Social Development (page 3)
Although not every student with a learning disability has problems with parents, teachers, or peers, social problems nevertheless are more prevalent among this group than among students having no academic difficulties. Intervention requires attending to the environmental as well as student aspects of the problem because social difficulties never exist in a vacuum.
Normal Patterns of Prosocial Development
In order for children to behave in a socially acceptable manner, they must be able to judge what is right and wrong. As with other areas of development, moral judgments change with age.
Piaget noted that children less than age 7 or 8 often don't understand why, something is right or wrong; rather, they accept an external source such as a parent or older child as an authority. Thus they tend to be very rigid about interpreting rules. If David takes April's toy, he is wrong because adults say so. The fact that he is taking the toy out of retaliation for April's taking his toy isn't considered. Likewise a lie is a lie, whether or not it was told in an attempt to spare someone's feelings. Children at this age are concrete in judging the magnitude of a misdeed. If you accidentally drop a tray of six glasses and they break this is deserving of a more severe punishment than if you dropped and broke just one glass. And children base their judgments of a lie on how far it departs from the truth. It's worse to say you saw a cow in the street when it really was a dog, than pretending to have better grades than you do in school.
In children over age 8, Piaget noted a gradual shift toward conforming to the behavioral rules of the group and greater self-reliance on following these rules. The parent is no longer considered the final authority. Motives are sometimes considered, and sometimes not.
By age 11 or 12, the child begins to understand that rules come from mutual consent and that rules make life easier for people. Lying begins to be regarded as wrong because if everyone told lies there could be little trust—how could families classrooms, and the world operate if people couldn't be believed? The 12-year-old connects the magnitude of punishments to the perpetrator's motives and justification. In late adolescence, young people begin to fully understand that rules preserve society and that we are obliged to follow them for that reason. From Kohlberg's research with adults, we have learned that a small percentage eventually come to recognize that not all laws are just, and will act to change these laws to better society.
This developmental progression in moral reasoning is extremely important for teachers and parents to understand. An understanding of a child's level of moral reasoning helps us deal with behavioral infractions "at their level" and encourages growth in their social maturity.
Prosocial Development and the Student with Learning Disabilities
Just as students with LD are academically delayed, their ability to make social judgments also may be like that of younger children. A 9-year-old, for example, may still rely heavily on authority figures for cues about how to act. This makes it almost impossible to function in school where numerous situations arise that demand immediate decisions and actions, on many of which the child's parents or teachers have never made a ruling.
Consider the dilemma of Oliver, a 10-year-old impulsive child who must decide whether telling a lie to avoid hurting someone is more correct than telling the truth. He has trouble focusing on several aspects of the problem at once and delaying a response until alternatives and consequences have been considered. Among other things, Oliver must look at the situation from another's perspective, evaluate verbal and nonverbal cues, and choose which words to use, all skills with which students who are learning disabled have trouble. That Oliver might make the wrong decision and get negative feedback is understandable.
Teachers need to understand the students' stage of moral reasoning and help them progress to higher moral reasoning levels. Their responses to misbehavior must fit the children's moral reasoning levels, as in simply "stating the rule" to Eron who is too aggressive in his bear hugs, or to Shira who overstays her welcome with friends because of her excessive teasing and roughhousing. Both children are old enough to know better, but reasoning with them about the other children's perspective would not have worked. For young children, behavior modification techniques and simply stating what is right and wrong work well. These children choose their behaviors based on adults' rules and stated consequences. Older elementary school children, very aware of social obligations to their groups, benefit from explicit reminders about these expectations and from instruction to model their peers' behavior. Older youngsters, who recognize the benefits of society's laws, may respond to negotiated agreements, such as not talking out in class, or setting goals for grades and contracting for positive consequences (e.g., more free time) if they live up to their end of the agreement.
Parents are powerful influences on their children's moral reasoning and social development. Research has found that those children who are more competent socially with their peers are the ones who experience more attachment and emotional security in their homes, and less family dysfunction. Children learn from their parents through identification (wanting to be like them), modeling (imitating them), and direct training through parental teaching and discipline.
Identification and Modeling
Parents are high-status people in their children's lives, and children learn by simply observing what their parents do. If a father is always willing to lend a helping hand in the neighborhood, his son sees this model and, wanting to be like dad, is helpful to younger children. A daughter may be tempted to lie, but resists because she knows her parents would be disappointed in her if she did so. These processes of identification and modeling are fostered by parents' warmth and support, which in turn encourage prosocial traits in their children such as kindness, honesty, generosity, obedience to the rules, resistance to cheating and lying, and consideration of the rights and welfare of others.
Bandura's classic modeling studies showed that parents need to do more than model good behaviors. They must first of all begin with positive attitudes toward their children, and then draw the children's attention to the modeled behavior, help them remember through rehearsal, encourage them to practice the behavior, and give incentives for adopting the behavior. Most parents do this unconsciously and inconspicuously. But many children with LD don't pick up on these messages. Therefore, parents have to be far more intentional about these teachings. To complicate matters, their children often don't understand the emotions the model is expressing and have difficulty attending to, interpreting, and retaining the modeled behavior and verbal explanations. Consequently, parents may need to explain more, highlight important aspects, help the child verbally rehearse and role-play, and provide support when information-processing or motivational problems present obstacles.
Unfortunately, many children with LD come from homes where warm and supportive modeling of prosocial behaviors is in short supply. Their family systems can be more chaotic, disturbed, less structured, less emotionally stable, less cohesive, more rigid, and more disengaged than other families. Parents often react more negatively to their children with learning disabilities, are more harsh and remote, communicate lower expectations, and provide less affection and care giving. More affection is shown to the sibling who has higher verbal ability, perseveres in school tasks, and is less worrisome. Parents may view the successes of the child with LD less positively (caused by luck rather than ability) and the failures more negatively (caused by inability rather than bad luck) than do parents of nondisabled children. Parents frequently expect less of their children with LD than the children expect of themselves.
An additional difficulty for children with LD is that some parents may themselves be poor models. Many evaluate their own social skills as poorly as they do their children's. Because learning disorders often show a hereditary pattern, children and parents can share similar cognitive problems and inappropriate behavioral styles. Therefore, parents may need to evaluate and modify their own behavior before being able to be of maximum help to their children.
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