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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Social/Emotional Side of Learning Disabilities

From NCLD.org - The National Center for Learning Disabilities

By Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D.
November 26, 2012

Thinking back on this past calendar year and the scores of studies and texts that I've read covering dozens of important topics, I am reminded of how frequently I found myself nodding my head in agreement with Dr. Samuel Kirk's observation of more than 30 years ago that children with LD, in addition to struggles with academic learning, have trouble with "skills needed for social interaction."

What are some of the social and emotional variables that pose as barriers to success for students with LD? Read on.
 What are the "Social and Emotional" Aspects of Learning Disabilities?
Let's take an imaginary walk down the hall with Joseph, a sixth grader, as he makes his way from his first period math class to his second period English class. He's already a few minutes late because he needed extra time to copy the homework assignment from the board. Rushing to his locker (on the far end of the hall) where he will hopefully find the text books he needs for the remainder of his morning classes, he is aware of the chatter and bustling of other students moving about but has not noticed the pervasive agitated mood of the students in the hallway.

Apparently Joseph missed the announcement that the cafeteria was closed for repairs and that students would have to eat in their classrooms. Not picking up on any of the all-too-obvious facial expressions and body language, Joseph turns to a group of classmates and asks, "Want to play cards in the cafeteria during lunch?"
  • How do you think these students reacted to Joseph's question?
  • What was Joseph feeling as this incident unfolded?
  • What are the immediate and long-term consequences of Joseph's having a very different and sometimes ineffective social and emotional barometer?

While it is true that some social skills are more easily taught than others, and that over time, established patterns and routines can compensate for difficulties in social and emotional learning and behavior, these types of problems don't just go away. They can have a profound impact upon students (e.g. stress, feeling of self-worth) and are linked to all sorts of everyday activities.

Social and emotional skills are critical to activities such as personal interactions ("meeting and greeting") and talking on the phone or via the Internet, and are directly associated with problem-solving, decision-making, self-management and initiating and maintaining positive social relationships with peers and others.

Some Definitions

It might be helpful to clarify what we mean by the words "social" and "emotional." Social — this word might be best understood in two different ways:
  • Social skills are the specific reactions, responses, techniques and strategies that a student uses in social situations.
  • Social competence is the term used to describe how well (or poorly) a student performs in social situations.

It is the combination of these two things that helps to describe a student's social well-being.

Emotional: While this word is most readily associated with "feelings," it is really much more than that. Emotional well-being is associated with what has been called "emotional intelligence," which includes:
  • Knowing one's emotions (how do I feel about this?)
  • Managing one's emotions (given how I feel, how should I react?)
  • Motivating one's self (regardless of how I feel, I need to...)
  • Recognizing others' emotions (I know how you are feeling)
  • Making effective use of social skills (the best thing for me to do now is...)

While the building blocks of emotional intelligence are important for all students, they are particularly important for students with LD who may also struggle because of something I will refer to as "goodness of fit."

Explained wonderfully in a book by Barbara Keogh, titled Temperament in the Classroom: Understanding Individual Differences, this perspective suggests that social-emotional and learning problems are linked to "temperament" (or style of behavior) and that temperament, rather than a disability of any sort, might account for how a student behaves in a particular situation. Let's think for a moment about how students do things rather than what they do or why they do them, and pay attention to such things as:
  • Adaptability
  • Reactivity
  • Task orientation persistence
  • Flexibility
What is the connection to LD? What happens when a child's temperament doesn't conform to the expectations of teachers or parents? Could a child's temperament be a "risk factor" for school achievement in the same way that LD poses barriers to learning? You bet it can!

Some Important Points About the Social-Emotional Side of Learning Disabilities

There are many students with LD for whom social skills are an area of strength and who are able to negotiate emotional challenges without needing support. Don't assume that every student with LD experiences struggle in this area.
When compared with non-learning disabled peers, studies have shown that students with LD may be prone to being more poorly accepted by their peers, at greater risk for social alienation from teachers and classmates, less frequently selected to play or join in group activities, and more willing to conform to peer pressure (in adolescence, this is especially troublesome because of the general predisposition to engage in antisocial behaviors). All of these factors clearly have a direct impact on social-emotional well-being.
Information processing and executive functioning difficulties can make it seem like students with LD are not "fitting in" and can contribute to strain and frustration in the classroom and even at home and other settings.
Students with LD often (and appropriately) demand additional time and attention from teachers and others. When these students then ask inappropriate questions, ask the same question that was just answered, respond impulsively rather than waiting their turn, or misread a social cue that results in a disruption (all of which they are prone to do), the outcome can be upsetting for everyone involved.
What Can You Do?

