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.

Lack of these behaviors, though, does not represent a simple or unilateral problem. Rather, social disabilities might be conceptualized as occurring on three levels:

  • The first is a cognitive deficit, i.e., lack of knowledge of how to act in a given social situation — knowing not to shout out in church, or when it is appropriate to offer assistance to a stranger. Intervention on this level consists of teaching the requisite skill in much the same way as a new math concept or social studies lesson might be presented.
  • The second might be referred to as a “performance deficit” and can be seen in children or adolescents who understand both appropriate behavior and what is expected, but their own needs interfere with their cognitions. Some children who understand the concept of fair play and know they shouldn? t cheat, simply can? t tolerate losing, so they cheat to make sure that they win. The children have the skills but are unable to apply them.
  • Still others with social difficulties know how to act and can suppress their needs appropriately, but they lack the ability to evaluate their own or others’behavior. They don’t understand the effect of their actions and, therefore, have no means of monitoring what they do or say. Each experience is a new one, with little transfer or generalization taking place. Anticipation and cause and effect are non-existent.

In sum, young people with social disabilities frequently are less able than others their age to figure out how to behave in social situations and less aware of how others respond to them. Therefore, they act without knowledge or regard for social consequences. Most, though, tend to be unaware of their role, perceiving themselves as the victims of others’mistreatment. Therefore, they take little responsibility for their actions, blaming others or simply “bad luck” for events in their lives. What they do feel, though, is an overdose of criticism from peers and adults alike.

To help young people with social problems, it is important to understand on what level they are having trouble and how their social disabilities relate to their learning disabilities. The immaturity of many children with LD transcends academic areas, affecting their social adjustment as well. Communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, also have social implications. Children who don’t “read” body language and facial expressions well are likely to miss important signals in life that are apparent to others.

Parents cannot afford to ignore their children’s social difficulties. The consequences are too great for the child and the family. I view the social domain, along with academic instruction, as within the realm of educational responsibility at home and at school. Education, after all, is not confined to the classroom but occurs in all aspects of life.

To help children/adolescents develop social skills and promote social acceptance, parents might consider these techniques:

  • Listen to children with the “third ear,” i.e., active listening, not only to the words they say, but the feelings they are expressing.
  • Initiate and practice pro-social skills at home, including:

    • How to initiate, maintain, and end a conversation
    • The art of negotiation — how to get what you want appropriately
    • How to be appropriately assertive without being overly aggressive
    • How to give and receive compliments
    • How to respond to teasing by peers
    • Practice how to accept constructive criticism

If there is a social support group in your area, encourage your child to participate. Sharing concerns, problems, and social experiences can facilitate social skills and peer acceptance.

Although not all children and adolescents with learning disabilities incur social difficulties, those who do require special understanding, not only in terms of their current functioning, but for the people they are capable of becoming. Although each young person is unique, all have the same needs — acceptance, approval, and a sense of belonging. To truly help them, we must go beyond the 3 R’s to include the 4th R — Relationships.

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