Do Peer Relationships Foster Behavioral Adjustment in Children with Learning Disabilities?

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article reviews the literature on peer relations and social skills of children with learning disabilities (LD). Two risk models are discussed. The single-risk model suggests that for some children with LD, social skills deficits are inherent in the disability. These deficits lead to problems with social relationships, which foster internalizing behavior problems. The multiple-risk model suggests that internalizing and externalizing behavior problems typically result when more than one risk factor is present. These additional risks might include comorbid attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, poverty, English as a second language, inadequate educational accommodations, and ineffective parenting. However, the risk of behavior problems is reduced if children with LD are able to establish healthy social relationships.

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This article will demonstrate how the peer relationships of children with learning disabilities (LD) are pivotal to their behavioral adjustment. To do so, the literature pertaining to differences between children with and without LD will be reviewed in terms of their peer status, friendships, experiences of peer victimization, and loneliness. The discussion will then turn to how these group differences might be associated with deficits in social skills and social problem solving. Two models that might explain why children with LD are at risk for behavioral adjustment problems will also be presented. The article will conclude by examining how positive relationships might enhance the adjustment of children with LD and discussing implications for practitioners. In addition to citing relevant empirical studies, these issues will be illustrated using quotes gathered from children with LD, their parents, and teachers in two previously published studies (Shea & Wiener, in press; Wiener & Sunohara, 1998).

PEER RELATIONSHIPS

Researchers who study peer relationships in children typically investigate four aspects of those relationships: peer status, friendship, peer victimization, and loneliness. Although these areas are interrelated, it is important to differentiate them because they are associated with behavioral adjustment in different ways.

Peer Status

   This girl right beside him moved her chair as far away
   from him as she could and she kept moving it over and
   trying to sit like this, so she was totally, with her body
   language and everything, removing herself away from
   him. I see the looks that they shoot him--like, you're
   weird ... (Shea & Wiener, in press)

Peer status is defined as the extent to which children are liked or disliked by groups of peers they encounter regularly, such as classmates (Schneider, Wiener, & Murphy, 1994). Children may be evaluated in terms of the degree to which they are liked (acceptance/popularity) or disliked by most children (rejection). When nomination sociometrics are used (i.e., when children are asked to nominate a designated number of children they like or dislike), some children receive very few nominations in either category and are termed neglected (Coie, Dodge, & Coppotelli, 1982). Investigating peer status in children with LD is important because children who are rejected by peers are at risk for a variety of disorders in childhood and adulthood (Bagwell, Newcomb, & Bukowski, 1998).

One of the most consistent findings in the literature on children and adolescents with LD is that they are less likely to be socially accepted and more likely to be socially neglected and rejected by peers than typically functioning children (see Kavale & Forness, 1995; Swanson & Malone, 1992; Wiener, 1987, for reviews of this literature). Bryan (1976) found that children with LD maintained their low peer acceptance over a period of two years even though teachers and classmates had changed.

The peer status of children with LD declines over the course of a school year; that is, many children with LD who have average social status at the beginning of the school year are seen as neglected or rejected by the end of the school year (Kuhne & Wiener, 2000; Vaughan, Elbaum, & Schumm, 1996). …