Teacher Response to Learning Disability: A Test of Attributional Principles

By: Margaret D. Clark

Attribution research has identified student ability and effort expended as causes of achievement outcomes that result in differing teacher affect, evaluative feedback, and expectation of future performance. Ninety-seven elementary-school general education teachers (84 women and 13 men) rated their responses to the test failures of hypothetical boys with and without learning disabilities. In most cases, greater reward and less punishment, less anger and more pity, and higher expectations of future failure followed the negative outcomes of the boys with learning disabilities, when compared with their nondisabled ability and effort matches, indicating that learning disability acts as a cause of achievement outcomes in the same way as ability and effort. This pattern of teacher affect and response can send negative messages that are often interpreted as low-ability cues, thus affecting students' self-esteem, sense of competence as learners, and motivation to achieve.

As the movement toward more inclusive settings for children with disabilities gains strength, it becomes increasingly important to understand how general education teachers perceive the academic outcomes of these children. The largest group of children with disabilities in special education programs are those with learning disabilities: Currently, 51% of all students served in special education, or over 4.3 million students, are identified as having a specific learning disability (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). This represents 3.9% of all schoolchildren in the United States. Many of these children are placed in the general education classroom for the majority of their instructional day, often with ancillary support services from special education personnel. Thus, the way in which general education teachers perceive the achievement of children with learning disabilities in comparison to that of their nondisabled peers is of great significance.

Research on the relationship between teachers' perceptions of children's school performance and their subsequent responses to high- and- low-achieving students may offer the basis for predicting how elementary-school teachers will respond to the instructional outcomes of their students with learning disabilities. This work has as its foundation the attributional approach to achievement motivation (Weiner, 1979,1985,1986). Before examining how attribution theory might shed light on how teachers perceive children with learning disabilities, a brief review of the principles of the theory is presented.

An attributional approach to achievement outcomes

Attribution theory (Graham, 1990, 1991; Weiner, 1979,1985,1986) offers a useful framework for exploring teachers' responses to children's academic outcomes, such as success or failure, in the general education classroom. Although the attributional process was initially presented as a theoretical one, a body of empirical research now exists that supports its principles. Attribution researchers (e.g., Frieze, 1976; Frieze & Snyder, 1980; Weiner, 1985) have identified ability and effort as the principle perceived causes of individual success or failure. In its most adaptive state, success is seen as the result of personal competence, whereas failure can be overcome by effort. Ability, in an academic context, can be characterized as consisting of aptitude and learned skills, whereas effort is the level of exertion applied to a situation, either temporarily or over time (Weiner, 1979). Attributional principles can be applied in contexts that are either self- directed, as when we attempt to understand our own behavior, or other-directed, such as when a teacher attempts to analyze a student's classroom performance in order to increase his or her academic success (Graham, 1990,1991; Weiner, 1979,1986).

Negative or unexpected student outcomes, such as test failure, commonly result in an attributional search by classroom teachers. Teachers may use causal attributions to answer the question, "Why did my student fail?" (Graham, 1990). A teacher reviews his or her prior knowledge about a student to determine the cause for failure (Kelley & Michaela, 1980). Among these causes can be the student's ability, effort expended, or mood, or the task's difficulty (Burger, Cooper, & Good, 1982; Cooper & Burger, 1980). In most cases, teachers view a student's level of ability and effort expended as the most powerful of these causes (Graham, 1990,1991).

Empirical research has identified three properties, or dimensions, of causes that are influential in determining their impact (Wimer & Kelley, 1982). These dichotomous dimensions- locus of causality (internal/ external), stability (stable/unstable), and controllability (controllable / uncontrollable)-- combine to provide the perceiver with information regarding an individual's competence. Controllability is further seen to influence the way in which the perceiver assigns personal responsibility for outcomes: When an individual is seen as being in control of an outcome, he or she is viewed as responsible, whereas an outcome outside the control of the individual is seen as one for which he or she is not responsible (Weiner, 1986). Ability is, conceptualized as internal, stable, and uncontrollable, whereas effort is internal, unstable, and controllable. Thus, when failure is ascribed to low ability, it is seen as a resulting from a fixed characteristic over which the individual does not have volitional control, whereas failure due to lack of effort is viewed as more changeable and thereby under the individual's volitional control: Teachers' perceptions of the causal properties of their students' academic outcomes result in emotions, such as anger and pity (Graham & Weiner, 1986; Weiner, 1986), which in turn lead to action. A number of specific responses by teachers, and the causal properties that lead to them, have been identified by attribution researchers.

