Loneliness, Self-Efficacy, and Hope: Often Neglected Dimensions of the Learning Process (page 2)
I met Matt when he was a young adolescent. He was diagnosed with both learning disabilities and ADHD, was depressed, and was pessimistic about success in the future. His description of school as captured in one of his writings reminds us of the way in which many youngsters with learning problems experience school. Matt wrote:
School has been and still is something I dread profusely. Going to school has been like climbing up a tremendous, rocky mountain with steep cliffs and jagged, slippery rocks. This mountain is very grey and always covered in dark, murky, cold clouds. I step forth to take on this task of climbing this huge mountain. Each step is a battle against strong, howling, icy winds. The winds contain frigid rain that slams against my body, trying to push me down. I keep battling my way up. Sometimes I am knocked down and sometimes I have to stop to regain my strength. My body is numb. My hands shake like leaves in the wind as I claw myself up the mountainside. Not being able to open my eyes, I blindly claw myself up the steep cliff. I stop because I am in such great pain. I look up and see that my struggle has hardly begun. Sometimes I just do not want to go on any further.
In college, Matt, having discovered strategies for dealing more effectively with learning problems and feeling more self-confident, expanded on his story of "The Mountain" and noted that the mountain could become "your grave or your greatest triumph."
Caitlin was seven years old when I first met her. She had reading and attentional problems and was referred by her parents and teacher because of a lack of confidence, frustration and disappointment about not learning to read as quickly as her peers, and headaches. In therapy I invited Caitlin to write a story about her difficulties. I told her, as I do all my patients, that I often read stories written by children at my workshops so that parents, teachers, and doctors can gain a better understanding of how children feel and can be more helpful to them.
Caitlin was motivated to write such a story with my assistance. She decided to use as a main character a dog named Hyper who had difficulty learning and concentrating, an obvious representation of herself. The theme of discouragement and low self-esteem was evident at the beginning of the story when she wrote:
Hyper told herself that she would get over this problem some day, but she wondered if she really would. She was worried that when she grew up and her own puppies asked her something, she would not know the answer and they would wonder why their mother was not very smart. Thinking about this made Hyper feel very upset. She wasn't sure what to do about it.
Caitlin's words poignantly captured not only her low self-esteem, but also a fear expressed by many children and adolescents with learning disabilities, namely, that their condition in life will not improve. In essence, they have lost one of the most important gifts there is, the gift of hope. Fortunately, with much support and encouragement from her parents and teachers and other significant adults in her life, Catilin persevered, eventually earning a master's degree in early education. Today she is a very respected first-grade teacher.
I interviewed Jeremy, a 10-year-old boy who, in describing his learning struggles said, "I'm the only kid at my school with these problems." I was somewhat surprised by his observation since he was attending a school for students with a documented learning disability. I said, "But I thought all the kids at the school have problems with learning." Jeremy responded, "But none have problems like mine."
In fact, Jeremy's learning problems were not unique and, in actuality were very similar to those of many of his classmates. However, he expressed a belief that I have heard from numerous students confronted with learning struggles, namely, that they are all alone and no one can truly understand the pain and distress they experience on a daily basis.
I was reminded of the stories of Matt, Caitlin, Jeremy, and countless other children who struggle with learning by a thought-provoking, insightful article titled "Comparisons of Achievement, Effort, and Self-Perceptions Among Students with Learning Disabilities and Their Peers from Different Achievement Groups" published in the September/October, 2006 issue of The Journal of Learning Disabilities. The article was authored by Dr. Timothy D. Lackaye of Hunter College in New York and Malka Margalit of Tel Aviv University in Israel and drew upon research they conducted with 571 seventh-grade Israeli students, 124 of whom were diagnosed with learning disabilities and 447 who were not. They divided the non-LD group into four groups based on their actual achievement in school.
Lackaye and Margalit examined several key variables including: (a) the link between academic achievement and effort; (b) the students' sense of self-efficacy (i.e., whether they believed they were competent to succeed at a particular task); (c) feelings of loneliness; (d) a sense of coherence defined as "a global enduring orientation that allows the individual to see the world as comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful; a strong sense of coherence is related to the availability of a wide and varied repertoire of coping strategies and to flexibility in selecting the particular coping strategy that seems most appropriate at a certain time and environmental condition"; (e) mood; and (f) hopeful thinking (hope was defined as a belief that desired goals can be reached and that there were various pathways to meet these goals).
For those of us who have worked with students with learning problems, the findings of Lackaye and Margalit's study are not surprising. They serve to reinforce the belief that if we are to assist struggling students to succeed in school, we must not only address their academic weaknesses, but, as importantly, we must intervene to lessen feelings and beliefs that serve as significant obstacles to engaging in learning tasks and achieving academically. While the results of this study are focused on those students diagnosed with learning disabilities, the implications of the research findings are relevant for all students.
Lackaye and Margalit found that students with learning disabilities "felt lonelier and more socially isolated" in school even in comparison with students who did not have learning disabilities but were low achievers. In addition, their findings highlighted that "successful students are ready to work hard and report higher levels of effort, whereas unsuccessful students need to work harder, but they are neither motivated nor ready to do so." Some may interpret this finding as a confirmation that students diagnosed with learning disabilities could be more successful if only they devoted more time and effort in their schoolwork. However, I believe that such an interpretation is faulty and it would be more accurate to assume that it is difficult for students to invest energy in learning when they are burdened by the negative mindset that regardless of how much time and effort they expend, they will still fail. In essence, they have developed what psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman termed "learned helplessness" and they entertain little, if any, hope for future success. Students with this mindset hear exhortations to "try harder" as accusatory and judgmental remarks, hardening them from accepting any assistance we may offer. I would contend that if we are to succeed with these students, we must first consider techniques for changing their self-defeating negative mindset.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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