When we think of children with learning challenges, we think of difficulty with reading or math, with being organized, with paying attention and staying focused in school. But many students with learning and attention disorders also have social and communication problems.
They have trouble connecting with other kids, making friends and understanding what’s expected of them in social situations.
Some of them miss social cues, and misinterpret body language and tone of voice. Kids with learning disabilities may talk too much, or at the wrong time, or say things that are inappropriate. Some are stiff in conversation, have trouble expressing themselves and miss the point of a lot of humor. They don’t “get” things that seem to come effortlessly to other kids. They may have trouble understanding what’s happening in a group, and finding a way of fitting in.
For children and teenagers, being “just a little off” in their social behavior can easily trigger rejection by their hyperaware peers, and make them targets of teasing and bullying. Sometimes young children with social awkwardness or deficits are misdiagnosed with autism, because these behaviors are one component of an autism diagnosis. But it’s important to recognize that these behaviors occur in a lot of kids who aren’t on the spectrum, too.
“Most kids with learning problems have social dimensions to their problems,” observes Scott Bezsylko, the executive director of Winston Preparatory School, which specializes in teaching children with learning challenges. What causes these social and communication difficulties, and why do kids with ADHD and learning disorders have them?
The cognitive process
To understand the link between learning problems and social difficulties, it helps to think about the cognitive process that has to occur in a successful social interaction.
A social interaction involves being presented with some new information or situation that calls for a response. We tend to think of those interactions as intuitive and instantaneous — you just know how to respond appropriately without thinking about it, notes Bezsylko. But it’s actually a multi-step cognitive process. You have to understand what’s been said, organize your thoughts about it, prioritize the response you want to give, retrieve the words to express it.
If that description seems too cumbersome for something that happens in an instant for most people, Bezsylko suggests thinking of it as comparable to a math problem. Someone very good at solving multi-step math problems can do one in her head automatically. Others of us might have to work through the steps sequentially.
Similarly, if we break down those “instantaneous” social interactions into a set of steps, most of us are pretty good at performing those steps at lightning speed. But kids with social and communication problems can get caught up on some part of that cognitive process. This doesn’t reflect on their intelligence, but on specific learning skills that they can’t access automatically.
“Yes, there are people who understand things quickly and easily and rapidly,” notes Bezsylko, “but that isn’t the only way that understanding can happen. Understanding can happen step by step.”
The part of the process presenting a stumbling block may be different for different kids. When you see children who struggle to connect with other kids, or to respond appropriately in social situations, their behavior may be superficially similar, but represent different underlying causes. A child might have trouble:
Comprehending the new information or situation
Organizing the information into the desired response
Retrieving language to express that response
Problems with comprehension
Kids who have trouble with comprehension of social information include those with what we call non-verbal learning disorder. These kids have trouble picking up on social patterns and don’t intuitively recognize the rules of social scenarios, whether it’s a group of people they’re joining, a greeting they need to respond to or a joke that eludes them. They aren’t able to fit it into a pattern that tells them what kind of behavior is expected.
The good news is that kids who struggle with nonverbal learning tend to be good at rote learning, Bezsylko says. That means you can teach them the patterns they’re missing. For instance, kids who have difficulty recognizing what facial expressions go with what emotions can be taught to match expressions with what they convey. They can practice until it becomes easy, but it will always be mechanical, instead of effortless.
When a student at Winston Prep has had a negative social interaction, his teacher will help him do a post-mortem, breaking it down to help the student see what happened, and what part of the sequence he is having problems with or can learn to do differently next time.
Problems with organization
Kids who have problems with executive functions, including those with an ADHD diagnosis, may comprehend the information they’re trying to respond to but have trouble organizing or prioritizing it. They may not choose the right stimuli to respond to — putting aside the question from the teacher, for example, and paying attention to the whispered comment from a classmate instead. Or they satisfy the impulse to say something rude because their brains are not pointing out that the consequences will not be good.
When these kids have a history of ignoring authority figures or blurting out something unacceptable, they get a lot of negative feedback. “The narrative about themselves becomes that they are always doing the wrong thing,” says Bezsylko, “that they’re not smart, but impulsive and socially inept. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
These kids are not socially clueless; they just don’t necessarily make the right choices of which cues to respond to, or how to organize their response effectively. Self-regulation, or effective management of their own behavior, is something they need to work on.
At Winston Prep the goal is to get kids to understand how their weakness in executive functions affects their ability to connect with other kids just as much as their ability to do multi-step math problems. The goal is to help students become resilient and open to feedback when they make mistakes, Bezsylko notes. “We might say to a student, ‘You made a bad decision that caused a negative reaction from your classmate, and your response was to withdraw.’ We need to teach them what self-regulation looks like, when it’s done well, and how to achieve it.”
Working on self-regulation in the same way that you work on math or reading comprehension is a project that kids can see as constructive, Bezsylko adds. But only if it’s presented that way, and not as: “You’re so disorganized! You need to pay attention!”
Problems retrieving language
For kids with dyslexia, the problem usually doesn’t lie in reading non-verbal signs or understanding social interactions and knowing how to respond appropriately — they may be very good at those things. But because basic decoding of language and following multi-step prompts is not effortless for them, they may have trouble with rapid word retrieval.
This affects them not only when they’re reading and writing but also when they’re speaking. Their speaking vocabulary isn’t as well-developed as well as it might be, and their oral expression may be inexact and quirky because of trouble retrieving words, or saying the wrong word.
“As a result, their ability to transact in language is compromised,” Bezsylko explains. While they might be good at the non-verbal dimension, as socializing becomes more and more verbal, they may come across as unsophisticated, or immature, or just somehow “not quite with-it” to their peers.
Bezsylko has seen kids who fit this profile bullied at their former schools because of their social awkwardness. “Even if the language issues of dyslexia do not directly impact socialization,” he notes, “it can still cause diminished self-confidence in ways that require teachers to rebuild skills like resilience and self-advocacy.”
Lack of confidence
Self-confidence can be an issue for kids without any developmental problems at all, of course. But by the time children with serious barriers to learning have struggled through several grades where the main focus is on mastering reading and writing, their self-esteem can be severely damaged.
If they haven’t been diagnosed, they have probably been accused of not trying hard enough to learn — or to keep track of their backpacks or finish their assignments — and they have surely begun to worry that they’re not as smart as other kids. Many children with ADHD or dyslexia (or both) try to hide their struggles, working extra hard to keep other kids from seeing that there’s something wrong with them.
“Kids who are feeling badly about themselves and ashamed of their failure to master basic skills are going to have trouble interacting with peers,” Bezsylko notes.
For these kids, the first step is to help them understand that they are just as smart as other kids, and they can catch up to their peers with the right support. And, of course, the next step is to provide that support, to help kids develop needed skills and strategies to work around the underlying problem so they will have the opportunity to succeed — academically as well as socially.
Thinking of awkward social behavior as a function of missing skills also defuses situations where parents, teachers and other adults tend to get upset, making the child’s situation worse.
We all, as adults, tend to react emotionally when kids aren’t doing what we want them to do socially, Bezsylko notes. “Nobody would ever call somebody a bad kid because he gets a word problem wrong. But if he’s impulsive in class and blurts out something to his teacher, then they may get upset.”
In many schools, when there is an emotional confrontation between students and teachers, nobody’s thinking clearly, he adds, which decreases the opportunity for learning. “So, we try to see both the errors and the remediation of those errors as a skill-based rational process,” he says, “rather than sending you to the principal’s office.”
This article was developed in collaboration with Winston Preparatory School, a New York area school that specializes in working with students with learning disorders.