Resilience and School Retention: Exploring the Experiences of Post-Secondary Students With Diverse Needs


  • Lauren Brandt University of Saskatchewan
  • Laureen McIntyre


Students in today’s post-secondary classrooms experience a variety of learning, attention, emotional, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders.  These students may experience a number of symptoms that can affect multiple domains of functioning (e.g., Gillberg, 2014; Hahn, Foxe, & Molholm, 2014; Jarrett, 2016; Kwok & Ellis, 2014). Students with these disorders may find it difficult to be successful in an educational setting, such as a post-secondary institution (e.g., Massey, 2008; Tyrer & Baldwin, 2006; Wu, Szpunar, Godovich, Schacter, & Hofman, 2015). For example, disruptive behaviour disorders are among the most challenging disorders in the education system (Farrell, 2011; Webber & Plotts, 2008). Students with behaviour disorders (BD) manifest social, intellectual, academic, language, and behavioural difficulties to such a degree that they require effective and intensive strategies to avoid negative outcomes (Webber & Plotts, 2008).  Further, students with learning, attention, emotional, or behavioural disorders are significantly less likely to graduate from high school and post-secondary school than their same-age peers (Barkley, Murphy, & Fischer, 2008; Scanlon & Mellard, 2002). For example, in the United States, approximately 4.7% (5 million students) drop out of post-secondary education every year due to mental illness (O’Keeffe, 2013).  Therefore, these students may find that their symptoms interfere with their functioning to such a degree that they discontinue their education, thereby increasing their risk for negative outcomes in adulthood (e.g., low job satisfaction, unemployment, illegal activity; Dowrick & Crespo, 2005; Maynard, Salas-Wright, & Vaughn, 2015; Wolf, 2001; Koury & Rapaport, 2007; Newman, Llera, Erickson, Przeworski, & Castonguay, 2013).

Given the importance of school completion for the quality of life in adulthood, a number of studies have identified school-related factors that influence students' decision to drop out of or stay in school (Christle et al., 2007; Dowrick & Crespo, 2005; Farrell, 2011; Flick, 2011; Scanlon & Mellard, 2002; Sinclair, Christenson, & Thurlow, 2005; Osher, Morrison, & Bailey, 2003). However, knowledge of how these factors affect students with learning, attention, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders is limited. For example, O’Keeffe (2013) suggested that a sense of belonging was critical for student success in higher education, especially among students at risk for drop out, such as students with disabilities or mental health difficulties. However, how this bonding process occurs in a population of students with learning, attention, emotional, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders is relatively unknown (e.g., Klem & Connell, 2004; Thurlow, 1995). The concept of resilience may be an important lens through which to view why some students with learning, attention, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders decide to stay in school. How positive adaptation occurs for these students despite their diagnosis is largely understudied. In order to develop appropriate programs and accommodations that will help these individuals graduate from school and consequently, mitigate some of the negative consequences associated with dropping out of school, it is necessary that we examine the experiences of those students directly from their perspectives.  

Statement of Purpose

 More information is needed to better understand how individuals with learning, attention, emotional, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders believe their school experiences have affected their decision to stay in school. Identifying post-secondary students' needs within the context of the school setting may require a deeper understanding of how these students experience the school environment. A deeper understanding of these experiences may add to existing knowledge of how educators, school administrators, parents, and all of those who work with these students can continue to address and improve students' potential for success in the completion of post-secondary training.  By presenting their experiences in their own words, participants are providing valuable information. The current study focused on the school experiences of  individuals attending a post-secondary institution in Western Canada who: (1) were 18 years of age or older; (2) had been identified as showing learning, attention, emotional, and/or behavioural difficulties; and (3) were willing to share his/her story of being identified/diagnosed and what his/her school experiences have been. Specifically, the research questions that guided this inquiry were: (1) What are the school experiences of post-secondary students with learning, attention, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders? and (2) What school-related factors contribute to these students’ decision to stay in school?


This study used a basic interpretive qualitative approach to explore the school experiences of post-secondary students with learning, attention, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders. Merriam (2002) defined an interpretive qualitative approach as “[l]earing how individuals experience and interact with their social world [and] the meaning it has for them” (p. 4). Purposeful sampling was used to recruit five post-secondary students with learning, attention, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders to participate in this study.  Data generation involved one main interview and a follow-up meeting with each participant over the course of approximately two months. Individual interviews were used to explore the participants’ shared social experiences of school, and what has allowed them to succeed academically, emotionally, and socially in this environment.  Data was analyzed using reflexive analysis to allow thick description (Gall, Gall & Borg, 2007). The focus of this presentation will be the unique academic, emotional, and social experiences of each participant and the common themes among them, with the hopes of better understanding the perceptions and experiences of post-secondary students with learning, attention, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders.


