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V.1 #2 Social Development - Why Do my Learning Disabilities Impact on my Social Relationships?

To develop socially, people need to form successful relationships outside their family circles. Many of us take such social relationships for granted. For children with Learning Disabilities (LD), however, such everyday social encounters can cause great anxiety.

But why do everyday interactions cause anxiety for children with LD? What do parents and teachers need to understand and do to foster successful social interactions?

By understanding the difficulties that transitions and social cues can cause children with LD, we can better understand the sources of their anxiety. By teaching children with LD how to handle transitions and identify social cues, we can greatly improve their social relationships.


Throughout the day, we experience hundreds of transitions. For example, in the morning we move from sleeping to waking. Upon waking, we rely on a series of learned behaviors to begin the day. Perhaps we follow this routine: shut the alarm clock, make coffee, shower, dress, and then eat breakfast. Having a predictable routine reduces anxiety. Even when circumstances change, such as sleeping at a friend's house, we apply our morning routine to the new setting. We generalize our routine.

Unfortunately, many children with LD cannot generalize. They cannot transfer their knowledge of a known situation, what they routinely do at home, to a new situation, sleeping at a friend's house. Here the wallpaper is white, not blue; the bed is narrow, not wide; the television is small, not big; and so on. For many children with LD the day is experienced as a series of novel events, which creates anxiety. Transitions like this one, moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, can cause considerable anxiety for many children with LD, limiting their ability to interact positively.

To counter such anxiety, Richard LaVoie (2005), an educator who specializes in learning disabilities, suggests that adults employ a two-step strategy; "prepare the child for the situation and prepare the situation for the child" (p. 298). To prepare the child, she should be introduced to the new environment and the people in it; only then should she be asked to do something specific in the situation (e.g., play a board game). To prepare the situation for her, the people in the environment should be apprised about how to work with, support, and reinforce her. This should occur before she arrives. This two pronged strategy is proactive and generalizable. Adults can use it to prevent problems and to make teaching more effective in environments new to children with LD.

Social Cues

Although it would be nice to think we can prepare children for every unknown circumstance in life, it's impossible. Instead, life requires that we constantly observe what's happening and how others react.

As we approach a new situation, it's natural to stand back and watch how others handle it. By observing, we learn. Although most people employ observational learning intuitively, children with LD often miss the cues inherent in a situation. Their inability to correctly read and understand the nonverbal behavior of others can result in inappropriate behavior.

Consider what happens if children with LD can't accurately interpret the feelings of others, doesn't know when they're annoying or upsetting others, or are unaware of how their behavior affects others. This lack of perspective taking creates untold difficulties; other people may get angry at them, avoid them, and speak harshly about them.

Perspective taking is a skill that children develop; however, many children with LD can't see themselves through other people's eyes or walk a mile in their shoes. Therefore, children with LD who have perspective-taking difficulties endlessly repeat their errors.

Again, Richard LaVoie's (2005) ideas can help. He suggests that adults teach children with LD what to do when something unexpected occurs. Upon entering a new social situation, he suggests scanning the environment for cues to "recognize, reflect and react." He contends that it's imperative for adults to teach children to consider the "people, place, and purposes" so they can choose their words and behavior to fit each social situation (p. 300). Of course, this is not a one-shot deal; parents, teachers, and children should continually rehearse this process.

Two Cautions

As you can see from the cautions below, helping children develop the social understandings and skills they need should not be random, haphazard, or informal.

The first caution: Although much can be done to help children with LD improve their social understandings and skills, parents and teachers need to recognize that it is an ongoing process embedded in the many daily activities of the child's life.

The second caution: If a child needs help in this area, don't ignore the problem. Instead, if the child receives special education services, consider making a strong program of social development part of the IEP. It's important that children develop these understandings and skills.


LaVoie, R. (2005). It's so much work to be your friend. Helping the child with learning disabilities find social success. New York: Touchstone Publications.

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on friendship, risk taking behavior, and students with disabilities. Currently she is finishing a co-authored book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk.

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