It’s not easy to see your child have a setback, especially after she’s worked really hard. But it can be hard to avoid. Kids with learning and attention issues face challenges other kids don’t. They struggle in school. And they may have trouble with everyday skills like self-control, following directions or picking up on social cues.
But facing challenges and learning from them can have an upside. It can help your child build resilience. This vital life skill is what allows kids to tackle their challenges despite having setbacks. Learn more about what resilience means and how to help your child develop it.
The Old Concept of Resilience
We know resilience is important. But what exactly does it mean? For decades, resilience was seen as the ability to recover from disaster and hardship. Researchers focused on how kids and adults bounced back from tragedies like hurricanes, fires and floods. They studied why some people get “back to normal” quickly while others continue to struggle.
Parents typically viewed resilience in a similar way. They’d think of it in terms of how quickly their child bounced back from a serious illness, accident or other major event. In other words, resilience was something their child “showed” when faced with a big challenge.
The New Way of Thinking About Resilience
Today, resilience has a much broader meaning. For researchers and professionals working with kids, it’s not just about “bouncing back.” It’s about “bouncing forward.” Resilience doesn’t just mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge.
It’s not limited to tragedies or major life events, either. Resilience applies to more common struggles too. In fact, when kids respond to any type of challenge—including trouble with learning—it creates an opportunity to bounce forward. It helps them learn coping skills and how to find solutions to problems.
For instance, if a child falls off her bicycle after hitting a rock in the road, she may become more careful about watching for obstacles. If she does poorly on a test, she may work to improve her study skills.
Using everyday setbacks to explore new and better ways to approach things helps all kids. But it can be even more valuable for kids with learning and attention issues. It creates opportunities for them to build key skills for working on weaknesses and gaining new strengths.
Learning from setbacks can empower kids with learning and attention issues. It can help them build self-awareness and self-advocacy skills. It can also help them develop new strategies and tools for solving problems. And it can boost their motivation and self-esteem.
Helping Your Child Develop Resilience
Resilience was once thought of as a character trait that was more or less set in stone. But professionals now view it as a skill that can be actively taught. The key to resilience is mindset: how we think about whatever challenge we’re facing.
Teaching resilience to kids involves preparing them for challenges. That includes reflecting on how they handled them and discussing other solutions to the problem.
Here are some ways to help your child with learning and attention issues build resilience:
Expose her to challenges. Your child can’t learn if she doesn’t have the chance to do things that are difficult—and perhaps fail at them. Find everyday situations where she’ll need to work things out on her own, try different strategies and persist even when things get tough.
The playground can be a great spot for this. Struggling to get across the monkey bars or working with other kids to build a bridge across a stream are both learning opportunities.
Don’t jump in to fix things. When things aren’t going well, your child may need your support. But that doesn’t mean solving the problem for her. Give your child guidance. But also allow her space to find her own solutions and strategies before jumping in with yours. A certain amount of frustration can lead to positive results, which can help build persistence.
Let consequences do some of the teaching. When kids do something that results in a negative outcome, it can feel defeating. But it can also motivate them to change. Negative experiences can lead them to find strategies that lead to positive outcomes.
Let’s say your fourth grader keeps leaving her homework at home. Missing assignments pulls down her grade for the marking period. But that negative outcome motivates her to use the organization strategies you came up with at home, and her grades improve. Now she’s learned resilience and organization skills.
Talk about the lessons learned. After your child has experienced a setback or a disappointment, help her make sense of it. Talk about the strategies she used and discuss things she could have done differently.
Make sure to suggest people she could have gone to for help and ways she could have asked for help along the way. Reflecting on what happened can help her identify supports that might be useful next time.
Avoid a “sink or swim” situation. Resilience is about learning from challenges and moving forward. But what if she had no guidance at all? It’s important to give your child enough support to face challenges but not so much help that she can’t make mistakes and learn from them.
One way to do this is by using a “scaffolding” approach. Think about how people teach kids to ride a bike. First, you give a lot of support, holding on to the back of the seat and the handlebars. Gradually, you give less and less support, until you finally let go.
This same approach can be used to teach kids resilience through any challenge. If your middle-schooler is struggling with an assignment, you can review the directions with her. You can guide her to look back at the textbook or suggest she call a friend for help. You can also encourage her to reach out to her teacher.
If she doesn’t do those things and gets a low grade on the assignment, it may motivate her to try using those supports the next time. Or she may come up with another strategy that works for her.
Encourage her to ask for additional supports at school. If your child is still struggling with the work after trying different strategies, you can suggest she talk with her case manager or teacher about additional supports. She may not follow through. But she’s still had an opportunity to learn how to persist in the face of a challenge and how to advocate for herself along the way.
Find out what your child needs to be successful in school. It’s important to make sure your child is getting the help she needs to have success. If she’s struggling in school, and you’re not sure why, consider having her evaluated. She may be eligible for supports, services and accommodations.
Building resilience doesn’t always come easily. Even when your child learns from her challenges, they can still be frustrating. Help her learn constructive ways to deal with her frustration. Give her honest feedback and praise for the hard work she puts in. And inspire her by sharing stories about the many successful people with learning and attention issues.