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Social Skills and Learning Disabilities

Since 1978, several research studies have been conducted at the University of Kansas Institute for Research in Learning Disabilities (KU-IRLD) on the social competence of children and youth with learning disabilities.

Serving as the foundation of these studies was the notion that social competence in an individual is the performance of social skills in interpersonal interactions in efficient, effective, and fluent ways to yield positive consequences for the person and those around him or her. Social skills were defined as cognitive and overt behaviors a person uses in interpersonal interactions and can range from simple nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact and head nods to the complex verbal behavior of offering a compromise that will meet everyone’s needs. The studies conducted at the KU-IRLD have focused on children’s and adolescents’ use of such social skills, typically in fairly complex situations such as circumstances in which they are required to engage in several exchanges with another person.


The results of these studies in which adolescents and young adults with learning disabilities were asked to answer questions about their social lives have yielded some important information about their social performance as well as some critical clues on how educators might work with them to improve their social competence. For the purposes of this article, the reported results and the experiences of working with students with learning disabilities has been derived from a larger study done at the KUIRLD. An important caution regarding these conclusions is that they are based on group data and typically on averages for the group. This means that they may not describe every individual with learning disabilities. Nevertheless, they provide important insights into future directions for the education of a large majority of the population with learning disabilities.

Individuals with learning disabilities are not social isolates. Results of observational studies in class indicate that adolescents with learning disabilities talk to as many peers, initiate 5% more interactions, and spend slightly more time interacting with others than their peers who have no disabilities. They report in surveys that they spend more time than peers hanging around with friends, having friends over to their homes, about the same amount of time talking on the phone, and have about the same number of close friends as their peers.

Individuals with learning disabilities engage in few formal social activities. Youth with learning disabilities report that they invite friends to engage in activities less often, go places with friends less frequently, go to sports events less often, and engage in fewer extracurricular activities than their peers. This difference persists into young adulthood. These results, in combination with those reported above, indicate that although youth with learning disabilities interact with peers frequently on an informal basis, they have few opportunities to engage in and learn from more complex activities with their peers.

Individuals with learning disabilities are less socially skilled than same-age peers. When they are asked to use cognitive social behaviors, youth with learning disabilities are less able to do so than their peers. For example, when they are asked to solve a social problem, they tend to leap to a solution rather than use problem-solving strategies to construct the best social solution. They tend to engage in an antisocial behavior versus a prosocial behavior when they are pressured by peers. When asked to engage in simulated social exchanges, youth with learning disabilities use significantly fewer nonverbal and verbal social skills than their same-age peers without disabilities.

Some individuals with learning disabilities are similar to same-age peers with regard to social performance. About one fourth of the youth with learning disabilities who were asked to engage in simulated social exchanges performed about the same numbers of nonverbal and verbal social skills as youth without disabilities. This means that not all youth with learning disabilities need social skills instruction and that care should be taken to identify those who might need this type of instruction, given the limited instructional time available for remediating these youth’s deficits.

Individuals with learning disabilities perform similarly to other at-risk populations in the social arena. When youth with learning disabilities are asked to engage in simulated social exchanges, they perform about the same numbers of nonverbal and verbal social skills as youth who are on probation with the juvenile court, which means that their social performance is comparable to the social performance of youth who have been referred to the juvenile court for serious social problems.

Individuals with learning disabilities can learn to use social skills and social skills strategies. Several research studies conducted with elementary through high school students with learning disabilities indicate that they can master social skills and social skills strategies (complex combinations of social skills). They reach mastery in about the same number of trials as their same-age peers who do not have disabilities. These results are achieved when a specialized sequence of instruction is used that includes a description of the social behaviors, modelling of the behaviors, verbal practice in naming the behaviors, practice in the social behaviors, and individual feedback. Regardless of where this sequence of instruction is used (e.g., in support or regular classes), it is effective with individuals with learning disabilities.

Some individuals with learning disabilities have difficulty generalizing social skills and social skills strategies. In some cases, even after they have learned a social skill strategy to mastery levels, individuals with learning disabilities do not use the strategy when a naturally occurring social situation dictates its use. They might miss the opportunity to use the strategy altogether. This means that instruction must include teaching them how to generatively use social skills and social skills strategies. However, when generalization instruction is a part of the instructional sequence, individuals with learning disabilities are able to generatively use social skills and social skill strategies.

Individuals with learning disabilities are often treated poorly by peers in cooperative groups. When individuals with learning disabilities are placed in regular class cooperative groups, they might be ignored by their peers, baited, complained about to the teacher, and the target of negative remarks. This treatment does not improve over time if social skills instruction is not implemented.

Individuals with learning disabilities and their peers can learn cooperative strategies that enable them to function well as a team. When children are specifically taught how to interact and work as a cooperative team, the negative treatment of individuals with learning disabilities terminates, and the children treat each other positively and with respect. They work together in such a way that everyone is given an opportunity to contribute, and they are pleased with their cooperative work. Additionally, peer ratings of the children with disabilities improve.


The overall picture regarding the social performance of children and youth with learning disabilities is a positive one. Although they might not intuitively learn social skills and may believe that they were born socially inept, they can learn how to behave in social situations. They can learn complex combinations of social behaviors, and they can learn to apply them in naturally occurring situations. They can also learn to work as members of a team and become accepted and respected by other team members.

Nevertheless, in order for individuals with learning disabilities to learn these skills, they must have be taught them through the use of a specialized instructional sequence that focuses on social performance. This instructional sequence works best if the instruction permeates the child’s environment, ensuring that each child masters the social behaviors and learns to mix and match the behaviors in a generative way to fit any kind of social situation. Unfortunately, this type of instruction is rarely implemented in today’s schools, where the emphasis is placed on learning academic skills and content. In order for this type of instruction to be used, priorities will need to be realigned in many places such that children will have opportunities at early ages to learn the social behaviors they will need as they progress through school. School personnel need to be adequately trained to implement the instruction, and instructional priorities need to be placed on including in the educational environment social skills instruction. Only then will children and youth who need to learn social skills have the opportunity to succeed in the social arena.

Jean B. Schumaker and Donald D. Deshler Learning Disabilities Association of America Newsbriefs, March-April 1995
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