with dyslexia, this article focuses on the protective factors and potential mechanisms that play a role in the success and positive adjustment of these students. This article also summarizes a recently published paper by the authors entitled “Socio-emotional and Cognitive Resilience in Students with Reading Disabilities” (Haft et al., 2016).

Resilience Framework and its Application to Dyslexia

The term resilience generally refers to the presence of two critical occurrences: (1) exposure to significant risk or adversity, and (2) achievement of a better-than-expected adaptation or outcome despite the presence of that risk or adversity (Masten, 2014). The study of resilience requires a definition of the risk factors or adversity surrounding the individual, but in a move away from deficit-focused models, resilience frameworks highlight protective factors and sources of strength for the individual.

Figure 1

In applying this framework (Figure 1) to students who are at familial or cognitive risk for dyslexia, we seek to understand those who are resilient. We refer to students who demonstrate the trajectories listed below as having cognitive resilience: 

  • Do not develop dyslexia
  • Demonstrate only mild deficits related to dyslexia
  • Develop some of the core deficits characteristic of dyslexia but do not show significant downstream effects (e.g., deficits in reading comprehension).

In addition, students with a diagnosis of dyslexia may show socioemotional resilience. These students do not demonstrate patterns of maladaptive psychosocial adjustment (e.g., low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression) that are sometimes associated with a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Resilience in students with dyslexia is a dynamic process with an interaction of risk and protective factors at the individual, family, and community levels.

Resilience in students with dyslexia is a dynamic process with an interaction of risk and protective factors at the individual, family, and community levels. Identifying these protective factors and attempting to explain their mechanisms is an important step in enhancing resilience and well-being for such students and their families.

Cognitive Resilience

Pre-readers identified as at risk for dyslexia show early deficiencies in rapid naming, letter-sound knowledge, and general phonological awareness. Often, these cognitive risk factors are found in students with a family history of dyslexia. However, a proportion of students at risk for dyslexia do not develop later reading problems. What enables these students to experience reading success?

Strengths in oral-language skills (e.g., expressive vocabulary and articulation) are the protective factors found most consistently (Carroll et al., 2014; Hulme et al., 2015). Researchers call the use of these oral-language skills in reading “semantic bootstrapping” (Snowling and Muter, 2009). In the absence of systematic decoding strategies, students in the early stages of reading use context clues to understand the passages that they read.

At-risk pre-readers who later show minimal reading impairment are also found to have early strengths in executive-function skills and high levels of task-focused behavior (Thompson et al., 2015; Eklund et al., 2013). Though more work needs to be done to understand the mechanisms underlying these relationships, results suggest that self-regulation may play an important role in reading acquisition.

Students diagnosed with dyslexia may ultimately become proficient readers with intact comprehension skills. Studies of these individuals have shown that they have strong morphological awareness, or the ability to recognize and understand meaningful parts of words (morphemes) (Law et al., 2015). Further supporting the “semantic bootstrapping” hypothesis, strong vocabulary skills have been shown to protect against poor reading outcomes in students with dyslexia (Rose and Rouhani, 2012).

In summary, research suggests that the following strategies may be useful in enhancing cognitive resilience in students at risk for or diagnosed with dyslexia:

  • Strengths in oral language should be nurtured.
  • Early problems in oral language (e.g., articulation, sentence repetition) should be identified as early as possible—followed by intervention focused on improvement in all areas of oral-language-skill weakness.
  • Students should be encouraged to practice using their vocabulary knowledge to help them identify and correctly pronounce unfamiliar words during reading.
  • Students may need guidance in setting goals and self-monitoring their behavior and progress, so strategies to build executive-function skills should be taught.

Socioemotional Resilience

 An article reviewing the literature examining the socioemotional difficulties associated with dyslexia concludes that dyslexia acts as a specific risk factor for internalizing symptomatology (e.g., low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression) due to the stress of repeated reading failure as experienced by students with dyslexia, the increased risk of peer rejection, and general insecurity regarding their intelligence (Mugnaini et al., 2009). These psychosocial issues can in turn lead to an avoidance of reading, further exacerbating both cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes. Thus, it is important to identify mechanisms of socioemotional resilience to break this cycle.

Students with dyslexia who, despite their challenges, display intact self-esteem and self-efficacy tend to display more optimistic thinking (Idan and Margalit, 2014). Additionally, such students show a greater internal locus of control. For example, a student may view himself or herself as a “causal agent” in his or her own life (Firth et al., 2013; Zheng et al., 2014). In other words, these students are able to bounce back from threats to their socioemotional well-being by establishing a sense of control over their lives.

Not surprisingly, strong parental relationships, and parents with a greater understanding of their children’s dyslexia in particular, have been shown to contribute to a sense of self-worth in students with dyslexia (Terras et al., 2009). Recent research also found that the specific contributions of these relationships may be different for each parent: Mothers have been shown to specifically protect against internalizing problems in their children with dyslexia, while fathers tend to encourage adaptive coping mechanisms in their children (Al-Yagon, 2014). In addition to parental support, teacher and peer support have been shown to buffer against the potential negative impacts of academic difficulties in students with dyslexia.

In preliminary results, Eye to Eye (http://www.eyetoeyenational.org/), a national mentoring program that pairs students with learning disabilities with older, similarly labeled peers, has been shown to contribute to increases in adaptive responses to failure in forty-eight students over the course of a school year. Additionally, mentee-rated mentorship quality correlated positively and significantly with increases in self-esteem in this group of mentees. These promising early results, obtained through a research partnership between Eye to Eye and UCSF BrainLENS and funded by the Oak Foundation, suggest that mentoring is an important contribution to socioemotional resilience for students with dyslexia.

mentoring is an important contribution to socioemotional resilience for students with dyslexia.

In summary, research examining students with dyslexia who display socioemotional resilience suggests the following:

  • Students with dyslexia need to feel like they are in control of their lives, especially their academics. They should be given resources, strategies, and choices to bolster this sense of control.
  • Parents can increase a child’s sense of worth by seeking to understand each child’s patterns of learning strengths and weaknesses as related to dyslexia—along with information related to each child’s socioemotional profile.
  • Teachers and peers play important roles in the self-esteem of students with dyslexia. Mentoring is a promising mechanism through which mentors can make a positive impact.

Conclusion and Future Directions

The study of resilience in students with dyslexia is an exciting area of research. Recognizing and promoting identified protective factors presents the opportunity to improve reading and socioemotional outcomes for students with dyslexia.

Recognizing and promoting identified protective factors presents the opportunity to improve reading and socioemotional outcomes for students with dyslexia.

 Future research should continue to identify strengths and protective factors—and to delve into specific mechanisms for how these factors may buffer against the challenging experience of dyslexia. This information may lead to improved long-term socioemotional and academic outcomes for students, families, and schools.


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Stephanie L. Haft is the laboratory manager and socioemotional project manager at UCSF BrainLENS Laboratory. She is interested in how emotions and cognition interact in students, particularly in at-risk populations.





Fumiko HoeftFumiko Hoeft, MD, PhD is associate professor in the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Weill Institute for Neurosciences (UCSF); director of the Laboratory for Educational Neuroscience (brainLENS.org); and research scientist at Haskins Laboratories. She is a member of the board of directors of the Dyslexia Center at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the IDA, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), and the Center for Childhood Creativity (CCC). She was the 2014 Geschwind Memorial Lecturer for IDA. BrainLENS is interested in how cognitive science can inform educational and clinical practices, with specific interests in understanding the neurobiological cause of dyslexia, early identification and prediction, and the emotional resilience necessary to succeed.

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