Research Trends: Social Information Processing and Emotional Understanding in Children With LD

An expert reviews new research on the social interactions of kids with learning disabilities.

By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D.

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.

The social difficulties experienced by children with learning disabilities (LD) have been well documented. In fact, research indicates that as many as 75% of children with LD have social skills deficits (Kavale & Forness, 1996). Children with LD are often socially rejected by their peers, and have problems establishing and maintaining friendships. In turn, these difficulties may lead to feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem, and even depression.

Authorities in the field of LD have explored a number of possible causes for these difficulties including, low academic standing, poor oral language skills, nonverbal communication deficits, concurrent psychological problems, attention/memory disorders, as well as cognitive deficits related to social problem solving. To date, there is no consensus regarding the exact causes of the social difficulties experienced by children with LD. In fact, due to the complex nature of social relations, and the many factors that affect them, it may be a long time before we have a clear understanding of why children with LD experience such difficulties. Nonetheless, researchers continue to study the reasons behind such problems, which can be more debilitating than the academic difficulties most commonly equated with LD.

Research Study Spotlight

In an effort to bring parents up-to-date on this important, but often neglected aspect of LD, I have chosen to share a research study recently published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities (January/February 2005), one of the leading peer-reviewed journals in the field. (Articles submitted to such journals undergo a rigorous review process by leading researchers to ensure that each study meets the highest scientific standards.) This study recognizes the complexities of social interaction, and examines areas that have received limited research. Furthermore, the study exemplifies high quality research. As a personal aside, I must also admit that the social aspects of learning disabilities have always been of particular interest to me.

In this study, Nirit Bauminger, Hany Schorr Edelsztein, and Janice Morash of Bar Ilan University in Israel examined social information processing and complex emotional understanding capabilities in children with and without LD. Participants in the study consisted of 50 children with LD (ages 9.4 to 12.7; 35 boys, 15 girls) and 50 children without LD matched on grade, age, and gender.

Social information processing (cognitive processes underlying social interactions) involves a series of six steps (Crick & Dodge, 1994, Dodge, 1986). In any given social situation, these steps include:

  1. encoding social clues (paying attention to social cues, remembering key information)
  2. mentally representing and interpreting the cues (giving meaning to the cues)
  3. clarifying goals (selecting desired outcomes)
  4. searching for possible social responses (either from memory or formulation of new response possibilities)
  5. making a response decision (evaluating the probable outcomes of various responses and selecting an appropriate response) and
  6. acting out selected responses while monitoring their effects.

The social information processing abilities of children in both the LD and non-LD groups were measured by their responses to questions regarding a series of social scenarios that had been read to them. For example, one story concerned the unintentional damaging of a friend's book. In addition, children's complex emotional understanding abilities, which include comprehension of complex emotions (e.g., pride, guilt, and embarrassment), mixed emotions, and hidden emotions of others, were assessed by their responses to a series of stories, pictures, and interview questions.

Results of this study showed that children with LD had major difficulties in social information processing including problems encoding social cues, fewer solutions to problems, less appropriate response decisions, fewer social goals, and problems linking goals and response decision. In addition, children with LD showed consistent difficulties with the different tasks in the understanding of complex emotions and in higher emotional understanding capabilities, such as understanding that two conflicting emotions (e.g., love and hate) can be simultaneously experienced. The researchers suggest that these difficulties may offer one explanation for the social difficulties and low social status experienced by many children with LD. However, the authors point out that it is unclear whether difficulties in social information processing and understanding complex emotions are the result of a developmental delay, a "core" emotional-social deficit, or the result of these children's limited social experience due to peer rejection. Only further research will be able to clarify this issue.

The authors of this study indicate that their results have implications for social skills training programs for children with LD. They stress the "need for intervention models that incorporate training in social cognition processes (e.g., understanding of verbal and nonverbal cues), including social and emotional understanding." Furthermore, the researchers emphasize that interventions should target understanding social contexts and role-taking abilities to develop others' perspectives on social behaviors. For example, this could involve practice in "reading" social interactions on a playground that could lead to children fighting, as well as understanding the perspectives of the various children involved.

Putting It in Perspective

It is critical to point out that the results of research on social skills training programs for children with LD have been somewhat disappointing. Overall, studies have not shown social skills training programs to be effective. However, there are a few promising studies that have begun to show positive effects. As further studies like the one I've highlighted here help unravel the mysteries of the social difficulties experienced by children with LD, we will be in a much better position to develop effective social skills training programs.

Although this research study does not provide "all the answers" (nor should it be expected to) it makes an important contribution to our continuing efforts to understand the nature of the social interactions of children with LD and the ways we can help ensure that these children live happy and rewarding lives.

References

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., is a learning disability researcher. He is a frequent presenter at international LD conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well-known for his research on assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the life span.