Teacher responses to student outcomes

The work of Graham and Weiner (1986) established a linkage between anger/pity and rewards/ punishment. They found that anger or pity are often teachers' first responses following a negative classroom outcome; consequently, teachers are influenced by the degree to which they perceive the student as able to control particular events. Graham and Weiner concluded that classroom teachers may feel anger toward a child whom they perceive as having failed an important test due to a lack of effort, particularly if the child is of high ability, yet they feel pity toward a child who has failed because of his or her low ability. In the case of the child expending low effort, the teacher views the child as being in control of the outcome, and thus feels anger, whereas the teacher perceives the child of low ability as being unable to control the outcome and thus feels pity. Consequently, the teacher will punish the low-effort child more and reward him or her less, but they will reward the low-ability child more and punish him or her less.

Weiner and Kukla (1970) studied the way in which psychology students, assuming the role of teachers, distributed evaluative feedback to hypothetical students completing a test. College and high school student participants were provided with information about a series of hypothetical students' ability (high or low), effort (termed motivation; high or low), and degree of success or failure on a classroom test, then were asked to assign reward or punishment appropriate to each student's outcome. In this context, ability and effort act as determinants of success or failure, with outcomes the result of an interaction between the two. Overall, Weiner and Kukla found, participants were more inclined to reward than to punish, with both effort and ability affecting appraisal of achievement behavior. Two distinct patterns emerged from the data. First, low-ability students expending low effort received less punishment than high-ability, low-effort students. Second, and of particular importance to this discussion, low-ability, high-effort (motivation) students received more reward than high-ability, high-effort students. Weiner and Kukla attributed this finding to a "cultural belief...that the individual who is able to overcome personal handicaps and avoid failure is particularly worthy of praise" (p. 3).

The stability of a cause is highly influential in determining teachers' expectations that an outcome will recur (Weiner, 1985, 1986). Failure due to causes that are viewed as stable, such as low ability, will result in a high expectation that failure will recur, whereas failure due to unstable causes, such as effort or task difficulty, will result in a low expectation of repeated failure. Further, this relationship is somewhat circular in nature: teachers' prior expectations influence their determination of the cause of an outcome, thereby affecting future expectations (Graham, 1991; Weiner, 1985, 1986). The role of student motivation, or effort, is pivotal in determining how teachers set their levels of expectancy for student achievement. Tollefson, Melvin, and Thippavajjala (1990) found that teachers see low motivation (effort) as the principal reason for academic difficulty, with acquired characteristics, such as poor attitude and poor skills, also acting as significant contributors. Tollefson et al. suggested that perhaps teachers view effort in low achievers as relatively stable as compared to that in high achievers. Equally important to our understanding of how teachers respond to the academic outcomes of their students is how students interpret the attributional feedback they receive from their teachers. These attributional messages are powerful sources of information upon which children base their perceptions of their competence as students. (Graham, 1990).

Attributional messages and student performance

Schoolchildren gain information about personal competence, in part, from classroom cues. Often, they base their attributions for success and failure on those cues. Among the most potent of these sources of attributional information is the classroom teacher (Graham, 1990). In a series of developmental studies, Weiner, Graham, Stem, and Lawson (1982) found that teachers' interactions with students can affect the students' perceptions of personal control over success and failure. Students perceive two causal antecedents that originate with teachers as indicators of their level of ability: pity versus anger (emotion) and reward versus punishment (action). Weiner, Graham, Stern, and Lawson proposed the following sequence in response to these findings: A teacher may experience the emotions of anger or pity following student outcomes that are based on his or her expectancies for individual children. These emotions are conveyed to individual children, who may then interpret anger, which implies that the teacher views the child as being in control of the outcome, as a high-ability cue and pity, which implies a child has no control over an outcome, as a low-ability cue. Similarly, students interpret rewards in the face of failure as a low ability cue, because a reward following failure implies that the teacher believes that the child can do no better and should not expect to improve. Punishment following failure is viewed as an indicator of high ability, with the child perceiving the teacher's punishment as an indication that he or she can control such outcomes and thereby is expected to improve them. Weiner, Graham, Stem, and Lawson concluded that this feedback, whether or direct, serves to reinforce students' perceptions of themselves as competent learners when the feedback is positive, or, when it is negative, as learners who cannot be successful. What, then, does this attributional process tell us about how classroom teachers might perceive learning disability and thereby respond to it? To date, no empirical work has examined the causal properties of learning disability as perceived by classroom teachers, nor teachers' responses to learning disability as a cause of achievement outcomes. However, evidence from both the attribution and the learning disability literature may shed some light on how these attributional processes take place in the classroom.

