Research has consistently reported that students with Learning Disabilities (LD) display social skill deficits relative to their average non-learning disabled (NLD) peers (Swanson & Malone, 1992; Ochea & Olivarez, 1995; Kavale & Forness, 1996) The relationship between poor social skills and students with LD has been established so frequently that several institutions have proposed including social deficits into the definition of LD including (Hammill, 1990). Meta analytic research from the 1970’s on have shown relatively modest effect sizes for interventions throughout the literature pertaining to social skill training (SST) and social competence training (SCT) programs for students with LD (Kavale & Mostert, 2004).
The importance of this issue has been established by studies demonstrating both short and long term deleterious effects of poor social skills including:
◦ ◦ ◦ ◦ ◦ ◦ peer rejection academic difficulties higher dropout rates unemployment or underemployment alcohol abuse greater likelihood of mental health problems in adulthood (Elksnin & Elksnin, 2004, Sergin and Flora, 1999).
The estimated prevalence of students with learning disabilities (LD) who also demonstrate social skills deficits ranges from 38% to 84% (Gresham & Elliot, 1989; Elksnin & Elksnin, 2004).
The purpose of this literature review is to synthesize the past four decades of research on social skills and social competence of students with learning disabilities including:
◦ where the field has been ◦ where we stand now ◦ future directions for study that take into account what we know.
Casual: The causal model is the basis for the hypothesis of central nervous system dysfunction . This hypothesis posits that the same neurological dysfunction theorized to cause LD is also responsible for the social deficits of students with LD. Concomitant: The concomitant model subsumes all hypotheses that suggest a cause and effect of academic deficits and social skills; i.e. poor social skills cause low achievement, low achievement causes poor social skills, or that both are caused by some shared trait, similar to central nervous system dysfunction hypothesis. Correlational: The correlational model is supported by the research designs that were used to study the relationship between SSD and LD. In this model, there is an established correlation between the two, but no attempts at causal inference (Gresham, 1992).
The original definition of Learning Disabilities provide in PL 94-142 states:
◦ “Specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”
Shortly after researchers began identifying the correlation between SSD and LD, Congress formed the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities (ICLD) and called on them to examine what was known about LD.
◦ Several recommendations were made by ICLD and other organizations and committees to change the definition of LD to incorporate social skills to varying degrees…
“Learning disabilities is a generic term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities, or of social skills. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction. Even though a learning disability may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (e.g., sensory impairment, mental retardation, social and emotional disturbance), with socioenvironmental influences (e.g., cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction, psychogenic factors), and especially attention deficit disorder, all of which may cause learning problems, a learning disability is not the direct result of those conditions or influences (ICLD, 1987, p.222- emphasis added).”
Learning disabilities is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social
perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may occur
concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences. (NJCLD, 1988, p.1 emphasis added)
Both definitions were rejected by the US Department of Education because in order for them to be accepted:
◦ It would require a legislative change in PL 94-142, ◦ The change in the law would increase the confusion in determining eligibility ◦ It would increase the overall number of students diagnosed as LD
Social competence is an overarching “evaluative term based on a judgment of the child’s social abilities by peers, teachers, parents, and others (Elksnin &Elksnin, 2004; p.5) Social skills are a component of social competence, referring to “specific skills used by the child in social situations” (p.5).
Swanson and Malone (1992) analyzed 39 studies, published from 1974-1990, resulting in an overall -.90 ES. They concluded that:
◦ Students with LD were more likely to suffer from peer rejection, were less liked by peers, were more likely to be rated as being aggressive, immature, inattentive, or have personality problems than NLD peers. ◦ A mere 16% of children exhibited social skills levels comparable to NLD peers. ◦ Students with LD were able to be reliably distinguished from NLD peers based on measures of peer rankings.
Ochoa and Olivarez (1995) replicated the metaanalysis conducted by Swanson and Malone (1992) using more rigorous effect size measurements and methodological criterion.
◦ The results of this meta-analyses corroborated Swanson and Malone’s findings, however the overall effect sizes obtained were lower (-.69 rather than -90) ◦ Ultimately both studies indicated that students with learning disabilities demonstrated significantly lower social skills than students without learning disabilities.
