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Nurturing social competence in a child with learning disabilities

Dr. Betty Osman explains how to nurture social skills in a child with a learning disability.

By Betty Osman, Ph.D.

Research has indicated that children with learning disabilities (LD) have more difficulty making and keeping friends than young people without these problems. Adolescents with LD have been shown to be less involved in recreational activities and to derive less satisfaction from their social interactions than their peers without LD. In this article, Betty Osman, Ph.D., discusses the nature of these social disabilities among children with LD, and what, if anything, can parents do to help their children and adolescents "fit in".

Learning to successfully interact with others is one of the most important aspects of a child's development, with far-reaching implications. Although most children acquire social skills by example, and possibly osmosis, research clearly suggests children with learning disabilities (LD) may have difficulty making and keeping friends. Adolescents with LD have also been shown to interact less with their peers and to spend more leisure time alone, addicted to TV, computer games, and the Internet.

Parents devote much time and effort trying to impart the information and values they consider important. Yet, the development of children's social skills frequently is taken for granted. It goes without saying that it is painful for parents to see a child rejected by peers. In a sense, it becomes their rejection. Some parents relive their own unhappy social experiences as children, while others have expectations or dreams for their children that, not realized, become a source of disappointment and frustration.

Certainly not all young people with learning disabilities experience social problems. Typically, the good athlete, class comedian, resident artist, or owner of the most magic cards, is likely to be accepted regardless of his learning issues. Then, too, some children, with or without LD, seem born to make life easy for parents - and for themselves as well. They appear to develop social awareness early in life and, as they grow, display innately good "people skills" - a sense of humor, a positive attitude toward life, and empathy for others, qualities guaranteed to win friends.

But for many children and adolescents with LD, the lack of peer acceptance can become the most painful of their problems. Computers and calculators can help children with writing and arithmetic, but there is no similar technology to help them handle a lonely recess at school, a family outing, or a date. These require social competence.

"Social competence" in this context refers to those skills necessary for effective interpersonal functioning. They include both verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are socially valued and are likely to elicit a positive response from others.