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It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success

It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success

5.0 3
by Richard Lavoie

As any parent, teacher, coach, or caregiver of a learning disabled child knows, every learning disability has a social component. The ADD child constantly interrupts and doesn't follow directions. The child with visual-spatial issues loses his belongings. The child with a nonverbal communication disorder fails to gesture when she talks. These children are socially


As any parent, teacher, coach, or caregiver of a learning disabled child knows, every learning disability has a social component. The ADD child constantly interrupts and doesn't follow directions. The child with visual-spatial issues loses his belongings. The child with a nonverbal communication disorder fails to gesture when she talks. These children are socially out of step with their peers, and often they are ridiculed or ostracized for their differences. A successful social life is immeasurably important to a child's happiness, health, and development, but until now, no book has provided practical, expert advice on helping learning disabled children achieve social success.

For more than thirty years, Richard Lavoie has lived with and taught learning disabled children. His bestselling videos and sellout lectures and workshops have made him one of the most respected experts in the field. Rick's pioneering techniques and practical strategies can help children ages six to seventeen

  • Overcome shyness and low self-esteem
  • Use appropriate body language to convey emotion
  • Focus attention and avoid disruptive behavior
  • Enjoy playdates and making friends
  • Employ strategies for counteracting bullying and harassment
  • Master the Hidden Curriculum and polish the apple with teachers

It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend answers the most intense need of parents, teachers, and caregivers of learning disabled children -- or anyone who knows a child who needs a friend.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The best guide of its kind ever written. . . a major achievement." -- Edward Hallowell, M.D.,Coauthor of Driven to Distraction and Delivered from Distraction

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Read an Excerpt

It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend

Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success
By Richard Lavoie


Copyright © 2006 Richard Lavoie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743254651



"The Other Sixteen Hours"

I have been involved in the field of learning disabilities for more than thirty years. The majority of that time was spent as a teacher and administrator at residential schools for children with learning problems. During the early years of my career, I was very involved in the admissions process at these schools and, as a result, conducted hundreds of interviews with parents whose children were struggling in school.

I recall one interview vividly. A mother from Maryland was recounting her daughter's academic history and her struggles with reading. As she spoke, she was somewhat detached and spoke in a clipped, matter-of-fact fashion. She told me that her daughter was scheduled to enter fourth grade in the fall and that her family felt that she would not be able to succeed in that placement.

I asked whether her daughter agreed that an alternative placement was appropriate. With that, the mother's facial expression softened and tears began to well up in her eyes. She told me that the idea to change schools had actually originated with her daughter. She came home from school on the last day of classes and reported that her classmates, who had ignored or rejected her all year, had waited until the teacher left the room during the end-of-yearparty, picked her up, and placed her in the wastebasket. Sarah, the most popular girl in the class, announced, "You're garbage...and that's where garbage belongs."

The mother had been wringing her hands and looking down while she related this story. She then looked up and our eyes met. "Just one friend, Mr. Lavoie. Just one friend. That's all I want for my daughter."

In the 1970s, those who worked with learning disabled children believed that social rejection was a cruel consequence of a child's learning disorder. Conventional wisdom held that (a) the child had academic deficiencies, therefore (b) he failed in school, (c) this failure caused great embarrassment and humiliation that lowered his self-esteem, and therefore (d) he was reluctant to "join in" with his peers and was teased because of his inability to compete academically with his classmates.

If this theory were true, it would seem logical that once the academic failure was eliminated, the child would enjoy social success. Again, the conventional wisdom held that the learning disorder caused the academic failure, and the failure caused the social isolation and rejection.

However, my experiences with these children demonstrated that this cause-and-effect theory was greatly flawed. I watched as these children entered our school's highly individualized and noncompetitive classroom environment. Lessons were tailored to meet each child's unique needs. Success was an integral part of each child's program. Specialized teaching techniques were used to ensure mastery of the target concepts. For the first time in their academic careers, these children were experiencing genuine success in the classroom. As this success expanded, it seemed logical that their social skills and status would improve. But they did not.

This demonstrated to me a direct link between learning disorders and social incompetence. I have devoted my career to highlighting that link for parents and teachers and showing them how we can help children master the abilities they need to develop effective social skills.

I have served as an administrator in residential programs for kids with learning problems for more than twenty-five years. During that time, about two dozen parents have sat across my desk and sobbed, distraught over the difficulties that their children were experiencing. Not once -- not once -- were these parents crying because their children were unable to spell, read, or do the times tables. When a parent experiences that kind of pain, it is because of the social isolation, rejection, and humiliation that the child suffers every day -- sitting alone on the school bus, hiding in the restroom during recess, eating lunch at an empty cafeteria table, waiting for the telephone to ring and the birthday invitations that never arrive.