Learning disability as a cause for failure

Consideration of the definition of learning disability in light of Weiner's (1993) discussion of "sin versus sickness" (p. 957) may offer some clues as to how teachers conceptualize learning disability. Weiner identified certain causes of outcomes in life, such as disability, as being sicknesses and others, such as drug abuse, as sins. Sicknesses are conceptualized by most individuals as internal to the individual, generally stable, and outside the control of the individual; therefore, they are seen as worthy of high levels of pity and low levels of anger. Outcomes resulting from these causes are rewarded at high levels and punished at low levels. Conversely, sins are viewed as unstable and under the control of the individual, and thus they elicit more anger and less pity (Weiner, Graham, & Chandler, 1982); they are viewed as worthy of little reward but deserving of great punishment.

Learning disability is rooted in the traditional medical model of disability, that is, it can be seen as a condition, needing diagnosis, that is centered within the child rather than in the educational environment (Doris, 1993). The current federal definition of learning disability {Federal Register, 1977) and its within-child orientation further supports this view. Although some have begun to challenge this conceptualization (Speece, 1993, 1994), it remains the dominant model for identifying and remediating specific learning disabilities in the classroom (Wang, Reynolds, & Walberg berg, 1987). It seems reasonable, then, to propose that most teachers will conceptualize specific learning disability as internal to the child, stable, and uncontrollable.

The purpose of the present study was to test basic attributional principles as applied to children with learning disabilities. The author sought to explore to what degree teachers' knowledge of the presence or absence of a learning disability would influence (a) the level of reward or punishment they gave a hypothetical boy based on his ability and effort expended, (b) the pity and anger the teachers felt, and (c) the expectations the teachers held for the child's future failure. Given the previously proposed causal properties of learning disability, teachers can be expected to assign low levels of personal responsibility to children with learning disabilities and thus will hold low expectancies for them. It then can be hypothesized that teachers' anger toward children with learning disabilities will be lower and pity higher than it will be for their nondisabled peers. Further, teachers will reward students with learning disabilities more highly than nondisabled children for success, a contention supported by Weiner and Chuckle's (1970) proposition that higher levels of reward accompany the overcoming of personal handicap. Similarly, it can be hypothesized that less punishment will be assigned to children with learning disabilities who fail in the face of low ability than to nondisabled children; the external, stable, and uncontrollable nature of learning disability may, in fact, invoke a level of pity in teachers that will influence their reward and punishment behavior. Finally, it is hypothesized that teachers will hold higher expectations for future failure by the children with learning disabilities than by their nondisabled peers.



Ninety-seven general education classroom teachers from public elementary schools in Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties, California, participated in this study. The participants constituted the faculties of five schools, teaching Grades Kindergarten through 6 (13 men and 84 women; mean years of teaching experience = 13.0, range = 1-40 years). All participants held, at the minimum, a credential to teach at the elementary-school level and a baccalaureate degree. In addition, 30% held at least one postbaccalaureate degree and 10% held one or more additional teaching credentials. Intact faculty groups, rather than a random sampling of teachers within a school district, were used because of individual school district policies requiring study participation be limited to such groups.


Eight vignettes were created, each describing a hypothetical boy who had just taken a typical classroom test and failed. Three types of information were provided in each vignette in the instrument: a statement of student ability, the typical pattern of effort expended by the student in the classroom, and additional information on academic performance identifying four of the boys as learning disabled and four as nondisabled. The boys were matched on ability (high or low), on typical effort (high or low), and on presence/absence of a learning disability (LD /NLD), creating eight Ability x Effort x LD/NLD cells. It should be noted that the vignettes did not specify the reason for the hypothetical boys' failures, so as to stimulate causal thinking on the part of the participants. The low-ability, high-effort, LD vignette read as follows (see the Appendix for the complete text of all the vignettes):

Andrew is a student in your class. He is considered to have lower aptitude for academic tasks than most children in the class. He works slowly, but hard, in class, generally finishing shortened class assignments. His family works with him at home, where he finishes his homework and prepares for school. To help him be successful in language arts and math, he receives services from the Resource Specialist.

