What’s new in the world of research related to children with learning and attention difficulties? In this summary of current peer-reviewed research, Marshall Raskind, Ph.D., shares his expert perspective in practical terms for parents like you.

There has been a lot of discussion in professional publications as well as the popular press about the link between learning disabilities (LD) and juvenile delinquency. In some instances, this connection has been emphasized to such an extent that many people have come to believe that all children with LD are at tremendous risk for becoming juvenile delinquents and criminals. Naturally this thought can be quite scary for parents of children with LD. But what exactly does the research say about this connection? Is the link as strong as many believe? The following article will address these questions. (Please note that this article focuses on LD and not AD/HD.)

Research Study Spotlight

The idea that a learning disability (LD) increases the risk of juvenile delinquency came from early anecdotal reports by professionals indicating that many delinquent youth had school problems1. In addition to initial anecdotal reports, a number of studies since the mid-1970s have found a “relatively large” number of individuals with LD in delinquent populations. However, the prevalence rates reported in these studies vary widely, ranging from 12% or less to as high as 70% or greater2. Most recently, the National Council on Disability (2003) estimated that approximately 30% of children in the juvenile justice system have LD3.

Unfortunately, the methods utilized to establish these prevalence rates have a number of flaws. These studies often used different and imprecise definitions of LD. Additionally, differing assessment criteria, techniques, and tests were used to determine whether an individual had LD4. As a result, the adolescent populations in these studies may have had very different kinds of problems, some of which may not actually have even been LD. The presence of school difficulties does not in and of itself indicate an LD. Furthermore, the youth in these studies – even if they did have LD – might also have suffered from additional disabilities such as emotional disturbance and behavioral disorders, conditions that could have more to do with delinquent behavior than did LD. Some researchers5 have also criticized these studies for not utilizing non-delinquent control groups. And, in studies that did use control groups, the groups may not have been comparable. (e.g., comparing institutionalized delinquent adolescents from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds with predominantly white, upper-middle class high school students). Without “balanced” comparisons it is difficult to accurately interpret prevalence rates.

In order to understand any possible cause and effect relationship, it is necessary to conduct longitudinal studies that follow children with LD into and through the adolescent years. To date, very few studies have done this. One study that used this approach6 followed a group of 51 male and female fifth-grade students with LD for a period of seven years and tracked delinquent activity. Results of the study indicated that the presence of LD in children did not prove to be a significant factor in predicting later delinquent behavior. Unlike some other studies, this study controlled for the influence of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. In contrast to these findings, other longitudinal research7 followed 57 teen-age boys over two years and found a possible causal relationship between LD and juvenile delinquency. With the lack of consensus between such studies, it is hard to conclusively establish a causal link between LD and delinquency.

While it did not focus specifically on juvenile delinquency, my own 20-year longitudinal research8 indicated a relatively small percentage of delinquent behavior or criminal activity among adults, ages 28 to 35, who had been identified with LD during childhood and tracked over a 20-year period. After conducting extensive interviews and studying public records, we found only 3 of the 41 (7.3%) individuals in the study showed evidence of delinquent or criminal activity. In two of these cases, the individuals also had serious psychological disorders. However, this study did not include a non-LD comparison group, making the findings difficult to interpret.

Putting it in Perspective

It is important to keep in mind that even in acknowledging the over-representation of LD youth in delinquent populations, we need to be careful not to confuse the prevalence of LD in delinquent populations with the percentage of all children with LD who potentially might end up in the juvenile justice system. Even if we knew for certain that 30% of juvenile delinquents have LD, this does not mean that 30% of all children with LD will end up as criminal offenders. The 30% figure means very different things in each of these cases.

Prevalence rates alone tell us very little about any possible “causal link” between LD and juvenile delinquency, and the development of delinquent behavior in children with LD. The fact that two conditions are associated or correlated with one another does not mean that one causes the other.

It is also important to keep in mind that research has indicated that numerous factors other than LD might put individuals at risk for delinquency. (However, there is conflicting evidence regarding the role of even these factors in juvenile delinquency.) These factors* include:

  • demographics (e.g., age, gender, minority status)
  • biology (e.g., exposure to toxins)
  • psychological conditions
  • peer associations
  • family (e.g., poor parental supervision)
  • socioeconomic standing
  • community (e.g., socially disadvantaged neighborhoods)
  • school situation (e.g., truancy, suspension)
  • situational (e.g., illicit drug market)

* See Mears & Aron (2003) for a discussion of these factors. 9

Although a clear causal link between LD and juvenile delinquency has not been scientifically validated, several theories have been offered10, 11, 12. Several experts have suggested that school failure resulting from a student having LD leads to criticism, rejection, poor self-image, school dropout, and ultimately delinquency. Another hypothesis suggests children with LD have a number of personality characteristics (e.g., poor interpretation of social cues, impulsivity) that make them susceptible to delinquent behavior. A different theory contends that adolescents with LD engage in the same kind of delinquent behavior, and at the same rate as non-disabled peers, but that police, social workers and other professionals treat them differently and may be more likely to arrest them and find them legally responsible for having broken the law13. A final theory suggests that children and adolescents with LD have cognitive problem-solving deficits in social situations that lead to delinquent behaviors. Although these theories have a certain logic to them, and some limited scientific support, they have not been sufficiently validated by research. We still do not know for sure the extent to which the factors described in these theories may or may not contribute to juvenile delinquency in adolescents with LD.