Professionals have come to realize the critical fact that a child's social life -- often referred to as "the other sixteen hours" -- is immeasurably important to his happiness, health, and development. Most school systems now recognize that it is in the child's best interest -- and, ultimately, in the community's best interest -- to provide social skill instruction and remediation for school-age children who are not adjusting appropriately. Numerous formal studies have confirmed the wisdom of this. Children with learning disorders often have particular difficulty developing social competence. This creates a double whammy for them. They confront daily failure and frustration in both domains of school: academic and social.

The Keys to Understanding Your Child's Behavior

The social competence of children with special needs has been the subject of extensive research and study in recent years. This research indicates several truths about the link between learning disabilities and social competence that will, doubtless, mirror your own experience with children who struggle in social environments.

Children with significant learning problems

• are more likely to choose socially unacceptable behaviors in social situations

• are less able to solve social problems

• are less able to predict consequences for their social behavior

• are less able to adjust to the reactions of their listeners in discussions or conversations

• are more likely to be rejected or isolated by their peers

• are more often the object of negative and nonsupportive statements, criticisms, and warnings from teachers

• are less adaptable to new social situations

• are more likely to be judged negatively by adults after informal observation

• receive less affection from parents and siblings

• have less tolerance for frustration and failure

• use oral language that is less mature, meaningful, and concise

• have difficulty interpreting or inferring the language of others

• are far more likely to be depressed

• are more likely to be ignored by peers when initiating verbal interactions

• tend to be involved in fewer extracurricular activities and have minimal social interactions with peers outside of school

• tend to have limited, repetitive, and immature vocabulary, use shorter sentences, and be less concise

• tend to have difficulty inferring the meanings of others in conversation, taking conversational turns, and seeing others' perspective

• have difficulty understanding humor, sarcasm, and ambiguities in oral language

When these facts are considered, it is little wonder that many children with learning disorders have significant difficulty functioning successfully in social situations.

It is a widely accepted fact that the primary need of the human being is to be liked and accepted by other human beings. Therefore, if a child is behaving in a way that causes others to dislike him, can we not assume that his behaviors are beyond his control? Why would a child intentionally behave in a manner that causes others to isolate and reject him? As parents and caregivers, we must remember that the social faux pas that these children make are, generally, beyond their control and are unintentional.

This is the key to understanding and remediating your child's social skill deficits. Once you accept the unintentional nature of these troubling behaviors, you will be able to cease "blaming the victim" and -- most important -- you will come to the realization that punishing the child for social errors is ineffective, unfair, and inappropriate. Punishing a child for having social skill deficits is akin to punishing him for being nearsighted or having the flu. The situation is beyond the child's control, so punishment simply won't work.

This book will provide analysis of and solutions to the most common social skill problems faced by school-age children. It is difficult to overstate the importance of a child's mastery of these basic social skills or the short-term and long-term consequences for the child who is unable to master them. Childhood provides a laboratory wherein the child uses trial-and-error to develop his repertoire of interactional social skills. The young person who enters adulthood without an effective repertoire of social skills will very likely experience significant difficulty in his home, workplace, and community environments.

Why Teach Social Skills?

Because inadequate social skills often result in peer rejection and unpopularity, they place a child at extraordinarily significant risk for aggression and other behavioral problems. Learning disabled (LD) children tend to have poorly developed problem-solving skills and, as a result, they tend to resolve conflicts by using aggression rather than negotiation.

Dorothy Crawford's classic study of the link between juvenile delinquency and learning disabilities has demonstrated that the LD adolescent confronts three significant risk factors in regard to delinquent behavior:

  1. He is more likely to become involved in juvenile crime, due to his inability to secure meaningful employment.
  2. He is more likely to be apprehended for his crimes, because of a failure to carefully plan and execute his actions. (Basically, he is bad at being bad.)
  3. He is more likely to receive harsher court-ordered penalties than his nondisabled peers, because of this inability to successfully deal with the social demands of the judicial process (e.g., meeting with attorneys, showing appropriate respect during proceedings).

Numerous studies clearly document the weak and inconsistent social competencies of adolescents with histories of delinquent behaviors. These behaviors are both the cause and consequence of a lack of social skills.

Mental health disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety) appear to be closely associated with -- and often exacerbated by -- social incompetence. The isolation and rejection children with poor social skills experience can create mental health problems and/or precipitate complications and worsening of existing problems.