The vignettes did not specifically use the terms high ability or low ability, high effort or low effort, or learning disability, but used language that teachers might be expected to encounter in the school setting to describe the hypothetical boys. Thus, the boys with learning disabilities were identified by describing their participation in the Resource Specialist Program (RSP). In California, RSP is a resource room program, the majority of whose students are children with learning disabilities, and California teachers typically associate RSP with learning disabilities. However, in order to ensure that participants interpreted the vignettes in this way, they were socially validated prior to the study.

Pilot testing

The instrument was reviewed and pilot tested in two stages prior to the study, in order to refine the instrument and socially validate the vignettes. Prior to the pilot study, a group of eight graduate students conducting attribution research in both general and special education contexts reviewed the vignette to validate the level of ability and effort exhibited by each hypothesized boy and to identify which of the boys had learning disabilities. Although they generally concurred, some revisions were made in order to address discrepancies and clarify the vignettes more fully; the students fully concurred on the students' characteristics in the revised vignettes.

Following this review, two schools in the Los Angeles area participated in the pilot study, with 29 elementary-school general education teachers completing the instrument. During the pilot, participants were asked to comment on the clarity of the vignettes, any problems they encountered, and changes they would make. They were invited to include any thoughts or ideas that they believed were helpful Following completion of the instrument, participants were asked to identify what types of children were addressed by the vignettes. Oral and written comments indicated that all the participants perceived the four boys who were served by the Resource Specialist Program as having learning disabilities, with no evidence of confusion with other areas of disability. The instrument was revised in response to the participants' comments.

Dependent measures

Following each vignette, teachers were presented with four questions that asked them to (a) provide evaluative feedback, (b) rate their anger, (c) rate their pity, and (d) rate their expectations following each hypothetical boy's failure. Responses to the four measures were made on Likert scales, Following data collection, a fifth question, asking teachers to predict which of four possible choices -- ability, effort, task difficulty, or luck was the cause of each boy's failure, was dropped prior to data analysis when examination of written comments by participants indicated confusion between the task difficulty and effort selections. In response to the question, "What feedback would you give this child?," teachers provided positive or negative feedback to each student using a single scale running from +5 though +1 (positive feedback or reward) to -1 through -5 (negative feedback or punishment). It should be noted that the absence of a zero at the midpoint of the scale forced teachers to provide either negative or positive feedback. To assist teachers in making their ratings, positive points were equated with gold stars given to the child and the negative points with red stars, an analogy used by Weiner and Kukla (1970), On the second measure, teachers rated how much anger they felt toward the student, and on the third measure how much pity they felt for the student. Each measure used a scale ranging from 1 (very little) to 7 (very much). The fourth measure asked teachers to predict how likely it was that each boy would fail on future tests on a scale running from 1 (very unlikely) to 7 (very likely). A brief Teacher Data Survey gathered descriptive data regarding age, gender, teaching assignment, education, and experience for each participant. This measure was completed after participants responded to the vignettes, and these data were used to describe the study participants.


Data were collected during a faculty meeting in one 1-hour session four of the participating schools (Schools 1 through 4). Prior to beginning the instrument, participants were briefed on the purpose of the study but not informed of the specific hypotheses. During the briefing, participants were told that the purpose of the study was to study their responses to a group of boys who had just failed a test, and that the study would examine their feedback, affective responses, and expectations based on the information provided by' the vignettes. The vignettes were described as containing information on student ability based on typical school indicators, classroom effort, and other relevant information. Written directions for completing the instrument were provided to each teacher. Directions included a brief overview of the study, a statement of its purpose, and procedures for completing the instrument.

Participants were invited to add any written comments to the instrument they might wish to. While participants completed the instrument, the investigator circulated, answering any questions that arose. A debriefing of participants was conducted immediately following completion of the instrument and data survey. The independent variables, including the hypothesized results, were discussed fully and any questions answered at this time. After all participants completed the instrument, they provided brief information about themselves on the Teacher Data Survey. The directions for the Teacher Data Survey included a guarantee of anonymity and confidentiality.

At the fifth site (School 5), district policy required that the instrument, which included the Teacher Data Survey and the written directions provided to Schools 1 through 4, be distributed to faculty members by the principal and returned to him later; the response rate was 45% (n = 13 respondents). Because of the required change in the method of data collection at School 5, the investigator was not present during administration of the instrument. The administrator at the site was briefed as to the purpose of the study prior to the distribution of the instrument to the faculty; however, because the examiner could not be present following data collection, it was not possible to debrief faculty members. Examination of the mean responses to each of the items on the instrument showed only small differences (.2 or less) between Schools 1 through 4 and School 5.


