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How to Help a Child with Learning Disabilities Who is Lonely

An expert discusses how to help your child avoid or cope with loneliness.

By Linda Broatch, M.A. , Malka Margalit, Ph.D.

Children with learning disabilities (LD) are more likely to be lonely than kids without LD. A growing body of research shows that many children with LD face considerable challenges in making and keeping friends. Fortunately for parents of children with LD, research studies also offer some guidance about effective approaches to help children cope with or avoid loneliness.

In this article, the second of two on the topic of loneliness among children with LD, we present the research findings of Dr. Malka Margalit, Head of the Constantiner School of Education at Tel-Aviv University in Israel, who has studied loneliness among children with LD for more than 20 years.

The first article, "Loneliness among Children with Learning Disabilities,” addressed the questions:

  • Why are children with LD more likely than their peers to be lonely?
  • How do children with LD experience loneliness?
  • What are some particular social and emotional characteristics of lonely children with LD?

In this article, we summarize some of Dr. Margalit’s research on:

  • Loneliness among elementary school kids and adolescents
  • Characteristics of kids with LD who are not lonely
  • Effective approaches to helping the child with LD cope with or avoid loneliness.

Loneliness among Elementary School Children with LD

When researchers study popularity and friendships in school settings, they often ask children to name several kids in their class they like and several they dislike. When two children name each other as a person they like, researchers refer to them as “identified friends.” Likewise, two kids who name each other as a person they dislike are termed “identified enemies.”

Using the identified-friend/enemy survey, Dr. Margalit’s research1 revealed that, within the group of children with LD, those who had at least one “identified enemy” in the class felt lonelier than kids with LD who had no identified enemies. However, among the kids without LD , those with an identified enemy did not feel lonelier than kids without an identified enemy. This finding reveals, Dr. Margalit says, the social and emotional vulnerability of students with LD, who, because they often have such limited social networks, attach greater importance to the negative attitudes of other kids toward them. In general, research shows that children with LD are more likely to experience social stresses such as loneliness, and are less likely to have the internal resources to cope effectively with them.

Interestingly, one of Dr. Margalit’s studies indicated that computer use predicted lower levels of loneliness for kids with LD. “We need to look more closely at whether children’s use of the Internet will challenge our traditional views of understanding what loneliness and friendship are,” Dr. Margalit commented. “Sometimes we are biased against technology, worried that children may neglect their face-to-face friendships in favor of virtual connections. I would like to encourage parents to think differently about e-friends and Web peers, since they may expand children’s social networks, enable them to try out their social skills, as well as give them a different sense of their social status.”

Loneliness among Adolescents with LD

Dr. Margalit conducted another study2 to determine whether social environment would have any impact on the prevalence of loneliness among teenagers with LD. She and her colleagues compared rates of loneliness between a mixed (with and without LD) group of teens living in an urban environment, and a comparable group of teens living on an Israeli kibbutz. Because the kibbutz is a highly communal living arrangement, some researchers predicted that kids with LD in this environment would be less likely than the urban kids with LD to experience loneliness. This was not the case. In fact, this and other studies showed that, across age and social setting, teenage kids with LD consistently reported higher levels of loneliness. They were also rated by their teachers as less socially adjusted, and by their peers as less accepted.

Not All Children with LD Are Lonely

In several studies of loneliness among children with LD, according to Dr. Margalit, a small group of kids with LD was identified who were not more likely to view themselves as lonely or socially distressed than were their peers without LD. Using a research approach that emphasizes identifying kids’ strengths, Dr. Margalit identified two characteristics common to the children with LD who were not lonelier than their peers without LD:

  • They had age-appropriate social skills.
  • They had average scores on a survey that measures “sense of coherence.”3

A child with a strong sense of coherence views the world both within and outside himself as ordered and predictable. When this child faces a problem, such as feeling isolated and out of touch with classmates, he is able to assess the problem and choose, from among a repertoire of social skills, an appropriate strategy to address it. For example, he might strike up a conversation with a classmate, using the strategy of identifying a mutual interest such as a recent movie, a television program, or a new computer game. Or the child might develop social relationships outside school, either in his neighborhood or through a hobby or a leisure activity that involves contact with other children.

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.

Malka Margalit, Ph.D., is professor at the School of Education, Tel-Aviv University, the Vice president for international development, in IARLD, and an internationally recognized expert on loneliness and empowerment of families and children with learning disabilities. She serves on the editorial boards of several journals, among them Journal of Learning Disabilities and Exceptional Children.

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