Understanding Children's Hearts and Minds: Emotional Functioning and Learning Disabilities

By Gorman, Jean Cheng | Teaching Exceptional Children, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

Understanding Children's Hearts and Minds: Emotional Functioning and Learning Disabilities


Gorman, Jean Cheng, Teaching Exceptional Children


Bobby says school is boring.

Carlita is a loner. Josef acts out all day. Alex is just lazy. Naomi won't do her homework.

Li is careless.

We often label students according to their behavior-without knowing the essential cause for behavior such as "laziness," "carelessness," or "acting out." Identifying the cause can be quite complex. This article explores the connections between learning disabilities and emotional problems.

Emotional Aspects of Learning Disabilities

Abrams (1986) stated, "The vast majority of children with learning disabilities have some emotional problem associated with the learning difficulty" (p. 190). Traditionally, however, educators have placed priority on the diagnosis and remediation of learning disabilities (Hiebert, Wong, & Hunter, 1982). Empirical data suggest the critical need to treat emotional aspects of learning disabilities.

Here are startling findings: Learning disabilities have been found to occur in approximately 4.7% of children and adolescents (Fristad, Topolosky, Weller, & Weller, 1992). However, Peck (1985) found that 50% of children under age 15 who committed suicide in Los Angeles County over a 3-year period had been diagnosed as learning disabled.

As mainstreaming and inclusion become increasingly pervasive, it is especially important for all teachers to understand the interaction of emotional concerns and learning disabilities and the impact of that interaction on children's functioning. Indeed, Sabornie (1994) suggested, "Educators' lack of concern for social-affective problems among pupils is analogous to educational neglect" (p. 268).

Need for Purposeful Strategies

Promoting wellness in children requires purposeful attention and intervention in both educational and emotional arenas. Although it is not always possible to determine which of the two factors is responsible for a child's performance, it is important to keep in mind the types of possible interactions to best determine intervention strategies.

Discerning Interactions

The interaction of emotional functioning and learning disabilities is complex and not always clearly discernible in a given situation. Regarding the well-documented link between depressive illness and learning difficulties, Livingston (1985) stated that it is difficult to discern whether depression causes or worsens learning difficulties, whether learning difficulties put children at risk for depression, or whether an overarching brain dysfunction increases the likelihood of both. Although it may be impossible to definitively state any directional relationship, it is essential to identify the possible interactions.

At the risk of oversimplification, one can conceptualize five main ways in which emotional concerns and learning disabilities interact.

Learning disabilities may lead to emotional distress.

Learning disabilities may raise or exacerbate existing emotional concerns.

Emotional issues may mask a child's learning disability.

Emotional issues may exacerbate learning disabilities.

Conversely, emotional health may enhance the performance of children with learning disabilities.

The purpose of this article is to review research regarding each of these types of interactions and to draw implications for teachers of children who may have learning disabilities. Case examples illustrate the interaction of emotional functioning and learning disabilities in the classroom. Following each example are suggestions for interventions and remedial efforts.

Learning Disabilities May Lead to Emotional Distress

Much research has demonstrated that students with learning disabilities experience emotional distress related to their difficulties. Students with learning disabilities tend to have higher levels of emotional concerns, such as depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem, than do their peers without disabilities. …

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