A 2 (Ability) x 2 (Effort) x 2 (Disability Status) analysis of variance with repeated measures was conducted for each dependent measure (reward/ punishment, anger, pity , and expectancy of future failure). Means and standard deviations for each measure are presented in Table 1. Of particular interest were the differences between the responses' to the four boys with learning disabilities and those to their nondisabled counterparts on each dependent measure. Planned comparisons using paired tests were performed to assess these differences. An alpha level of .05 was used for all statistical tests.

Table 1. Mean teacher responses to boys with and with out LD


Main effects for ability F(1,96) = 44.58, p < .0001, were found for reward/punishment. Greater reward and less punishment were given to low-ability boys expending high effort, and to boys with learning disabilities. Of interest were two interaction effects. Although teacher considered both a boy's level of ability and his disability status, F(1, 96) = 24.17, p < .0001, when giving reward or punishment, the effort expended by the child and his disability status appeared to most strongly influence actual rewards or punishment given, F(1,96) = 88.25, p <.0001. Thus, reward and punishment for test failure were governed by both the boys' level of ability and the amount of effort they expended, with teachers' knowledge of a child's disability status having a mediating influence on both types of feedback.

As seen in Figure 1, teacher's knowledge of a child's learning disability can be seen to influence both the decision to reward or punish as well as the amount of reward given, with the boys with learning disabilities receiving moderate levels of reward in all cases. Two of the four boys with learning disabilities received significantly greater reward: the high-ability/low-effort boy, t(96) = -11.76, p <.0001, and the low-ability/high-effort boys, the nondisabled boy received slightly more reward, t(96) = 2.71, p <.01. Further, the greatest reward was given to the low-ability/ high-effort nondisabled boy, whereas the greatest punishment was assigned to the high-ability/low-effort nondisabled boy.

Graph 1. Rewards and punishment assigned to boys with and without LD


Significant main effects for ability, F(1, 96) = 10.20, p = .0006, effort, F(1, 96) = 273.87, p < 00001, and disability status, F(1, 96) = 87.78, p < .0001, were found for teacher anger. Anger was greatest when boys were of high ability, when they expended low effort, and when they were nondisabled. Two interaction effects were found. Teachers were particularly angry at non-disabled boys putting forth low effort, F(1, 96) = 43.55, p < .0001. Similarly, an interaction between ability and disability status was found, with anger being rated highest for high-ability nondisabled boys, F(1, 96) = 6.46, p < .01. In sum, teachers rated their anger with the boys with learning disabilities as lower than they did for their nondisabled peers. The level of ability of a boy with learning disabilities' can have some influence on a teacher's anger toward him, with teachers rating their anger somewhat lower for the low-ability than the high-ability boys. Effort expended is highly influential (see Figure 2); boys expending high effort elicited far less anger than their low-effort peers. Rated anger indicated that boys with learning disabilities, in most cases, elicited less anger than did their nondisabled peers, when matched by ability and effort: high-ability /high-effort boys, t(96) = 2.92, p < .01; high-ability /low-effort boys, t (96) = 8.63, p < .0001; and low-ability / low-effort boys, t(96) = 6.54, p <.0001.


As with anger, significant main effects were found for ability, F(1, 96) = 77.98, p < .0001; effort, F(1, 96) = 68.17, p < .0001; and disability status, F (1, 96) = 35.90, p < .0001. Pity was greater toward low-ability boys, toward boys expending high effort, and toward boys with learning disabilities. A three-way interaction shows that ability, effort expended, and learning disability influenced the pity teachers felt toward a boy who had failed, F(1, 96) = 14.25, p = .0003, Boys with learning disabilities generally elicited more pity than their nondisabled peers when they failed a test.

As shown in Figure 3, only the low-ability /high-effort boys received the same amounts of pity, regardless of their disability status. Pity was rated as greater for the boy with learning disabilities in all the other pairs, with the high-ability /high-effort boys, t(96) = -4.93, p < .0001; high-ability /low-effort boys, t(96) = -2.47, p < .02; and low-ability / low-effort boys, t(96) = -5.31, p < .0001, eliciting greater pity when the boys had learning disabilities than when they were nondisabled.

