Often, children with learning disabilities (LD) have difficulty processing language. They may understand the meaning of spoken words, yet miss the intent of the interaction. To make communications easier to understand, they often put information in discrete categories, like good or bad. This, for example, occurs with friendly teasing and joking. By creating discrete categories, children with LD often misinterpret friendly teasing as bad; they miss the innocent fun, the innocent aim of such remarks.
Why are such miscommunications so prevalent in children with LD? Because they don’t understand how verbal and non-verbal communications work together. Not surprisingly, this creates social problems.
All interpersonal interactions involve words and non-verbal cues. Both convey messages.
Surprising to many teachers and parents is the dominant importance of body language, voice tone, and other non-verbal cues. For example, classic communication studies of feelings and attitudes by Albert Mehrabian (2007), Professor Emeritus at UCLA, reports that in face-to-face interactions only 7% of the intended message comes from the words whereas 55% is communicated through body language and 38% through tone of voice. This can create many problems for children with LD as the non-verbal components of communication often have different, contrary meanings. For example, squirming in a seat may be interpreted as boredom, impatience, fear, anxiety, or excitement. If children with LD regularly misinterpret such non-verbal information, they may find themselves rejected by their peers and admonished by adults.
Children with LD often interpret the words of conversations literally. This can create untold problems. If, for example, Sawyer’s classmate sarcastically says, “That’s great,” and Sawyer, a mythical child with LD, misses the sarcasm and interprets it as “Wow, it’s great. Let’s do it again,” problems may follow.
To rectify the situation, children with such problems need to be taught how to interpret messages in which words and non-verbal cues contradict one another. They need to be taught this rule of thumb: If a person’s words and non-verbal cues are in conflict, focus on the non-verbal cues. The reason: It’s easier for people to say what’s expected than to say what they feel. If their words contradict their feelings, their non-verbal cues—often involuntarily—offer insight into their feelings.
Understanding Non-Verbal Communication
To strengthen the non-verbal communication skills of children with LD, they need to be taught specific skills. To determine if the speaker’s verbal and non-verbal messages are consistent, they should be taught to attend to the speaker’s.
Tone of voice. Does it match the meaning of the words?
Comfort level. Does he make eye contact or look away? Is he fidgeting?
Facial expression. Does the emotion on his face match his words?
Body posture and gestures. Does he move or lean away?
If the speaker’s verbal and the non-verbal messages are inconsistent, a child with LD will need to learn plausible interpretations to avoid confrontation. To avoid confrontation, speakers will frequently use indirect expressions, such as “we’ll see” or “I’ll call you.” These expressions can confuse children who consider only the words, but miss their insincerity.
Children with LD must also be taught that just about anyone, including good friends and family members, might answer truthfully, or might try to hide their real feelings. Thus, children with LD must be taught to always consider both words and non-verbal cues.
Conflict Resolution Skills
Because language processing difficulties may cause some children with LD to misinterpret others, which in turn may cause unnecessary conflict, they may benefit from social skills classes that teach conflict resolution techniques. Such classes might teach them how to:
comply with social conventions, such as taking turns in conversations.
attend to non-verbal messages.
take teasing with humor.
attribute good intentions to others.
distinguish between actions, words, and intentions
Again, let’s look at Sawyer. He’s sensitive to criticism. He has trouble distinguishing between his classmates’ actions and intentions. During lunch, recess, and gym, his classmates say all sorts things they think are funny and good humored, but sound hurtful. Mistakenly thinking they’re ridiculing him, he gets angry at them and gets into lots of fights. In class, he feels lonely and dejected; he’s defensive and hyper-vigilant. Children like Sawyer, who focus only on words, who ignore non-verbal cues, may benefit greatly from programs that teach them how to accurately interpret both verbal and non-verbal messages.
Giler, J. Helping kids with learning disabilities understand the language of friendship. A parent’s guide to helping kids with learning difficulties. Retrieved from http:/www.schwablearning.org.
Mehrabian, A. (2007). Nonverbal communication. New Brunswick, N.J.: Aldine Transaction.
Stanberry, K. Learning difficulties and social skills: What’s the connection? A parent’s guide to helping kids with learning difficulties. Retrieved from http:/www.schwablearning.org
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.