Social Skills Tips for Kids with Learning Disabilities
Relating can be difficult for children with these special needs. Here are tips on how parents can help give their LD kids the tools they need to thrive with peers in school.
Keeping children with learning disabilities and on top of schoolwork can be a headache. But hearing how they struggle in the schoolyard can be enough to break your heart. There's a social dimension to every learning disability; some kids can't read body language or grasp the rules of new games, others simply won't stop butting in on conversations.
Fortunately, just as LD kids can be tutored in the three Rs, they also can be taught explicitly how to shine in social situations. These guidelines can help.
Reflecting your child's behavior
School-age kids can be cruel to those they see as different. Physically, children with learning disabilities look like other kids, but quirky behaviors can make them stand out – and, often, they don't realize it.
Showing your child these behaviors can help, says Diane Nancarrow, a speech language pathologist with Kaufman Children's Center for Speech, Language, Sensory-Motor and Social Connections in West Bloomfield. She's taken snapshots of children in social situations and made photo albums to show the kids what they look like when they're practicing good social skills.
"See, you don't lie on the floor with your legs flung over your head when you're being a good listener!" You can add captions like "Sharing well with my brother" or "Being a good sport at soccer." These can give your child a powerful visual reminder of how she looked at times when she was getting it right socially – and can be reviewed often to reinforce the skills your child needs to get along.
You can video record your child at play, too, and later talk over how he is interacting with playmates. Help him pick up on things, such as standing too close to others, and highlight what he does well. Without reprimanding, just point out the relationship between your child's behaviors and his friends' responses.
Focus on poise, too – a natural bully repellent. Nancarrow recommends kids learn to walk tall between classes and be shown the type of body language that gives the impression of confidence. Yoga, drama or dance classes and more "individual" sports like martial arts – as well as parental words of encouragement and praise – can all help your child.
Identifying face and body cues
Many kids with LD have trouble recognizing how others are feeling. Some are excellent verbally but struggle to read the facial expressions and body language. Nancarrow recommends a step-by-step process for helping children.
Begin by doodling happy-face-type images, gradually adding new emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, distraction. When your child is familiar with expressions in line-drawn form, look at storybooks and magazines together to identify expressions in photos. By looking at the faces of individuals of a wide range of ages and cultural backgrounds, your child can learn to generalize many cues.
Next, discreetly discuss the expressions of people around you in real-life situations: "The bus driver was frowning when you were speaking very loudly; he looked annoyed," or "Sean's mom smiled when you thanked her for driving you home from school. How do you think she was feeling?"
When it comes to other's body language, help your child become a keen observer; even watching how characters interact on TV shows can help him pick up on cause-and-effect relationships. As an advanced version, watch with the sound turned down have kids guessing what's happening by reading body language.
A direct approach with peers
As your child gets older, working with her teacher and putting together a presentation on her specific LD for classmates might be an option – depending on her comfort level, notes special needs educator Richard Lavoie in his book It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend.
Rather than shifting focus away from the problem, children can acknowledge it directly and give their classmates an idea of why they sometimes seem different.
Consider getting disability awareness packs from your local school board or online, too. Nancarrow notes that practical activities in these packs are designed so parent volunteers can go into schools for a whole day and give kids without LD a taste of what it's like to experience the world differently.
In the vast majority of cases, this greatly increases levels of compassion for classmates with learning disabilities, and intolerance drops dramatically.
Sometimes, your child will be called upon to explain an incident at school with another child. Often, kids with learning disabilities end up taking the flak when there's a fight. Even if they're responding to another kid's provocation, they tend to do so loudly and indiscreetly, perhaps pushing back. Also, their emotions are written all over their faces, whereas kids without LD may have more success staying calm and talking themselves out of trouble.
Connecting and articulating the sequence of events are challenges. So, when time permits – and for more serious incidents – Nancarrow suggests kids be allowed to draw out what happened frame-by-frame, almost like a film storyboard.
Making bigger connections
On top of that, Lavoie swears by social skills autopsy. "Perhaps Johnny said something that embarrassed his grandmother," he explains. "Without judging or scolding, you just say 'Johnny, let's take a look at what you said, let's take a look at how grandma reacted to that, let's think about what you could have done, what you should have done."
This technique is effective because it pinpoints exactly what went wrong and involves your child in figuring out more appropriate ways to behave. To make a real difference, teach your child's other caregivers how to do it, too – so, on any given day, the child might have seven or eight social autopsies.
It's also a good idea, as new situations arise, to help your child relate them to similar occasions from the recent past. "This is just like that time at Aunt Marion's wedding when you were so good about leaving your Game Boy in the car so you could join in the celebration." Generalizing rules of social behaviors doesn't always happens naturally for children with LD, so it's up to the child's caregivers to help her know how to behave – even in novel situations.