Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Social Relationships among Adolescents with Disabilities: Unique and Cumulative Associations with Adjustment

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Social Relationships among Adolescents with Disabilities: Unique and Cumulative Associations with Adjustment

Article excerpt

Interpersonal relationships with social agents in one's microsystem have a significant and direct influence on developmental outcomes (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). Parents, peers, teachers, and mentors form core pillars of an adolescent's microsystem by virtue of their accessibility, responsiveness, frequency of contact, and direct influences. Across the life span, one's relationships with these individuals influence a range of developmental, psychological, and achievement outcomes (Lerner, Phelps, Forman, & Bowers, 2009; Montague, Cavendish, Enders, & Dietz, 2010; Sabol & Pianta, 2012), including self-esteem, depression, social anxiety (De Wit, Karioja, Rye, & Shain, 2011), school attendance (De Wit, Karioja, & Rye, 2010), school connectedness (Whitlock, 2006), and school engagement (Wang & Eccles, 2012).

Although supportive relationships are important for students of all ages, further understanding about the importance of relationships among adolescents is vital because evidence indicates that students receive diminishing levels of social support as they progress through adolescence (Barber & Olsen, 2004; De Wit et al., 2010; De Wit et al., 2011; Wang & Eccles, 2012). Deteriorations in relationship quality from early to late adolescence are associated with increasing social isolation and depressive symptoms, decreasing self-esteem, and declining scholastic competence (Cantin & Boivin, 2004).

Youth With Disabilities

Despite evidence that strong social relationships positively influence adolescent adjustment, few studies have examined how these relationships affect youth with disabilities, and even fewer have investigated multiple relationships concurrently. Youth with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to social isolation during adolescence (Al-Yagon, 2007, 2012a, 2013). The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 revealed that social skills are a highly problematic area for students with disabilities, with over 80% reporting low to moderate social skills and just one in six reporting high social skills (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza, & Levine, 2005). Moreover, between 1987 and 2003, approximately 28% of students with disabilities and 44% with emotional disturbance dropped out or were expelled from high school, and two reasons cited for dropout were dislike of school (36%) and poor relationships with teachers and peers (17%; Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Levine, & Garza, 2006). Although youth with disabilities often experience greater difficulties in school than do normative peers, these findings highlight the importance of social relationships and the potential negative consequences associated with negative social relationships in school settings.

Social relationships of adolescents with disabilities may be distinctive in their complexities. Panacek and Dunlap (2003) found that social networks of students with and without disabilities have similar size (number of people) and composition (type of member) at homes and in neighborhoods but not in schools. This distinctive pattern in school could be due to placement in special education, social skill deficits, and the stigma associated with labeling. Students with disabilities also experienced comorbid academic and socioemotional difficulties that have been associated with higher levels of negative affect, externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors, and poorer perception of adult support (Al-Yagon, 2012b, 2013; Pijl, Frostad, & Flem, 2008).

Multiple Relationships

Adolescents must form multiple relationships to meet the multiplicity of their needs across time and context, and these relationships may differ in importance and stability. An exclusive focus on any one dyad potentially "minimizes the complexity of teen's ongoing negotiation of multiple relationships" (Kobak, Rosenthal, Zajac, & Madsen, 2007, p. 64). Prior examination of multiple relationships among students without disabilities contributes to understanding this complexity. …

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