A Multisource Exploration of the Friendship Patterns of Children With and Without Learning Disabilities

By: J. Weiner and B.H. Schneider

Objectives of study

Children with learning disabilities are more likely to be rejected and neglected than children without LD among peers at school. Researchers have not looked closely at the nature of close friendships. The researchers looked at this question to determine if having a socially rejected child paired with another potentially compatible child would be a better intervention that social skills intervention strategies aimed at peer acceptance. Social skills intervention strategies have demonstrated only limited success. (Kavale & Forness, 1995).

Four main objectives were identified:

  1. to see if children with LD are in as many friendships as children without LD;
  2. to identify the friends of children with LD. (How old, gender, LD status, and settings of social interactions);
  3. to see if LD status predicts a stability within friendships;
  4. to compare the quality of friendships of children with LD and without LD.

Who participated?

232 children in grades 4-8 participated. 117 of the children had LD (67 boys, 50 girls). Children were from two schools in suburban Toronto, Canada. 62% of the children with LD were in general education settings and received special education support by going to a resource classroom 30-90 minutes per day or by working with a special education teacher in the general education setting. 20% were in self-contained classes for at least one-half of the school day. The children were formally identified by the school district as having a learning disability.


Children answered questions from the friendship interviews with the children from Berndt's 1984 research. Parents participated in phone interviews so that researchers could provide more on the nature of the children's friendships. The teachers also completed questionnaires that identified the nature of the children's friendships. Categories of friendships were identified: nominated friends, corroborated friends, reciprocated friends, single best friend, single best school friend.


There were no differences in the number of friends nominated in the LD and non/LD group.

Boys with LD had significantly fewer corroborated friends among school peers. The authors suggest that this might be because boys with LD reported more out of school friendships or because boys have a higher co-occurence of ADHD. Since boys are more likely to have LD and ADHD it is likely that they will have greater difficulty maintaining friendships because boys with ADHD are often engage in more disruptive behaviors than most other children will tolerate.

Children with LD had more friends with learning problems and fewer friends of the same age. Friends tended to be younger. Proximity and similar achievement levels are partial explanations for this effect. Younger friendships may also be adaptive since there is greater security for the children in them. They may also, however, maintain a more immature social presence.

Friendships of children with LD were less stable and more conflict ridden that those of children without LD. Children with LD also report less positive feedback from their friends.

Linking research to practice

The results suggest that teachers and parents may better help children with LD establish positive friendships by focusing on dyads, or pairs, with children in the class rather than developing an extensive peer group intervention strategy or behavioral management program. The researchers suggest that teachers should pay very close attention to seating plans and groupings in order to facilitate the formation of mutual friendship, enhance existing friendship, and facilitate friendship stability. Pairing children with LD who do not have friends in the classroom, with children who are potentially compatible friends could be useful. This could be achieved in the context of peer tutoring or assignments done in pairs. It is likely important, however, to also coach some of the children with LD on how to be responsive to their partners and how to avoid and resolve conflicts.

Additional resources

  • The Social Dimensions of Learning Disabilities: Essays in Honor of Tanis Bryan edited by Tanis H. Bryan (Editor), Bernice Y. L. Wong (Editor) presents a series of expert papers on the social impact of learning disabilities. Available from Amazon.com November 2002.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Berndt, T.J., (1984) Sociometric, social-cognitive, and behavioral measures for the study of friendships and popularity. In T. Field, J.L. Roopnarin & M. Segal (Eds) Friendships in normal and handicapped children (pp31-52). Norwoor, N.J.: Ablex.

Kavale, K.A. & Forness, S.R. (1995) Social skills deficits and training: A meta-analysis of the research in learning disabilities. Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disabilities, 9, 119-160.

Weiner, J. and Schneider, B.H., (2002, April) Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Vol 30, 127-141.