The child with inadequate social skills has significant difficulty establishing and maintaining appropriate peer relationships. He is excluded from interactions and activities with other children and so misses the opportunity to learn and practice new social skills. In effect, a vicious cycle of social failure and skill deterioration results.

It is important that adults remain ever mindful of the fact that children go to school for a living. School represents their primary activity and purpose. If a child suffers from chronic rejection by and separation from his classmates, his ability to succeed in academic pursuits is greatly compromised.

It is in a school's best interest to provide social skill instruction and support for learning disabled children. This instruction has consistently resulted in improvement in children's behavior, acceptance, and academic performance. It also yields a decrease in antisocial, delinquent, and disruptive behavior. Everybody wins.

There are several additional reasons why we should provide direct instruction and guidance in the area of social skills.

1. Social incompetence has a significant impact upon the family.

I conduct a workshop entitled "On the Waterbed: The Learning Disabled Child at Home and in the Family." I use the term waterbed in reference to an analogy that I often make in the seminar: "A family of five is akin to five people lying side by side on a waterbed. When one person moves, everyone feels the ripple." So it is in a family. If one family member is experiencing difficulty of some sort, all family members inevitably feel the direct or indirect impact. If Mom or Dad is having trouble at work or if one of the children is struggling at school, everyone is affected in some way.

This is particularly true and noteworthy when a child in the family has social skill deficits. This child is frequently a source of embarrassment, puzzlement, and anxiety among his family members. His strange and inappropriate behavior is often disruptive to family outings or even the day-to-day interactions within the home and community. A child once told me, "It makes me sad and guilty when my friends say, 'Come over to our yard to play. But don't bring your brother. He's weird!'"

2. All environments are social.

Outside of school, your c hild can avoid confronting the majority of his academic deficiencies. If he cannot spell, he can play video games with his friends; you do not need effective spelling skills in order to play Sega. If she cannot read, she can spend her Saturdays playing soccer with the neighborhood children; reading is not a prerequisite for soccer.

But if your child has poor social skills, he simply cannot avoid situations that require these skills. Any and all activities that involve two or more people require the use of social skills. If you are alone on an elevator and the doors open for a second boarding passenger, that eight-foot-by-eight-foot chamber instantly becomes a social environment wherein you and your new social partner have defined rights, roles, and responsibilities. You need social skills to play video games or soccer. The child simply cannot avoid the use of social skills.

3. The child cannot compensate for his lack of social competence.

Thanks to numerous breakthroughs in assistive technology, a child can compensate for nearly any academic disability. The math-deficient child can use a calculator; the child who writes poorly can use a word processor; the nonspeller can use a spell check option on his personal computer.

When social competence is the problem, however, compensation is not possible. It is impossible for a parent to sit behind the child on the school bus and whisper suggestions for conversation starters or responses to him. When it comes to the use of social skills, the child is quite literally on his own.

4.Social skills are the ultimate determining factor in the child's future success, happiness, and acceptance.

The research here is overwhelming. The adult success of the person with learning disabilities is largely dependent upon his social-emotional relationship skills -- not his academic skills.

Although most professionals recognize and acknowledge this fact, schools continue to invest the majority of their time and resources in the enhancement of academic skills, with minimal energy invested in the crucial social skills. I have often recommended that schools focus their energies equally in each of the four Rs: reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic, and relationships!

It is important to remember that children with learning problems often require intensive instruction, guidance, and assistance to master social skills. Most nondisabled children are able to learn these skills merely by observing the behaviors of adults and other children. They seem to learn these skills incidentally, almost through osmosis. Not so for the child with learning difficulties. To master social concepts, these children require instruction that is sequenced, direct, and carefully planned.

As we attempt to improve the child's social skills and enhance his social competence, we must understand that social skills and manners are not synonymous. Although the practice of accepted etiquette is an important part of social competence, appropriate manners alone will not improve a child's social status.

Abandoning Some Assumptions

Children with learning disabilities pose extraordinary challenges for the parents, caregivers, and professionals who wish to teach them social skills. The complexities of the child's disability cause myriad difficulties in several areas of development and behavior. The child simultaneously may be confronting problems in the areas of attention, memory, organization, language, and impulse control. Indeed, these children are fighting their battles on several fronts.

To teach and promote social competence to these children, we must consider the obstacles that they face, and that requires us to abandon some of the assumptions that generally underlie our relationships with others. For example, when we interact with others, we make the assumption that the person will listen to and be interested in what we have to say. This behavior is anticipated, as a sign of respect and a reflection of the person's desire to learn, grow, and cooperate. When this behavior is not present, we assume that the person is disinterested and inconsiderate. We respond with a negative, confrontational attitude.

