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Helping Kids With Learning Disabilities Understand the Language of Friendship

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By Janet Giler, Ph.D.,M.F.T.

Teaching Children to Understand Nonverbal Communication

Children usually respond well if they are given specific lessons in how to read body language and if they practice it with their friends and family. To become better at understanding body language, it's important to look for consistency. Here are some questions a child can learn to ask himself about the person speaking to him:

  • Does her tone of voice match what her words say?
  • Does she maintain eye contact, look away, or look nervous?
  • Does she seem comfortable?

When the words and body language disagree, there are many ways to interpret the "real" message. One possibility is that she is trying to avoid a direct confrontation. Most of us use manners or conventional expressions to avoid feeling uncomfortable or to avoid hurting someone's feelings. The theory is that it is better to be evasive or indirect rather than to refuse someone outright. Since most of us want to avoid discomfort, we've adopted indirect general phrases such as "that sounds good…let's see…I'll call you later…etc." Such expressions are often confusing for a child who doesn't realize a friend doesn't really mean to call him later. The real message is conveyed in the person's body language that may have lacked sincerity or was demonstrated by an avoidance of eye contact.

However, the subtlety eludes many kids with language processing problems. They would prefer a direct answer such as, "No, I don't want to play" to an indirect "Maybe." While a child's best friend might be willing to be this direct, casual acquaintances are more likely to be indirect when refusing an invitation.

Accepting Joking and Teasing with Humor

Understanding joking and teasing also relies on a child's ability to interpret the more subtle messages in another person's nonverbal behavior and to accept hurtful actions as being unintentional. Kids often joke or tease by commenting on an existing characteristic, trait or mannerism - either theirs or yours. Instead of being offended by it, one is usually expected to laugh and understand that it is meant to be funny, not hurtful. Since many children with learning disabilities are hypersensitive to criticism, they often take teasing as an insult rather than in jest. Instead of perceiving the remark as a joke, the child often feels wounded and may retort with a hostile remark. This is especially true of a child with AD/HD who's impulsive and might speak before thinking. Instead of being a playful interaction, a joke can create hostility which can lead to an argument or an abrupt ending to the friendship.

Learning Conflict Resolution Skills

Conflict resolution often relies on differentiating between a person's actions and his intentions. Kids often say or do things without any conscious intention of being hurtful. Many children with learning disabilities, out of a desire to protect themselves from further pain, project negative intentions on other children; they often react to criticism when none was intended, or take a joke or a friendly tease seriously. This can have negative social consequences. Instead of considering that the person may have said something without really thinking of its impact and was unintentionally hurtful, a child with learning disabilities often over-reacts with anger or withdrawal. Instead of trying to figure out the person's intentions, the child may prematurely end the relationship instead of using better listening or conflict resolution skills.

Children with learning differences can become better listeners if they:

  • learn the subtle rules of manners.
  • pay attention to nonverbal messages.
  • take joking and teasing with humor.
  • practice conflict resolutions skills.

One of the most important skills in listening and resolving conflicts is to attribute a good intention to one's "friend." Many children with learning disabilities benefit from social skills classes that include conflict resolution, or by therapy that helps them work through the trauma that comes from being teased and being different. Whatever method you choose, building a network of support that values your child for his unique contributions can go a long way toward sustaining him through the difficult developmental years.

Comments from readers

"is there a school in nebraska that helps with kids understanding things that are said. i have a grandson adopted from korea who seems fine when looking at him but socially and him understanding so many things, that you assume he knows, like the other day, he thought the lawn mower made the grass grow, he's 8 and every day something occurs and we realize he does not know so much.....he has to be taught everything from the ground up although he seems to blend in somewhat with kids at school but he does act up in school and we know its all because of not understanding....because he is not naughty at all at home "
"I liked your article very much. I find it very helpful. I believe that identifying, understanding and empathizing to other people's feelings and emotions are critical social skills for our children. I designed a little book for my nephew to help him relate better to others, build strong relationships and have a happy, more enjoyable life. You can find it at: ions#comment-7080581 I designed this book thinking about my nephew, asking my self what I could do to help him grow up to be a respectful man, to be a good person but I think any kid will enjoy the illustrations as much as my nephew does. "