Unfortunately, there is little systematic research regarding the specific factors that may serve to protect or inhibit children with LD from engaging in delinquent behavior 14, 15. Therefore, caution needs to be exercised in making any recommendations regarding strategies to prevent juvenile delinquency. Nonetheless, longitudinal research in LD16, 17, 18, 19, 20 has suggested a number of factors or “attributes” that may lead to positive outcomes in persons with LD. These factors include:

  • awareness and understanding of the one’s LD
  • the ability to compartmentalize and reframe the disability into something positive
  • perseverance in the face of adversity
  • goal orientation and goal setting
  • proactive behavior
  • compensatory strategies to work around difficulties
  • the presence and use of social support systems
  • emotional coping strategies

Currently, it is not clear regarding the extent to which these attributes can be fostered in children with LD. However, if they can, this might ultimately prove helpful in promoting positive life outcomes, including the avoidance of juvenile delinquency. At the moment, the potential of this approach is only conjecture, and will need to be subjected to controlled research.

In conclusion, although research suggests an association between LD and delinquency, we need not view delinquency as an inevitable outcome. Research has yet to establish a clear causal link between the two. Furthermore, we also know that many other factors beyond LD can contribute to delinquency. While recognizing the limitations of current research, we nonetheless need be aware that the presence of an LD might possibly place children at greater risk for juvenile delinquency. Consequently, it seems prudent to keep our eyes open for any behaviors that might serve as “warning signs” of potential delinquency, and if observed, to intervene accordingly.

References

  1. Malmgrem, K, Abbott, R.D. & Hawkins, J.D. (1999). LD and delinquency: Rethinking the “link”. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 32, 194-200.
  2. Brier, N. (1989). The relationship between learning disability and delinquency: A review and reappraisal. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 546-553.
  3. National Council on Disability (2003). Addressing the needs of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system: The current status of evidence-based research. Washington, DC: Author
  4. Brier, N. (1989). The relationship between learning disability and delinquency: A review and reappraisal. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 546-553.
  5. Malmgrem, K, Abbott, R.D. & Hawkins, J.D. (1999). LD and delinquency: Rethinking the “link”. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 32, 194-200.
  6. Malmgrem, K, Abbott, R.D. & Hawkins, J.D. (1999). LD and delinquency: Rethinking the “link”. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 32, 194-200.
  7. Keilitz, I & Dunivant, N. (1986). The relationship between learning disability and juvenile delinquency: Current state of knowledge. Remedial and Special Education, 7(3), 18-26.
  8. Raskind, M. H., Goldberg, R. J., Higgins, E. L., & Herman, K. L. (1999). Patterns of change and predictors of success in individuals with learning disabilities: Results from a twenty-year longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 14 (1), 35-49.
  9. Mears, D.P & Aron, L.Y (2003). Addressing the needs of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system: The current state of knowledge. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center.
  10. Brier, N. (1989). The relationship between learning disability and delinquency: A review and reappraisal. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 546-553.
  11. Larson, K.A. (1988). A research review and alternative hypothesis explaining the link between learning disability and delinquency. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 21, 357-363, 369.
  12. Waldie, K. & Spreen, O. (1993). The relationship between learning disabilities and persisting delinquency. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26, 417-423
  13. Larson, K.A. (1988). A research review and alternative hypothesis explaining the link between learning disability and delinquency. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 21, 357-363, 369.
  14. Mears, D.P & Aron, L.Y (2003). Addressing the needs of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system: The current state of knowledge. Washington, DC : Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center.
  15. Morrison, G.M. & Cosden, M. (1997). Risk, resilience and adjustment of individuals with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 20, 43-60.
  16. Gerber, P.J., Ginsberg, R. & Reiff, H.B. (1992). Identifying alterable patterns of employment success for highly successful adults with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 475-487.
  17. Raskind, M. H., Goldberg, R. J., Higgins, E. L., & Herman, K. L. (1999). Patterns of change and predictors of success in individuals with learning disabilities: Results from a twenty-year longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 14 (1), 35-49.
  18. Reiff, H.B., Gerber, P.J., & Ginsberg, R. (1997). Exceeding expectations: Successful adults with learning disabilities. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
  19. Werner, E.E., & Smith, R.S. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  20. Werner, E.E. (1993). Risk and resilience in individuals with learning disabilities: Lessons learned from the Kauai longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 8, 28-34.
Share on Pinterest
There are no images.