At the invitation of the Raskob Day School and Learning Institute, Fumiko Hoeft, MD, PhD, delivered a lecture in the Valley Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, January 20, regarding research on cognitive and social-emotional resilience in children with dyslexia. Hoeft is an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Weill Institute for Neurosciences and Dyslexia Center, and director of University of California Office of the President's Science-based Innovation in Learning Center (SILC), and UCSF Hoeft Laboratory for Educational Neuroscience (brainLENS).
Hoeft began her lecture by outlining the costs of dyslexia, both on the personal level and the social level. “Dyslexia often, but not always, leads to a poor outcome in things like reading comprehension and educational attainment, which might lead to psychosocial maladjustment,” she said. “It could be that, as you develop dyslexia, you're less motivated to go to school, less motivated to do more reading, and you don’t improve your vocabulary. And if you don't have the vocabulary, then comprehension might decrease, and then also your self-esteem decreases and it might impact other aspects of schooling and friendships as well.
“The cost to society is also high for interventions and the public school systems,” she said. “High school drop-out rate for dyslexics is generally higher, about 2.5 times higher. Anxiety disorders are also thought to be high, about two times higher. Depression is higher also. Substance abuse is 2.7 times higher and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) 4.5 times higher. So the cost of dyslexia is high, there are educational attainment problems that can lead to poor income and other social and emotional maladjustments.”
Hoeft also spent some time at the beginning of the lecture speaking about the neurobiological and genetic causes of dyslexia and the ways in which environmental factors might exacerbate an individual’s dyslexia as well. “If you look at genes or neurobiological risk factors, it’s not just one, but there are many, many genes that are involved and each contributes a very small percentage, maybe .05% or .1% to the risk of developing dyslexia or learning disabilities. And if you have many of those, then that increases your chance of developing it. But environment can make the symptoms worse or how you present the problems worse. So, for example, if you were vulnerable to developing dyslexia and you didn’t have books around so you could practice reading, or didn’t receive a reading intervention, then you might have more severe reading problems than some other children.”
However, Hoeft explained, it isn’t the risk factors for dyslexia that she has been most interested in recently—it’s the protective factors that help dyslexic individuals cope with the condition.
“There are many factors that contribute to dyslexia, which means that as an educator, or as a researcher, we have to take an integrative approach if we want to maximize children’s success,” Hoeft said. “So, we went through all the research literature to look for specifically protective factors—not for risk factors. Researchers tend to focus on the cause and the problems, but what we wanted to focus on was the protective factors, and what makes people with those protective factors have a good outcome?
”When I think about resilience, I think about a palm tree swaying in a storm. And it’s bending, but it’s not breaking. Resilience is the ability to adapt to stressors or adversity by bending, but not breaking. And we divide that into social-emotional resilience and cognitive resilience. I like calling ‘internal environment’ some of these factors such as stereotype threat, motivation, mindset, resilience, and grit. These set the stage for learning—if students are not motivated, if they don’t have grit, if they don’t have resilience, especially if they’re vulnerable to developing dyslexia, it’s going to be very hard to focus and get the most out of any program.”
Cognitive and Social-Emotional Resilience
Hoeft explained that some individuals with dyslexia display cognitive resilience, which means that, although they may have poor decoding skills (i.e. using knowledge of letter-sound relationships to correctly recognize familiar words while reading), these individuals are able to use contextual information to help compensate and attain high levels of reading comprehension. Hoeft stated that she and her team believe that these types of compensatory mechanisms can be strengthened with early cognitive training.
For her discussion of social-emotional resilience, Hoeft talked about the concepts of grit (self-discipline) and growth mindset (believing that long-term learning goals can be accomplished with effort) as personal qualities that can be developed through specific practices. She also mentioned that stereotype threat—which happens when someone feels as though they are at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong—can be a source of great anxiety for students with dyslexia or learning disabilities. According to Hoeft, changes in the way that certain classroom activities are framed can help alleviate stereotype threat for students and build their resilience.
In addition, Hoeft emphasized that students with learning disabilities, like dyslexia, who are peer-mentored by other students with learning disabilities, often display higher self-esteem, more comfort with reading, and show a better growth mindset with respect to their goals.
“It seems like there’s many important cognitive protective factors and social and emotional protectors that we can now capitalize upon based on the research studies that people have done,” Hoeft said. “We believe that, yes, literacy intervention is extremely important and we wouldn’t trade it for anything if we can offer it to children. But, in addition, it seems like cognitive training might be very important and be helpful. And social and emotional learning such as mentoring might also be very important for a positive outcome for our children. So can we become resilient and can we promote resilience in our children? Yes, I believe we can.”