We must understand that the distractibility and impulsivity of a child with learning disabilities may, at times, result in behaviors that seem inattentive and distracted. The adult must learn to take these behaviors seriously, but not personally.

Under most circumstances, we expect others to be consistent in their performance and behavior. Once a person demonstrates that he can do something, we make the understandable assumption that the behavior has been mastered and that the behavior will be performed consistently in the future. This is not a safe assumption when dealing with children with learning problems, whose performance is often characterized by significant inconsistency and irregular progress. This inconsistency is often misinterpreted as laziness, lack of motivation, or manipulation.

When dealing with another person, we assume that the person will be realistic and rational. When he fails to conduct himself in a rational manner, we have difficulty relating to him. Again, children with learning disorders have difficulty comprehending and responding to the reality of situations. As a result, they will often make statements or manifest behaviors that are in conflict with the reality of the situation. ("If I apologize to Bill for stealing and selling his bike, we can be best friends again.")

Another common assumption that we make with others is the belief that they will understand and accept our reality. For example, we anticipate that the child will understand and relate to our discomfort when he embarrasses us in front of our coworkers. However, children with learning problems have significant difficulty understanding the perspectives and feelings of others. This is often interpreted as selfishness or insensitivity. In actuality, it is neither. As you work to enhance the child's social competence, remember that the assumptions that we often make about people with whom we interact are neither appropriate nor valid when dealing with learning disabled children.

The Four Key Social Skills

To enjoy social success at home, in school, or in the community, the child must develop and master four basic skills that will allow him to interact positively with others. These fundamental skills are

  1. ability to join or enter a group
  2. ability to establish and maintain friendships
  3. ability to resolve conflicts
  4. ability to "tune in" to social skills

Ability to Join or Enter a Group

The strategies that a child utilizes to join a group of peers participating in an activity will largely determine whether he will be accepted or rejected by others.

Children with social problems have great difficulty in this area. Some will approach the group loudly with great fanfare, demanding that they be allowed to join the activity and insisting that the current rules and format of the game be changed. Others will stand quietly on the sidelines, hoping that their presence will be noticed and that they will be invited to participate.

The child's difficulty in joining a group reflects his inability to "read" social situations by interpreting the setting's various clues and cues. For example, if three children are huddled together and speaking in low voices, they are obviously involved in an intimate conversation that cannot and should not be interrupted. Failure to accurately interpret these clues and respond appropriately will result in social errors for which the child will be isolated or rejected.

Ability to Establish and Maintain Friendships

Unfortunately, many of the behaviors necessary to maintain a friendship are the precise skills that children with LD are lacking: sensitivity, ability to "read" body language, complex language skills, and so forth. Much of this book will be devoted to outlining these skills and teaching you how to foster them.

To make and keep friends, a child must demonstrate sensitivity, flexibility, and responsiveness. The attentional and behavioral difficulties manifested by children with LD often make it difficult for the child to put himself in another's shoes and understand the needs and desires of his peers. The child with LD is often viewed as insensitive, uncaring, immature, and self-absorbed. He is rarely aware of the negative impression that he presents to others and is puzzled by his inability to make social contacts and relationships.

Ability to Resolve Conflicts

Children with learning problems are often concrete in their thinking. Because they tend to be inflexible in their reasoning and view their world as black and white, with little tolerance for or understanding of shades of gray, it is difficult for them to compromise or negotiate. They feel that each conflict must yield a clear winner and a clear loser. They have difficulty understanding that both partners can be satisfied with a compromise.

This inability to resolve conflict without physical force or resorting to name-calling, threats, or disruptions is often cited by classmates as the reason for the child's lack of social acceptance.

Ability to "Tune In" to Social Skills

In order to explain this concept to your child, it may be useful to draw a comparison between social cues and radio waves. The air around you right now is filled with radio waves. You cannot see, feel, or hear them. However, if you turn on your radio, you will be able to hear those waves clearly, and as you move the dial to various frequencies, you tune in to still other waves.

Similarly, the child's daily home and school environments are filled with social cues. The child must learn to recognize and pay attention to these cues -- tune them in -- in order to gather the social information she needs to respond appropriately to the social environment. Again, the attentional and language problems experienced by children with learning disorders contribute to the child's inability to do this successfully.

Evaluating Children's Social Skills

A teacher or professional can use several methods and strategies to determine the social status of a child. This assessment will provide a valuable guide as you help the child improve his social competence. Currently, there is no widely accepted, standardized test or tool, but there are a number of ways to secure a "snapshot."