In a metaanalysis investigating the nature of SSD in students with LD compared to NLD peers, Kavale and Forness (1996) found that ratings from teachers, peers, and student self-reports largely corroborated one another in 75% of cases(Effect Size = .653) with LD demonstrating social skills deficits across domains of social competence relative to non-LD peers.
◦ Despite the agreement found across the studies that a disproportionate number of students with LD demonstrate social skills deficits, Kavale and Forness (1996) concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to support changing the definition of LD to include social skills deficits due to the still unexplained origin of social skills deficits in this population.
Nowicki (2003) conducted a meta-analysis of research on social competence from 1990 to 2000 for students with LD who were placed in inclusive classrooms as compared to their LA and AA/HA peers. 32 studies were reviewed N = 5,293, 1,659 with LD, 527 LA and 3107 AA/HA in grades K-12, median of 3rd grade.
◦ Effect sizes indicated that students with LD in inclusive settings were at a greater risk of poor social competence than their AA/HA, but not LA peers. ◦ The only significant differences that appeared between LD and LA students were in teacher ratings of social skills and peer ratings of social preference; here, LA students were found to have more positive measures of social competence than LD peers ◦ The author concluded that LD students were not at appreciably more risk for poor social competence than their LA peers, possibly because LA students in these studies were really undiagnosed students with LD.
LaGreca and Stone (1990) compared students with LD to LA peers in a sample of 90 4th-6th grade students identified as LD, LA, and AA Found statistically significant main effects of peer ratings and peer nominations approximately one half of a standard deviation from the population mean. Self-perceptions of social acceptance and global selfworth were significantly lower for LD students.
◦ Concluded that there was sufficient evidence to refute the claim that low achievement was the key contributor to low social competence. The addition of LD appeared to significantly increase the likelihood that a student would be rated poorly by his peers, teachers, and self-perceptions of social standing.
In part of a series of studies drawn from a longitudinal project studying social competence, Vaughn et. al (1993) looked at the social skills and maladaptive behaviors of a group of students with disabilities (n=10) compared to LA students (n=10) and AA/HA students (n=10) from kindergarten to third grade. The results for their study indicated that students with LD did not differ significantly from the LA peers in social skills, although all both groups scored significantly lower than their AA or HA peers.
◦ Conclude that the similar profiles seen among students with LD and LA might indicate low achievement is the substantial risk factor for SSD rather than the LD itself.
Nowicki’s (2003) meta analysis yielded mixed findings on social competence studies for students with LD in inclusive classrooms compared to their LA peers. Contrary to LaGreca and Stone (1990), students with LD appeared unaware of their own poor social standing and overestimated their social standing level in self-perception measures. The only significant differences between LD and LA students were found in the teacher ratings of social skills and peer ratings of social preference. In these two areas LA students were found to have more positive measure of social competence than LD peers; however they were still significantly below the scores obtained by AA/HH peers.
◦ Effect sizes indicated that students with LD in inclusive settings were at a greater risk of poor social competence than their AA/HA peers but not their LA peers.
The results of research have not been able to clearly establish a distinction between social competence of LA students and students with LD, and the results of comparisons are opaque at best.
◦ Part of the difficulty in interpreting the mixed findings may come from the confusion of terms social skills and social competence (Maag, 2005). It is possible that the subjective nature inherent to rating scales (peer, teacher or otherwise) creates confusion. ◦ Another possibility is that the inclusion of greater varieties of instruments yields more sensitive information, revealing differences not seen in just one or two rating scales/checklists.
In one of the earlier meta-analyses of social skills interventions across 53 studies containing N = 2,113 participants, Forness and Kavale (1996) came to the sobering conclusion that only modest gains (mean ES = .211) were being made
One of the only significant findings (and the largest effect size obtained) was an increase in the selfreported measure of perceived social status by students with LD. Unfortunately, this perceived social status increase was not reflected in teacher or peer ratings, and thus could not be assumed to have increased the actual social skills of students with LD.
◦ Even more alarmingly, 22% of the effect size measurements were actually negative, implying that they were actually lowering the social skills of students receiving treatment relative to the comparison NLD peer group.
