Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Unanticipated Effects of Children with Learning Disabilities on Their Families

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Unanticipated Effects of Children with Learning Disabilities on Their Families

Article excerpt

Abstract. This study examined the unanticipated effects that children with learning disabilities have on the life of their families. Eleven parents of students aged 8 to 16 years old participated in two separate focus group interviews. Findings showed that children with learning disabilities had a range of effects on their families. These included family stress, parenting discrepancies, negative reactions from extended family members, difficulty in interacting with the school, and mixed effects upon siblings. Patterns of family coping also emerged. Recommendations for supporting families and students with learning disabilities are suggested.


The ecological model of human development proposes a set of ecological subsystems that envelop the child and influence him or her in a reciprocal manner (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). At the core of these subsystems is the family: "Home and family play a key role in children's development and learning" (Beveridge, 2005, p. 32). However, according to the ecological model, as much as the family affects a child's development, the child also influences the life of his or her family. Thus, a child who has a disability has a special effect on his/her family (Seligman & Darling, 2007).

The Effects on the Family of a Child with More Visible Disabilities

A body of research has examined family adaptation to a child with visible disabilities (such as intellectual, sensory, physical, and other developmental disabilities). Specifically, families of children with more visible disabilities reported more child-related stress than families of nondisabled children (Crnic, Friedrich, & Greenberg, 1983; Dyson, 1993a). Moreover, while one study reported no difference between mothers and fathers in level of stress (Dyson, 1997), a recent study found that mothers were at an increased risk for stress and poor health (McConkey, Truesdale-Kennedy, Chang, Jarrah, & Shukri, 2008) as a result of having a child with a disability.

However, findings are discrepant. For example, Dyson (1993a, 1997) found that, despite higher degrees of stress, families of children with developmental disabilities experienced the same level of family cohesion, maintenance of the family system, and emphasis on personal growth as families of nondisabled children. Similarly, Seltzer et al. (2009) reported that although parents of adolescents and adults with disabilities did not differ from parents of nondisabled individuals in daily events and well-being, they experienced more stress and exhibited negative affect and physical symptoms.

Thus, the research on children with more visible developmental disabilities has yielded conflicting results in terms of their effects on their families. The question is whether similar effects would be found for less visible disabilities such as learning disability.

The present study examined the life of families who had a child with learning disabilities. Hereafter, the term learning disability is used interchangeably with LD. Likewise, a child or children with learning disabilities will be referred to as a child with LD or children with LD, respectively, while the term more visible disabilities will be used to refer to a collection of intellectual disability, sensory and physical impairment, pervasive developmental disability (autism), and developmental delay, all of which are more readily visible than learning disability.

The Effects of a Child with Learning Disability on the Family

"Learning disability" applies to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1997, p. 29)

To these features, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997) added the following key characteristics: (a) learning disability is not primarily due to mental retardation and (b) a severe discrepancy exists between the child's apparent potential for learning and his or her low level of achievement. …

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