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Social-Emotional Problems

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The literature suggests that to be socially accepted, students should be cooperative, share, offer pleasant greetings, have positive interactions with peers, ask for and give information, and make conversation (Gresham, 1982). Some children with LD have a real strength in the area of social skills. However, several characteristics of learning disabilities, such as those noted concerning language, can create difficulties in social and emotional life (Smith et al., 2004).

Although not all children with LD have social–emotional problems, they do run a greater risk than their nondisabled peers of having these types of problems. In the early years they are often rejected by their peers and have poor self-concepts (Sridhar & Vaughn, 2001). As adults, the scars from years of rejection can be painful and not easily forgotten (McGrady, Lerner, & Boscardin, 2001). A possible reason for these social–emotional problems is that students with LD often have deficits in social cognition. They may have the following characteristics.

  • Misread social cues
  • Misinterpret the feelings of others
  • Not know when they are bothering others
  • Be unaware of the effect of their behavior on someone else
  • Be unable to take the perspective of others or put themselves in someone else's shoes

Research has consistently found a higher-than-normal rate of behavioral problems in the classroom among students with learning disabilities (Cullinan, 2002). In a study of 790 students enrolled in K–12 LD programs in Indiana, the percentage of students with behavioral problems (19%) remained consistent across grade levels. However, it should be noted that the relationships between students' behavioral problems and academic difficulties are not known. In other words, we do not know whether the academic deficits or the behavioral problems cause the other difficulty. Furthermore, many children with LD exhibit no behavioral problems at all (Heward, 2003). Research further suggests that social interaction problems for students with LD seem to be more evident in those who have problems in math, visual-spatial tasks, tactual tasks, self-regulation, and organization (Worling, Humphries, & Tannock, 1999).

After reviewing 152 different studies, Kavale and Forness (1996) concluded that 75% of students with LD exhibit deficits in social skills. Studies of teacher ratings also suggested that students with learning disabilities have lower social status than other students. Social skills deficits include the following.

  • Acceptance by peers
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Being seen by peers as overly dependent
  • Being less likely to become leaders
  • Resolving conflict
  • Managing frustrations
  • Initiating or joining a conversation or play activities
  • Listening
  • Demonstrating empathy
  • Maintaining a friendship
  • Working in groups

Some students with LD, however, experience no problems getting along with peers and teachers. For example, Sabornie and Kauffman (1986) reported no significant difference in sociometric standing of 46 high school students with LD and 46 peers without disabilities. Moreover, they discovered that some of the students with LD enjoyed socially rewarding experiences in inclusive classrooms. One interpretation of these contradictory findings is that social competence and peer acceptance are not characteristics of LD but are outcomes of the different social climates created by teachers, peers, parents, and others with whom students with LD interact (Vaughn, McIntosh, Schumm, Haager, & Callwood, 1993; cited in Heward, 2003).

In some cases, the social dimensions of life pose greater problems for students with LD than their specific academic deficits, and yet this dimension is essentially ignored in the definitions and labels that relate to learning disabilities. Many professionals would not support broadening the definition of learning disabilities to incorporate social and emotional dimensions, although it is clear that these are substantial (Hutchinson, Freeman, & Bell, 2002; cited in Hardman et al., 2005).

Years of failure can create other concerns. Wright-Strawderman and Watson (1992) found that 36% of a sample of students with learning disabilities indicated depression. Other researchers have reported psychological problems including feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, frustration, and anger (Bender, 2002).

Many students with LD are inept at understanding and interpreting social cues and social situations, which can easily lead to strained interpersonal relationships. Bryan (1977) suggests that the social–emotional difficulties of persons with learning disabilities may be the result of social imperceptiveness—a lack of skill in detecting subtle affective cues.

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