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Promoting Social Competence: The Role of the Parent

Richard D. Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed.

Excerpted from The Experts Speak: Parenting The Child with Learning Disabilities.

All parents are forced—at one time or another—to observe their child facing pain, frustration or difficulty. This is always troubling for parents. If a child has chronic social deficits, related to his or her learning disability the parents observe firsthand the rejection and isolation that the child experiences. As a result, these parents often become overprotective and unwilling to risk placing the child in new or threatening social situations (e.g., joining scouts, little league, church groups, etc.)

Parents must be mindful of this tendency and should do all that is possible to avoid this behavior pattern which only serves to further isolate the isolated child. A parent should encourage a child to become more involved in such structured social settings. In order to prevent these situations from becoming problematic, it is important to remain mindful of the fact that the parent has the following two major responsibilities whenever the child is entering a new or unique social situation.

You Must Prepare the Child for the Situation
You Must Prepare the Situation for the Child


For example, suppose your son is interested in joining a local scout troop. Prepare the child for this experience by taking him to the meeting hall on the evening prior to the initial meeting. Acquaint him with the setting and explain the "off-limit" areas to him. Let him explore the room, find the bathrooms and examine the various aspects of the environment. In this way, he will be familiar with the setting when he attends the initial meeting the following night. This increases the chances of his behaving appropriately at the all-important first session.

It is equally important that the parent prepare the situation for the child. Call the adult group leader prior to the child's enrollment in the program. Clearly communicate your child's social needs and limitations. Inform the leader about any specific needs or concerns that the child may have. Parents are often reluctant to do this because they feel that it is meddling and will be resented by the group leader. In most cases, the opposite is true. The pro-active approach is generally appreciated by the leader who is able to modify and adjust his plans to accommodate the child's needs.

The parents' goals should be two-fold for the child who is rejected by peers and, as a result, spends a good deal of time alone. The first goal is to decrease that isolated time by assisting the child in establishing relationships with neighborhood children or classmates. Invite potential friends to your home for structured, monitored activities. Initially, the parent should serve as a proctor for these activities but this involvement should lessen on subsequent visits. Invite only one friend at a time. The child with learning disabilities is often overstimulated by the presence of small groups.

The second objective for the isolated child is to assist him in developing hobbies or interests that will enable him to spend his solitary time in productive and rewarding pursuits. Encourage the child's interest in music, arts and crafts, puzzles, gardening or collecting (baseball cards, coins, stamps). Although these individual pursuits are not replacements for social interactions, they are far preferable to the child spending hours in depressed, brooding solitude.

Parents can play a role in the fostering of social competence at a very young age. Toddlers and preschool children seldom become involved in genuine play. Rather, they spend hours in "parallel play" wherein two children play separately but within inches or feet of one another. This phenomenon can be readily observed at a beach or nursery school playroom. Dozens of children play independently without talking, sharing or acknowledging one another. They seldom speak to one another, although they may subvocalize a running dialogue about their own actions (e.g., "Now I am going to build a tower and put the green car on top of it").

Children with distractibility or attentional problems may have difficulty participating in parallel play. They often intrude on the "space" of their classmates or impulsively grab an attractive toy or plaything from another. When such a problem occurs, gently remove the child from the situation and engage him in a quiet game or activity. Require him to participate in group play for brief periods and gradually increase the length of the sessions.

It is important for parents to observe their child in a variety of social interactions in order to recognize and identify the social strengths and needs. This will give parents an opportunity to pinpoint the social problems that the child is experiencing and provide remedial assistance and guidance. Socially inept children are often unaware of the behaviors (impulsivity, hyperactivity, perseveration, distractibility) that cause their rejection by peers. By observing the child and providing post-activity autopsies, the troubling behaviors can be identified and eliminated.

Dr. Edna Copeland strongly recommends that a pet be provided for the child with social skill deficits. A pet provides the child with unquestioned loyalty and a nonjudgmental companion. The child also has an opportunity to learn valuable skills related to independence and responsibility. Often, this relationship marks the first time in the child's life where he is depended upon, rather than being dependent.

Although exceptions do exist, most children with learning disabilities respond very positively to physical contact with adults. By providing the child with regular, gentle and genuine physical contact, the child is often better able to control his restless and active nature. This approach is also effective for adolescents, despite their seeming distant and uninterested personae. Both the mother and father should participate in the rituals of gently waking the child or putting him to bed with a kiss and a few moments of quality conversation and interaction.

Learning to play with peers is a natural process for most children. However, children with social skill deficits often find this process to be a puzzling one filled with pitfalls and pain. These children need guidance and instruction in order to recognize the behaviors that peers find appealing and those that result in rejection. Even when the troubling behavior is identified and isolated, the child may be unable to control it due to his impulsive nature.