Expectancy of future failure

Significant main effects for ability, F(1, 96) = 156.06, p < .0001 ; effort, F(1, 96) = 140.34, p < .0001; and disability status,F(1,96) = 115.98, p< .0001, were found. Teachers held higher expectations that boys with learning disabilities, particularly those of low-ability or expending low effort, would fail again. Similarly, nondisabled boys of low ability or expending low effort were considered more likely to fail in the future. As with pity, a three-way interaction for ability, effort, and a child's learning disability showed that each of these factors plays a role in shaping a teacher's expectations of a child's future failure, F(1, 96) = 49.14 p < .0001. Thus, teachers believed that the high-ability, high-effort nondisabled boy was least likely to fail, and the low-ability, low-effort boy with learning disabilities most likely to fail, in the future.

As shown in Figure 4, teachers rated the boy with learning disabilities as more likely to fail in three of four instances: the high-ability / high-effort pair, t = -11.35, p < .0001; low- ability / high-effort pair, t = -4.90, p < .0001; and low-ability /low-effort pair, t = -2.50, p < .01.

Graph 2. Levels of anger with boys with and without LD

Graph 3. Levels of pity and levels of expectations with boys with and without LD


The moderating effect of learning disability on ability and effort attributions can be seen throughout the results of this study. The findings were consistent with past research (see Weiner, Graham, & Chandler, 1982; Weiner & Kukla, 1970) showing that learning disability does influence teachers' responses to a boy's test failure. Further, these data support the predicted association between reward/punishment and anger or pity toward failing students: Teachers generally reward boys with learning disabilities more than their nondisabled peers, and feel less anger and more pity following test failure. This may be due to what Weiner (1986) called a "norm to be kind" (p.146) to those having limitations, such as disabilities. Expectations of future failure are higher for children with learning disabilities, as well. These findings lend some support to the view of learning disability as internal, stable, and uncontrollable, which Weiner, Graham, and Chandler found was the combination of dimensions that elicited the greatest pity and the least anger.

The work of Weiner and Kukla (1970) indicated that high-ability, low- effort boys with learning disabilities would be punished for their test failure, like their nondisabled matches, should learning disability have no influence on teachers' rewards and punishment. The cause of failure - effort- is seen as largely under the volitional control of the child and thereby merits punishment. Yet, teachers tend to reward these children with learning disabilities at a very low level. This would seem to suggest that teachers see learning disability as a significant, uncontrollable cause of failure. Whereas controllable causes, particularly unstable ones, are maximally punished, stable and uncontrollable causes are maximally rewarded. However, it appears that controllable effort still influences uncontrollable learning disability, thus resulting in the low levels of rewards given to these boys. It may be that teachers are unwilling to punish the failures of children with learning disabilities so as to preserve their students' self-esteem, yet do not wish to reward low effort; thus, a token reward is given, perhaps to encourage greater effort in the future or prevent even lower levels of effort.

Greatest anger, least pity, and greatest punishment were assigned to the high-ability, low-effort nondisabled boy. Clearly, teachers perceived his failures as within his personal control and held him responsible for them. However, the fact that the cause of his failure- a lack of sufficient effort- was unstable, coupled with his high ability, caused teachers to hold very low expectations that he would fail again. Conversely, the least anger , greatest pity, and highest reward were given to the low-ability, high-effort boy with learning disabilities. In that case, high effort was expended in an attempt to overcome the potential effects of the stable causes low ability and a learning disability, and failure was seen as out of the boy's control.

Teachers clearly held high expectations that their students with LD would fail again. Further, ability and effort expended by the boy's with learning disabilities had little impact on the teachers' expectations; the teachers viewed low-ability boys with learning disabilities as only slightly more likely to fail again than their peers of high ability. There was far greater variability among the nondisabled boys; in that group, high-ability boys were viewed as less likely to fail, and high effort reduced the likelihood of failure within ability groups. For the nondisabled boys, high effort was seen as mitigating the effects of low ability, allowing a boy more potential success.

These findings not only appear to demonstrate the interrelationships among reward and punishment, anger, pity, and expectancy of future failure, but also may shed light on the values of American teachers. High effort, particularly in the face of low ability, is rewarded and elicits pity responses; overcoming an adversity such as a disability by hard work is particularly valued.