The following is a short list of ways to promote the social and emotional well-being of students with LD. Recognize the child's specific areas of strength (competence) and need, and look for (or create) teachable moments to model and reinforce positive skills. Teach social skills the same way you would academic skills: proceed in small steps, demonstrate and give multiple examples, offer practice and feedback (reinforcement and praise), and systematically find opportunities to generalize (apply) newly learned skills and behaviors to different settings. Some critical skills to address include:
  • Awareness of non-verbal cues (e.g., gestures, body language)
  • Social conversation (e.g., initiating greetings, turn-taking, asking for clarification)
  • Being funny vs. acting funny (e.g., knowing when to tell a joke and when doing so can be intrusive or offensive, knowing when to clown around and when to stop)
  • Confidentiality and getting personal (e.g., what types of things to share, how to get someone's attention)
  • Giving and accepting positive feedback (e.g., accepting praise without going overboard, offering criticism without being hurtful)
  • Identifying feelings (yours and others')
  • Anticipating problems and problem solving (e.g., before, during and after moments of stress)
  • Find ways to build the student's self-concept, and help them to achieve and sustain a level of appreciation and positive status among their peers. For many students, this is often most easily accomplished by focusing on non-academic activities (e.g., art, music, athletics), but may not hold true for students who have very particular areas of weakness (I am reminded of a phrase used by NCLD's former Professional Advisory Board member Dr. Sally Shaywitz, who refers to LD as "an island of weakness in a sea of strengths").
  • Try to minimize competition and focus instead on cooperative learning. Whether in the home, at a job, or in the classroom, students are quick to compare their work with the performances of others. Rather than asking students to work independently, try to create opportunities for shared learning and joint activities. This is not only a wonderful way to build social and emotional connections, but an approach that has considerable merit in professional literature as a way to enhance student learning.
Some Helpful Resources and Readings

Teaching Social Skills to Kids Who Don't Yet Have Them
This article from the LDOnline Web site by Dr. Thomas McIntyre is about social skill difficulties experienced by students with learning and attention problems.
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. Read this article by Dr. Betty Osman, Honorary Chairman of NCLD's Professional Advisory Board, in which she discusses the nature of these social disabilities among children with LD, and what, if anything, parents can do to help their children and adolescents "fit in."
While this article by Dr. Adam Cox focuses primarily on non-verbal learning disabilities, it provides a helpful overview of the types of social and emotional challenges that are common to all students with LD.
Visit the Learning Store at LDOnline to learn more about this informative and effective video/DVD by Rick Lavoie.
"The Social-Emotional Side of Learning Disabilities: A Science-Based Presentation of the State of the Art." Learning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1
Johns, B.J., Crowley, E.P. & Guetzole, E. (2005). "The Central Role of Teaching Social Skills." Focus on Exceptional Children, 37,8. Denver, CO. Love Publishing Company.
Keogh, B.K. (2003). Temperament in the Classroom: Understanding Individual Differences. Baltimore, MD. Paul Brookes Publishing Co.

About Dr. Sheldon H. Horowitz

Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D., is the director of LD resources and essential information at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Prior to his arrival at NCLD in 1996, he served as the associate director of the Learning Diagnostic Center at Schneider Children's Hospital, Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LIJMC) in New Hyde Park, NY. He also held the position of assistant unit chief, educational supervisor, and grand rounds chairperson of the Center for Mental Health, Department of Psychiatry at Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY.

Dr. Horowitz has taught at the primary, secondary and college levels, and worked as a consultant to school districts throughout the New York City metropolitan region. His interests include: neurobiology of learning, educational assessment, fetal alcohol effects in children, language-based learning disabilities, disorders of hyperactivity and attention, and learning disabilities in adolescents.

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