Understanding Social Adaptation in Children with Mental Retardation: A Social-Cognitive Perspective

By Leffert, James S.; Siperstein, Gary N. et al. | Exceptional Children, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview
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Understanding Social Adaptation in Children with Mental Retardation: A Social-Cognitive Perspective


Leffert, James S., Siperstein, Gary N., Millikan, Emily, Exceptional Children


When we consider the nature of successful social adaptation in the general education classroom, we begin to grasp why this remains an elusive goal for many children with mental retardation. To function successfully, the child with mental retardation must cope with a large and diverse group of peers, a wide variety of social settings, and the fast-changing nature of everyday social interaction. Even though familiar routines and rituals may exist to help guide social interaction, the child must continually adapt to new social situations, whether working together with peers on an academic task or trying to join an activity on the playground during recess.

Clearly, if children with mental retardation (MR) are to successfully meet the challenges of everyday social adaptation, they must do more than simply acquire and rehearse behavioral social skills. As the social skills training literature has consistently recognized, helping children to learn specific social behaviors, such as taking turns, sharing possessions, and asking for and offering help, is only part of the solution. According to this literature, social skills instruction confronts educators with the equally important challenge of facilitating the transfer of newly-acquired behaviors to real-life situations (Stokes & Baer, 1977), or, in Gresham's (1986) terminology, addressing children's "performance deficits" as well as their "skill deficits." We believe that in order to address the key question of why children with MR often have difficulty demonstrating the right social behavior at the appropriate time--and, consequently, what can be done to help these children to become more skillful in real life social situations--we need to move beyond an exclusively behavioral paradigm to adopt a social-cognitive perspective.

The social-cognitive perspective leads, us to shift our focus to a more process-oriented conception of social skills; specifically, away from an exclusive focus on discrete, observable behaviors and toward an examination of underlying social-cognitive processes which guide children's performance of socially adaptive behavior. The study of children's social cognition is not new (see Shantz, 1983, for an earlier review). Its history dates back to initial attempts in the 1950s and 60s to explore the implications for social development of Piaget's theories concerning children's development of internal schemas for understanding the nonsocial world (Feffer, 1959, Kohlberg, 1969), as well as investigate children's ideas for solving interpersonal problems (Goldfried & D'Zurilla, 1969; Spivack & Shure, 1974). In recent years, the emergence of new theoretical models of social-cognitive processing (e.g., the Social Information Processing model of Crick & Dodge, 1994) has stimulated renewed interest in the examination of social-cognitive processes and their role in children's social adaptation.

In our view, educators who are seeking to understand the nature of the difficulties in social functioning that children with MR experience can benefit from examining these children's social cognitive processes for two reasons. First, social-cognitive research illuminates specific linkages between the cognitive limitations of children with MR, which are a defining characteristic of their disability, and these children's problems in social adaptation. Second, the social-cognitive perspective, which has informed social skills training programs for other populations of children (e.g., Elias & Tobias, 1996; Kusche & Greenberg, 1994), may also contribute to the development of innovative social skills remediation strategies for children with MR.

This study investigated the social-cognitive processing skills of children with MR by focusing on two key processes, social perception and strategy generation, that have been found to be of special importance for meeting the social challenges of the classroom (Crick & Dodge, 1994; Wong, Day, Maxwell, & Meara, 1995).

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