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Developing Social Skills and Relationships

By Betty Osman, Ph.D

Learning to successfully interact with others is one of the most important aspects of a child’s development, with far-reaching implications. Although most children acquire social skills by example, and possibly osmosis, research clearly suggests children with learning disabilities (LD) may have difficulty making and keeping friends. Adolescents with LD have also been shown to interact less with their peers and to spend more leisure time alone, addicted to TV, computer games, and the Internet. Certainly not all young people with learning disabilities experience social problems. Typically, the good athlete, class comedian, resident artist, or owner of the most magic cards, is likely to be accepted regardless of his learning issues. Then, too, some children, with or without LD, seem born to make life easy for parents — and for themselves as well. They appear to develop social awareness early in life and, as they grow, display innately good “people skills” — a sense of humor, a positive attitude toward life, and empathy for others, qualities guaranteed to win friends.
But for many children and adolescents with LD, the lack of peer acceptance can become the most painful of their problems. Computers and calculators can help children with writing and arithmetic, but there is no similar technology to help them handle a lonely recess at school, a family outing, or a date. These require social competence.
“Social competence” in this context refers to those skills necessary for effective interpersonal functioning. They include both verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are socially valued and are likely to elicit a positive response from others.
Young people with social disabilities frequently are less able than others their age to figure out how to behave in social situations and less aware of how others respond to them. Therefore, they act without knowledge or regard for social consequences. Most, though, tend to be unaware of their role, perceiving themselves as the victims of others’ mistreatment. Therefore, they take little responsibility for their actions, blaming others or simply “bad luck” for events in their lives. What they do feel, though, is an overdose of criticism from peers and adults alike.
To help young people with social problems, it is important to understand on what level they are having trouble and how their social disabilities relate to their learning disabilities. The immaturity of many children with LD transcends academic areas, affecting their social adjustment as well. Communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, also have social implications. Children who don’t “read” body language and facial expressions well are likely to miss important signals in life that are apparent to others.
To help children and adolescents develop social skills and promote social acceptance, parents might consider these techniques:
 Listen to children with the “third ear,” i.e., active listening, not only to the words they say, but the feelings they are expressing.
 Initiate and practice pro-social skills at home, including:
o How to initiate, maintain, and end a conversation
o The art of negotiation — how to get what you want appropriately
o How to be appropriately assertive without being overly aggressive
o How to give and receive compliments
o How to respond to teasing by peers
o Practice how to accept constructive criticism
Although not all children and adolescents with learning disabilities have social difficulties, those who do require special understanding, not only in terms of their current functioning, but for the people they are capable of becoming. Although each young person is unique, all have the same needs — acceptance, approval, and a sense of belonging.
Betty Osman, Ph.D., is on the staff of the White Plains Hospital Center, Department of Behavioral Health, Child and Adolescent Service. She has authored several books, journal articles, and videos.

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