Social-Emotional Development and LDs

Children with learning disabilities (LDs) often have difficulties that go far beyond those in reading, writing, math, memory, or organization. When they experience constant struggle and failure, students may develop negative self-esteem, even when others offer support and encouragement. Low self-esteem and a lack of confidence only serve to further interfere with learning and academic success and can reinforce a cycle of failure and negativity. For many, strong feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, or shame can lead to psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.

Research has also shown that students with learning disabilities are often less accepted and may be rejected by their peers. Social rejection can result in feelings of loneliness, which, in turn, may lead to psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.


Students with LDs are also at risk of experiencing bullying for some of the following reasons:

  • Being different from their peers can set students up for targeting by bullies.
  • Peers may taunt students over their attendance in a special education program.
  • Students with LDs may feel less competent and less confident than their peers and therefore feel less able and less entitled to stand up for themselves. This may be aggravated by their difficulty expressing thoughts and feelings.
  • They may have difficulty understanding the verbal or nonverbal communication and the intentions and expectations of others.
  • They may not follow the rules in games and the rules of conversations.
  • They may have difficulty managing their own behaviour and feelings. They may be too loud, hyper, disruptive, talkative etc. Peers may find this sort of behaviour irritating.
  • Some students with LDs are ‘too honest’ and are unable to conceal their weaknesses and mistakes, thus leaving them vulnerable to others.

(Adapted from Bullying and Learning Disabilities, an Integra Tip Sheet. Click here to access the tip sheet.)

It is important to remember that there are students with LDs for whom social skills are an area of strength, and many are able to negotiate emotional challenges without needing support.

Fostering Resilience

Even when students have social and/or emotional difficulties, some are more resilient than others. Long-term studies which included young people with LDs have found that several protective factors increase the probability of good life outcome, including:

  • Developing a special skill or talent that helps students to be successful and appreciated for their contributions.
  • Supportive adults outside the home, including educators who foster trust and act as gatekeepers for the future.

Tips for Educators

Drs. Sam Goldstein and Robert Brooks, authors of Raising Resilient Children, recommend the following five strategies to help students with LDs become more resilient:

1. Teach empathy
2. Teach responsibility by encouraging contributions
3. Teach decision-making and problem-solving skills that reinforce self-discipline
4. Offer encouragement and positive feedback
5. Help children learn to deal with mistakes

The following is a short list of ways that educators can promote the social and emotional well-being of students with LDs (adapted from The Social and Emotional Side of Learning Disabilities by Sheldon H. Horowitz, EdD. Click here to access the article).

  1. Recognize the student’s specific areas of strength (competence) and need, and look for (or create) teachable moments to model and reinforce positive skills.
  2. Teach social skills the same way you would academic skills: proceed in small steps, demonstrate and give multiple examples, offer practice and feedback (reinforcement and praise), and systematically find opportunities to generalize (apply) newly learned skills and behaviours to different settings.
  3. Find ways to build the student’s self-concept, and help them to achieve and sustain a level of appreciation and positive status among their peers.
  4. Try to minimize competition and focus instead on cooperative learning by creating opportunities for shared learning and joint activities.