Forness and Kavale (1996) attributed their lack of significant findings to several factors:
◦ First, the length of the interventions was deemed as too short to actually create a substantial change (average of 3 hours a week for 10 weeks). ◦ Second, the social skills curriculums selected for treatments were largely researcher developed programs with little to no pilot test data to guide the effectiveness ◦ Third, the assessment of social skills rarely was tied directly to the intervention, oftentimes a standardized global measure of social skills was used to evaluate an intervention that was created by the researcher without any connection to the final assessment. ◦ Fourth was the lack of treatment fidelity and training of treatment administrators in many of the studies, raising the question of what was actually occurring in the treatment groups. ◦ Finally, the question of what causes social skill deficits in students with learning disabilities was cited as a reason for unspecified interventions.
In a review of meta-analyses and narrative reviews on Social Skills Training (SST), Gresham, Sugai and Horner (2001) discussed why observed effect sizes were so low for students with high incidence disabilities (SLD, MR, ED, and ADHD). For the narrative reviews, Gresham et al. found that:
◦ a) effective SST programs combine modeling, coaching and reinforcement; ◦ b) cognitive behavioral procedures are not as effective and the measures used in these studies tend to be less socially valid/generalizable; ◦ c) there is a consistent trend across studies towards lack of maintenance/generalizability; ◦ d) the amount of intervention is related to the effects; and e) SST studies that match treatments to deficits results in more positive effects.
For the meta-analytic review they found that effect sizes ranged anywhere from .20 - .87, with the majority being only small to moderate effects.
◦ Behavioral principles of reinforcement are cited by Gresham et al. as being possible confounding factors in SST programs.
If students are able to achieve desired results with negative behaviors, than these negative behaviors will continue even when alternative positive behaviors are explicitly taught.
Gresham et al (2001) concluded that social skills training programs need to be longer than currently designed, with thirty hours of instruction over 10-12 weeks being insufficient. Furthermore, SST must be tied to individual student deficits through the use of functional assessments of behavior to create a foundation for the target skills.
In a critical review of reasons why SST programs have only produced modest positive effect sizes, Maag (2005) proposes that research does not address known conceptual and procedural issues including:
◦ lack of differentiation between social skills and social competence ◦ lack of information regarding the social validity of target behaviors (i.e. are they socially valued behaviors) ◦ a lack of functional behavior assessment and replacement behaviors ◦ a lack of treatment fidelity ◦ a lack of generalization (i.e. maintenance) ◦ general problems with assessment (e.g. measures that are not specific to skills taught)
We currently know that there is a significant correlation between SSD and LD. We know the estimated prevalence ranges from 38-75% . This translates to anywhere from 1,064,000 to 2,100,000 students with LD who have significant social competence issues We know that it is not the traditional pull-out resource room program that causes these social difficulties. We also know there have been myriad unsuccessful attempts to improve the social deficits in this population to little avail.
Although we will not know for certain that the research flaws criticized as being responsible for poor intervention effects are in fact responsible for the lack of findings, we do know what these concerns are and they can be addressed in future research. We know that there are promising intervention components that are more salient than others, e.g. modeling, coaching, reinforcement, and length/frequency of intervention.
There are many gaps waiting to be filled in the current literature regarding social skill deficits in students with LD, not the least of which is learning just how the two are related
Several researchers have outlined explanations for why past interventions have proven ineffective. There is no reason for future research to be hampered by practices that are well known to produce inefficient research.
◦ Regardless of why the correlation between SSD and LD exists, the detriment of low social skills compounded with the already poor long-term outcomes associated with LD creates a need for further research on effective remediation. Similar etiological enigmas have not hampered the development of highly effective phonological processing interventions in reading (Fletcher et al, 2006).
Future research should consider:
1. Length and Intensity of Interventions 2. Using Established Programs for Enhancing Social Competence that have at least preliminary evidence of effectiveness 3. Assessment of interventions should be directly tied to the intervention 4. Measures of treatment fidelity MUST be designed as part of an intervention study
All future research should describe sample populations as clearly as possible to enhance the development of theory- i.e. why SSD occurs in students with LD and possibly LA
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