In order to improve the child's social skills, he must have a wide variety of play experiences inside and outside the family unit. Use board games and card games as a "laboratory" to demonstrate and remediate social competence subskills. By mastering the rules of these games, the child is also better able to participate in similar activities with peers at school. The child should be taught to be equally gracious in victory and defeat.

Parents can also assist older children in "recruiting" a companion. Plan an attractive activity and have your child invite a companion to participate. Avoid selecting an activity that is totally passive and will allow the two children to ignore one another (e.g., baseball game, movie, etc.). Again, the parent should initially plan to monitor the situation carefully and assist in maintaining the flow of conversation.

In order to select a potential companion for your child, you may want to contact the teacher for advice and counsel. Perhaps the child has established a relationship with a classmate of which you are unaware. Students with social deficits may have established a negative "reputation" among age-appropriate peers in the neighborhood or town in which he resides. These reputations, once firmly established, are exceedingly difficult to change. The parent may want to consider the drastic step of enrolling the child in an activity group (e.g., scouts) in a neighboring town. This strategy presents transportation difficulties, but allows the student to enjoy a "fresh start" with a group of peers with no preconceived notions about him or his behavior.

This recommendation of "arranged friendships" may seem like a throwback to the days of "arranged marriages," but they provide the child with the assistance that he requires in order to initiate a peer relationship. The parent may wish to explore the possibility of formalizing this process by establishing a social group of students with special needs where the group participates in structured and monitored activities. This will also provide the child with a new "pool" of potential friends. Also explore volunteer work, church groups and other community-based activities for possible participation by the child.

In order to be an effective advocate for the child, the parent must establish an open and candid line of communication with the child. The child must view the parent as a trustworthy and nonjudgmental source of advice, counsel and wisdom. Parents must be aware of the appropriate time and manner when attempting to discuss sensitive issues with the child. Often the parent will attempt to initiate a conversation with the child immediately upon his arrival home from school. The child who would prefer to involve himself in a recreational activity rather than in a parental discussion generally responds to the questions in monosyllables. Try talking to the child at bedtime. You will often find that he is far more eager to involve himself in a lengthy conversation with you because the competing activity (going to bed) is far less appealing.

When having a discussion or conversation with a child with learning disabilities, be mindful of the difficulty that these children have when attempting to process and comprehend spoken language. For example, if you ask an adult an open-ended question (e.g., "What did you think of the recent election?"), you receive a lengthy, detailed response (e.g., "Well, there were several issues that, I feel, the electorate totally ignored. For example, the issue of ..."). Conversely, if you ask a specific question (e.g., "Who did you vote for?"), you receive a short, specific response (e.g., "The Democrat").

The opposite is true for the child with a language disorder. If you ask an open-ended question, you receive a brief answer (e.g., "How was school?"; "Good."). However, if you ask a specific question, you receive a detailed, lengthy response (e.g., "How was Science class today?"; "It was neat! Mr. Grinsell brought in this cool frog and he showed us how ..."). By asking specific questions, you provide the child with the structure he needs in order to develop a detailed response. It is also helpful to ask leading questions in order to keep the flow of the conversation going (e.g., "What happened first? Next?", etc.)

In summary, parents must understand the critical role that they play in the development of social competence. Betty Osman, noted expert in learning disabilities, offers the following suggestions for parents who find that their child is rejected or isolated by peers:

  • Encourage good self-care. Use unobtrusive reminders to make the child aware of hygiene and self-care issues. Lack of attention to hygiene and self-care often causes social isolation and rejection.

  • Encourage peer conformity. It is important that the child conform to the generally-accepted "regulations" of their peer group regarding clothing, hairstyles, etc. The learning disabled child will often be unaware of these common factors among their peers so that parents must make an effort to monitor these trends to ensure that the child is not constantly "out of synch" with peers.

  • Devise a series of nonobtrusive cues. Assist the child by discussing with him the various offensive or off-putting behaviors that he is manifesting (e.g., speaking too loudly; interrupting; perseverating on a given topic, etc.). Then design a simple signal (e.g., touching your nose, blinking your eyes rapidly) to communicate to him when he is manifesting this behavior in a group situation.

  • Teach delayed gratification. Children with learning disorders often are impulsive and often feel that they need immediate gratification of their needs. Teach the child that they must learn to wait for gratification at times. Do not encourage this tendency of immediate gratification by consistently responding without delay to the child's needs or requests.

  • Provide the child with sexuality education. Even though your child's lack of social competence is often a source of embarrassment for the family, the child continually commits social errors that are viewed by onlookers as rude and inappropriate. Although parents empathize with the rejection that the child suffers, the inept social behavior often causes the parent discomfort in the presence of family and friends. At those time, remain mindful of the wise adage: "Children need love most when they deserve it least!"

Richard D. Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed. is an internationally known expert in the field of learning disabilities.

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