Four adults who were currently enrolled in undergraduate programs at a Western Canadian university participated in this study. All were considered to be enrolled full-time, and had formal diagnoses of learning, attention, memory, behavioural and/or emotional disorders. Participants ranged in age from 25 to 30 years of age and included three females (Frida, Anna, Trina) and one male (Jared). Frida, 27 years of age, was in her third year of an undergraduate professional program. Anna, 25 years of age, was in her fifth year of a competitive undergraduate health science program. Trina, 30 years of age, was in her fourth year of an undergraduate science program. While Jared, 30 years of age, was in his second year of a competitive undergraduate professional program.


As participants’ stories were reviewed through the lens of resilience, three major themes were identified: 

(1) Unpacking the “Box”: Exploring Perceived Attitudes About Diversity in the

Learning Needs of Students (e.g., beliefs and experiences related to stigma of diagnosis, denial and acceptance, existing/missing educational supports and accommodations, and support of community, family, and friends). For example, Jared experienced multiple negative reactions to his diagnosis:

There’s a heavy stigma that goes with it… I’ve had multiple instructors, at apost-secondary level and at a public school level approach me as if it’s  bologna, like it doesn’t exist…I’ve been viewed as very stupid. I remember I had a teacher tell me that there’s no way I could’ve written that because I’m not smart enough, so I must have plagiarized it.

(2) Breaking the “Box:” Redefining Success by Adapting Behaviour in the Context of Post-Secondary Education (e.g., beliefs and experiences related to adapting the environment, using self-directed strategies, developing self-concept, and prioritizing and sacrificing). For example, Anna spoke about the self-reflection she’s done in relation to her education and diagnosis:

Most of it was self-reflection and allowing myself enough time to sit in turmoil to kinda clear my head of judgment and all the stigma that I felt was kinda put upon me externally as well as internally…Although it’s been viewed as a struggle, it’s been setting myself up for a very bright future…because I’ve never been willing to accept that that’s all that I am. I recognize that I’m no lacking intelligence…I know I understand things; I just can’t prove it.

(3) Reshaping the “Box:” Overcoming Personal Barriers and Achieving Success (e.g., beliefs and experiences related to continuing in school shaped by attitudes of self and others). For example, Trina reported that her commitment to her education needed to be self-initiated:

…that’s probably why I dropped out the first time, you know? ‘Cause I don’t feel like I was devoted enough to do it…when I came back this time I really[came] back with a sense of like, “I want to do this” and this is really something that I wanna do for myself and not because I feel like I should or not because you know, nobody’s pressuring me into it. 

Participants shared suggestions post-secondary institutions, and professionals supporting student leaning, could implement to better meet the learning needs of students with learning, attention, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders and encourage them to stay in school. For example, post-secondary institutions/professionals could: provide instructors better/more professional development related to students’ with diverse needs (e.g., focusing on student’s strengths to address areas of need; designing classes to address all learning modalities); and ask a student what supports he/she feels are needed to encourage success versus prescribing generic strategies/interventions that do not suit an individual’s learning needs. It is hoped educators, parents, and other professionals working in community/school environments (i.e., speech-language pathologists, psychologists, etc.) can review participants’ comments and start to gain a better understanding of the supports that have helped students with learning, attention, and/or behaviour difficulties/disorders succeed and the barriers they have had to overcome.

Significance of the Study

 This study is significant for a variety of reasons. First, it provides insight into, and

understanding of: (1) the life of post-secondary students with learning, attention, emotional, and/or behaviour difficulties or disorders, and (2) the positive experiences participants have had in the school environment. Knowledge related to how this diagnosis may affect students' school experiences and relationships with parents, peers, teachers, and staff is limited and therefore explored within this study. Secondly, this research has the potential to provide educators and school administrators with a deeper understanding of how to ensure that post-secondary students with similar diagnoses are provided with appropriate educational experiences that facilitate the completion of post-secondary training. This study may also provide some support for the positive psychological approach that has become dominant within the fields of educational psychology, special education, and communication disorders.   








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