Does Your Child Have A Social Learning Disability?

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Does Your Child Have a Social Learning Problem?

Most parents know that the prevalence of learning disabilities is skyrocketing. Including other neurodevelopmental syndromes like ADHD, autism, and Asperger's syndrome, learning disabilities have unfortunately become commonplace in the lives of our children, and by extension,our families.

When most of us think of learning, we naturally think of the kinds of learning that occurs in school. The most widely discussed learning disability is dyslexia - and justifiably so. Reading is the foundation for many other types of life learning, and most of could agree that reading skills are essential. Hopefully, other kinds of learning challenges, equally important to a successful life, will soon gain greater recognition and intervention.

Specifically, let's look at social learning problems, which include the realm of nonverbal learning disorders. Social learning plays a critical role in helping children manage fundamental milestones such as forming friendships, making a positive impression on others and learning to read nonverbal communication - "body language." Because these learning skills may not directly affect academic performance they are often seen as less "urgent" than dyslexia or a math disability - but don't believe it.

Social learning is every bit as important to healthy development as learning to read or do fractions. In chapter seven of my book, Boys of Few Words, I discuss new research which identifies an important link between dyslexia and social learning skills. It turns out that phonological awareness - the ability to hear and discriminate word sounds - is a common problem among socially challenged kids. In addition, can you
imagine how much less social knowledge you might have if you weren't a reader?

Helping social learning problems can be complex because their effects are often pervasive. Children with social learning problems need assistance at home and school. Families that are most successful in helping a child overcome social learning problems collaborate carefully with schools. It is very powerful for a child to see that significant adults in her or his life are "on the same page." If your child is the beneficiary of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), make sure that social learning challenges are addressed within the
plan.

Five leading indicators of a social learning problem:

1. Limited Friendships - As you might expect, children with social learning problems tend to have fewer friends, or tend to quickly "go through" friends as they alienate peers in succession. They may complain about the situation, or in some cases, may try to conceal their hurt by diverting their focus toward more solitary pursuits.

2. Excessive Self-Consciousness - Having a social learning problem is difficult enough, yet for some children, their awareness of the challenge makes life even more awkward and anxious. Look for signs that your child becomes excessively anxious around peers. As parents, we often try to coach kids, just to be themselves, but this is a tall order when a child is self-conscious about every word or mannerism. Conversely, sometimes a child is so "out of tune" with how he or she "comes off" that there's not enough "self-consciousness," or self- regulation (see #3).

3. Frequently Missed Social Cues - The technical term for this problem is a pragmatic (practical) communication deficit. Elements of pragmatic communication are discussed in depth in Boys of Few Words because so many kids struggle with skills like accurately "reading" gestures and facial expressions. When
you see your child misinterpret the body language of a peer, react out of all reasonable proportion to the remark of another, or fail to notice obvious nonverbal cues, you are probably seeing a need for better pragmatic communication skills.

4. Difficulty Sustaining Conversation - Being able to maintain a flow of conversation appropriate to one's age is a basic social necessity. A child may be very smart but still at a loss for words. Such a problem is heightened by social anxiety - which may stem from the very problem of being a poor communicator! This relationship highlights the reciprocal influence of communication and self- confidence. Gaining expressive skills improves confidence and self-esteem.

5. Complaints that "Nobody Likes Me" - Because having friends is so fundamental to a child's well-being, it is normal for kids to be concerned about whether they have "enough" friends. Bear in mind that while your child's complaints may indeed reflect a problem, children and adolescents with social learning difficulties often assume the worst, or exaggerate their social failures. We shouldn't diminish the emotional impact of having too few friends, but sometimes a little "fact-checking" with a child's teacher can help gauge the
seriousness of the problem.

If you have concerns about your own child's social development, or are wondering if he or she has a non-verbal learning disability, please don't wait to seek assistance. Children with social learning problems are more likely to feel isolated, bully or be bullied, and suffer from low self-esteem. Talk to your child's school psychologist or guidance counselor, or get a referral to a clinical psychologist who works with children to
get a thorough evaluation. A social skills group may be particularly helpful to give your child a safe place practice social interaction in a supportive atmosphere. To find one, check with local psychologists, community and religious organizations, or your child's school. A good social skills group will have a skilled mediator, clearly established goals, and provide social learning in a fun and interactive way.

About the Author:

Adam Cox, PhD, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and author of "Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect" (Guilford Press 2006). For more parenting resources, or for help setting up a social skills group in your school, please visit http://www.dradamcox.com

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