Implications for the classroom

Schoolchildren receive a constant flow of information about their personal competence as students throughout the school day. Clearly, the teacher is a crucial source of this information. Although teachers no doubt wish to build children's self-esteem and imbue in them a sense of personal competence, they may unknowingly do the opposite via the attributional messages they send to their students with learning disabilities.

These findings suggest that teachers make causal attributions and subsequently respond to children with learning disabilities on the basis of, at least in part, the belief that (a) these students will fail more, (b) they are deserving of more pity and less anger, and (c) they should be provided more reward and less punishment than their nondisabled peers for an equivalent outcome, perhaps to maintain or encourage motivation to perform. These three phenomena send a clear message to children with learning disabilities: They are less competent than their nondisabled peers and should expect to accomplish less as a result. When students use attributional information to make inferences about their own ability and effort, these inferences are manifest in the students' self-esteem, expectations for their own future successes and failures, and their classroom performance.

By exploring the attributions that teachers make for their students' failures, this study sought to enhance our understanding of the underlying beliefs teachers hold about learning disability. There is little doubt that the impact of attributional information is both significant and long-lasting, and it may play a role in continuing to reinforce children with learning disabilities' beliefs that they are less competent students than their nondisabled peers (Kistner, Osborne, & Le Verrier, 1988; Licht, 1983). With this work, we begin to understand how the nature of the indirect messages teachers send to students with learning disabilities through the attributional process differs from those they send to non-disabled students. Further, it illustrates the need to more fully explore the way in which children with learning disabilities interpret attributional messages. This study provides teachers with information that allows them to (a) examine the indirect cues sent to students with learning disabilities, and (b) thus potentially serve to more positively affect the way in which these children perceive themselves and their level of personal competence.

The aim of this study was to apply established attributional principles to learning disability as a cause for failure, using established research paradigms. Although the findings suggest differences in the way teachers respond attributionally to the failure of boys with learning disabilities, the results should be interpreted cautiously, considering several limitations. School district policies that required teachers' participation in research projects to be limited to faculty groups did not allow for random selection of participants in this study. Similarly, participants were drawn from a limited geographic area. Furthermore, the use of hypothetical vignettes with self- reported data did not allow the study to capture the dynamics of the classroom, and some variation in responses might be expected to occur as a function of the ecology of individual classrooms. The study used a nonspecific situation in which the hypothetical boys failed, and it can be expected that responses might vary somewhat with type of test and subject area. Further, anger, pity, reward/punishment and expectancies can all be expected and expectancies can all be expected to vary as a reflection of the ongoing relationship between the student and the teacher. Conclusions are based on he assumption that teachers interpret ability and effort (as described in the vignettes) in essentially the same way, regardless of a boy's disability status. However, it is possible that some teachers' understanding of what is meant by low ability or low effort will differ if a boy has a learning disability, compared with his nondisabled peers. The present data cannot rule out such differences and the impact they may have on these teachers' judgments.

Toward further study

This work demonstrates that elementary-school classroom teachers respond differentially to hypothetical students with learning disabilities based in part on attributional information, but it also raises intriguing questions that invite further investigation. This study has limited itself to the elementary-school classroom and to boys, who represent the majority of children placed in learning disability programs (US Department of Education, 1994). Yet the dramatically lower percentage of girls placed in programs for children with learning disabilities (Payette & Clarizio, 1995) suggests that teachers and other special education personnel may have differential standards for referral and placement in special education programs based, at least in part, on a child's gender. Might these findings differ when teachers are asked to respond to the outcomes of girls, reflecting these gender-based differential standards? Certainly this is a question that merits further exploration. Further, replication with secondary-school teachers, as well as a systematic examination of differences among teachers at differing grade levels, will expand the findings of this study and allow us to more fully understand the nature of teachers' attributional messages to schoolchildren with learning disabilities.

What teacher characteristics might influence these findings? This study examined the responses of general education teachers. A replication of this study with special education teachers serving children with learning disabilities, including comparisons between general and special education teachers, might allow us to understand commonalties and differences in the two groups' perceptions of children with learning disabilities, and potentially add to the knowledge base on which consultative relationships are built. Similarly, replications might examine such factors as teachers' years of experience, years in higher education, experience with mainstreamed students with learning disabilities, or exposure to inservice education on teaching children with learning disabilities.


About the author

Margaret D. Clark, MA, is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles, in the Division of Special Education. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the California State University, Los Angeles/ University of California, Los Angeles, Joint Doctoral Program. Her research interests include general education teachers' perception and conceptualization of learning disabilities, and the attributional approach to achievement motivation.