Sociometric Devices: These surveys are designed to evaluate an individual's relative popularity within a peer group. All members of a group are required to place the names of their colleagues in rank order based upon traits such as popularity and cooperation. In effect, a polling procedure determines the social acceptability of individuals within the group. While these devices generally provide a valid instrument for determining social competence, they tend to be somewhat reactive and often reflect the constantly changing school-age "in crowd/out crowd" dynamic.

Teacher-ranking Systems: Here, the teacher measures and records the frequency of each child's social interactions with classmates. Such systems can be valuable, but much like sociometric devices, they provide no diagnostic information about the quality of the interactions, only how often they occur.

Behavior-rating Scales: Parents, teachers, or peers complete these checklists, which measure a child's social behavior. They are valuable in determining the specific social skill deficits that require attention and remediation. They provide data for a comparison of a child's social skills in a variety of different settings (e.g., the home, the classroom, the playground).

Interviews: This type of assessment is often quite effective for students with learning disabilities, since it does not require extensive reading or writing skills. Because it encourages anecdotes and the citing of specific situations and incidents, it also allows for a more nuanced look at a child's social competence.

Observation Codes or Checklists: A more formalized, cut-and-dried observational approach depends on codes or checklists with which an examiner records the occurrence or absence of a specific, clearly defined set of behaviors (e.g., cooperation, self-talking, sharing). The examiner may observe the child in a structured social setting such as a reading group, Scout troop, or cafeteria and objectively record specific, predetermined, observable social behaviors of the child: for example, cooperation, self-talk, and sharing. These measures can be quite valuable in diagnosis of skill deficits as well as evaluation of training effectiveness.

Informal Social Skill Assessments for Parents

As a parent, you may want to informally and objectively assess your child's social competence. Unfortunately, the child himself may not be particularly helpful in such an assessment because he often misreads or mischaracterizes social interactions or may tend to exaggerate -- "Billy always calls me names" -- or minimize them -- "I didn't do anything wrong and all the kids yelled at me!" The child may be confused or puzzled by the social situation and will, therefore, provide information that is inaccurate.

Your own observations are the most effective assessment tools. Carefully observe your child in numerous social settings to deter-

mine which of the primary social skills are lacking and require your attention.

Here are some key behaviors for you to watch for:

Handling Emotions and Social Challenges

  • is unable to prioritize
  • is unable to understand or react to nonverbal language
  • is highly disorganized
  • is indecisive
  • shares private, confidential information inappropriately
  • has low self-esteem
  • has inconsistent motivation
  • displays negative mood; complains often
  • has a poor, undeveloped sense of humor
  • loses belongings constantly
  • is excessively shy
  • is socially inept in many settings
  • is a poor listener
  • has difficulty understanding, identifying, or expressing his feelings
  • has difficulty expressing affection
  • is overly fearful
  • has poor impulse control
  • is easily embarrassed
  • responds poorly to failure
  • Handling Peer Situations

  • acts inappropriately in groups
  • is overly aggressive
  • reports that he is "lonely"
  • has minimal empathy for others
  • often misinterprets and overreacts to social situations
  • prefers the company of much younger (or older) children wherein his role is well defined
  • has poor relationships with siblings
  • is excessively physical; pushes, shoves often
  • seems to sabotage relationships
  • bullies or is cruel to others
  • is bossy, controlling, dominating
  • has difficulty initiating and sustaining conversations
  • seldom shares
  • is ineffective at negotiation
  • shows poor sportsmanship
  • is highly susceptible to peer pressure
  • Handling Authority

  • has difficulty understanding the link between behavior
  • and consequences
  • is excessively dependent on adults
  • cheats; has difficulty following rules
  • is often referred to as immature by adults
  • has difficulty relating to authority figures
  • asks for help ineffectively
  • has difficulty following or giving direction
  • Handling Stress

  • has difficulty dealing with transitions or changes in routine
  • avoids new or novel social situations
  • has marked difficulty


  • Excerpted from It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend by Richard Lavoie Copyright © 2006 by Richard Lavoie. Excerpted by permission.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Richard Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed., has worked as a teacher and headmaster at residential special education facilities for the past thirty years. He holds three degrees in special education and serves as a consultant to several agencies and organizations. The father of three adult children, he lives with his wife in Barnstable, Massachusetts. He welcomes visitors to his website at www.ricklavoie.com

Mel Levine, M.D., is professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School and director of its Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning. He is the founder and cochairman of All Kinds of Minds, a nonprofit institute for the understanding of differences in learning, and the author of two previous national best-selling books, A Mind at a Time and The Myth of Laziness. He and his wife, Bambi, live on Sanctuary Farm in North Carolina.

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