Author's notes:

  1. This research was supported by the Lena and Dominic Longo Scholarship, awarded to the author by the Division of Special Education, California State University, Los Angeles.
  2. I wish to thank Dr. Sandra Graham, UCLA .Graduate School of Education, for her supportive and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. I would also like to thank Dr. Stella Port, Sheila Lane, Christine Irons, and Stephen Llanusa for their assistance in arranging participating' schools. I am particularly grateful to the principals and faculties from the Covina-Valley Unified, Bonita Unified, Mountain View Elementary,, Colton Joint Unified, Chino Unified, and Los Angeles Unified school districts who participated in this and the pilot phases of the study.



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

Burger, J. M., Cooper, H. M., & Good, T. L. (1982). Teachers' attributions of student performance: Effects of outcomes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 685-690.

Cooper, H. M., & Burger, J. M. (1980). How teachers explain students' academic performances: A categorization of free response academic attributions. American Educational Research Journal, 17, 95-109.

Doris, J. L. (1993). Defining learning disability: A history of the search for consensus. In G. R. Lyon, D. B. Gray, J. F. Kavanagh, & N. A. Krasnegor (Eds.), Better understanding learning disabilities (pp. 97-116). Baltimore: Brookes.

Federal Register. (1977, August 23). Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

Frieze, I. H. (1976). Causal attributions and information seeking to explain success and failure. Journal of Research in Personality, 10, 293-305.

Frieze, I. H., & Snyder, H. N. (1980}. Children's beliefs about the causes of success and failure in school settings. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 186- 196.

Graham, S. (1990). On communicating low ability in the classroom: Bad things good teachers sometimes do. In S. Graham & V. Folkes (Eds.), Attribution theory: Applications to achievement, mental health, and interpersonal conflict (pp. 17-36). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Graham, S. (1991 ). A review of attribution theory in educational contexts. Educational Psychology Review, 3, 5-39.

Graham, S., & Weiner, B. (1986). From attribution theory to developmental psychology: A round-trip ticket? Social Cognition, 4, 152-179.

Kelley, H. H., & Michaela, J. (1980). Attribution theory and research. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 457-501.

Kistner, J. A., Osborne, M., & Le Verrier, L. (1988). Causal attributions of learning disabled children: Developmental patterns and relation to academic progress. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 82- 89.

Licht, B. G. (1983). Cognitive-motivational factors that contribute to the achievement of learning disabled children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 16, 483-490.

Payette, K. A., & Clarizio, H. F. (1995) Discrepant team decisions: The effects of race, gender, achievement and IQ or LD eligibility. Psychology in the Schools 31,40-48.

Speece, D. L. (1993). Broadening the scope of classification research: Conceptual and ecological perspectives. In G. R. Lyon, D. B. Gray, J. F. Kavanagh, &: N. A. Krasncgor (Eds.), Better understanding learning disabilities (pp. 57-72). Baltimore: Brookes.

Speece, D. L. (1994, Apri1). Classroom ecologies, problem learners and school success: How far have we come? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

Tollefson, N., Melvin, J., &: Thippavajjala, C. (1990}. Teachers' attributions for students low achievement: A validation of Cooper and Good's attributional categories. Psychology in the Schools. 27, 75-83.

US Department of Education. (1994). Sixteenth annual report to congress. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Wang, M. C., Reynolds, M. C., &: Walberg, H: J. (1987). Integrating the children of the second system. Phi Delta Kappan.70, 248-251.

Weiner, B. (1979). A theory of motivation for some classroom experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 3-25.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review. 92, 548-573.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Weiner, B. (1993). On sin versus sickness: A theory of perceived responsibility and social motivation. American Psychologist, 48, 957-965.

Weiner, B., Graham, S., &: Chandler, C. (1982). Pity, anger and guilt: An attributional analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 226-232.

Weiner, B., Graham, S., Stern, P., &: Lawson, M. E. (1982). Using affective cues to infer causal thoughts. Developmental Psychology, 18, 278-286. Weiner, B., & Kukla, A. (1970). An attributional analysis of achievement motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 15, 1-20.

Wimer, S., &: Kelley, H. H. (1982). An investigation of the dimensions of causal attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 1142-1162.

Margaret D. Clark The Journal of Learning Disabilities, Volume 30, No.1, PP.69-79 © 1997 by PRO-ED, Inc.