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Full text of "ERIC EJ712981: Learning Disabilities and Social Skills: Reflections"

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Gwendolyn Cartledge 

GWENDOLYN CARTLEDGE, Ph.D., is professor in special education, School of Physical Activity and Education Services, 

The Ohio State University. 

I recall a conversation 1 had very early in my public 
school career with the mother of one of fhe sfudenfs in 
our program for sfudenfs wifh learning disabilifies (LD). 
Over fhe previous fhree or four years, fhis mofher had 
been a very sfrong and effective advocafe for her son, 
managing fo get him enrolled in one of fhe firsf LD 
classes in fhe cify and making cerfain fhaf he received 
every possible allowable service. Neal, her son, had 
made good progress in fhe program, and at this point 
we were returning him to the general education class 
full fime wifh supporf services from special education. 

As 1 discussed this administrative decision with Mrs. 
Davis, the mother, 1 expected her to be pleased about 
her son's progress and to express her appreciation of 
fhis school program. Insfead, fo my surprise, she 
responded by making two points. First of all, she was 
certain that Neal would not have made this progress if 
she had not spent countless hours in the evening tutor- 
ing him. In other words, we were not nearly rigorous 
enough in our teaching. And second, which was even 
more unnerving to me, she stated that we had failed to 
teach her son critical social skills. When pressed, she 
pointed out that Neal was a nice, quiet boy, but was too 
compliant. She had no confidence in his ability to resist 
inappropriate peer requests. If some of the neighbor- 
hood children told him to pilfer from fhe local store, for 
example, she was not sure that he would refuse. 

Alfhough 1 did nof overfly confesf her sfatemenfs, my 
inner reaction was thaf Mrs. Davis was unrealistic in her 
expectations of the public schools. Nevertheless, that 
conversation has continued to resonate with me, and 
three decades later 1 am increasingly convinced of fhe 
frufh of her words. 

The Nature of Social Skill Deficits for Populations 
with Learning Disabilities 

Johnson and Myklebust (1967) provided some of fhe 

earliesf professional work thaf 1 encounfered on social 
skills and learning disabilities. They presented the 
socially imperceptive child, defined as having difficulfy 
wifh "the perception of fhe tofal social field, perception 
of oneself in relafion fo fhe behavior of ofhers as well as 
to events and circumstances that involve others" (p. 
295). These authors viewed social imperception as a spe- 
cific learning disability, and saw socially imperceptive 
learners has having difficulty interpreting the behaviors 
of others, particularly in nonverbal communication 
such as reading the facial expressions of others. The 
research literature repeatedly has documented the diffi- 
culty children with learning and other mild disabilities 
have in comprehending nonverbal cues and with prob- 
lem solving (e.g., Cartledge, Stupay, & Kaczala, 1996; 
Forness & Kavale, 1996; Nixon, 2001). Students with LD 
are also noted to have problems with attending to task, 
with social communication, and with peer acceptance 
(Nixon, 2001). 

In their pioneering work, LD professionals such as 
Johnson and Myklebusf (1967) assumed fhese social 
skill deficifs represenfed a neurological learning disor- 
der specific fo learners wifh LD. Ofhers have questioned 
this premise, however, noting that (a) some children 
with LD evidence no social skill deficits; (b) children 
with LD perform similarly fo ofher af-risk groups, such 
as juvenile delinquenfs or children wifh academic 
deficifs on social skill assessments; and (c) social skill 
deficits are not specific fo children with LD (e.g., 
Gresham, 1993; Schumaker & Deshler, 1995). Further- 
more, the source of the social skill deficit is considered 
to be immaterial; children need to receive appropriate 
interventions according to the nature of their social 
skill deficit, not based on speculation on some underly- 
ing cause. This more behavioral, skills training (SST) 
approach has dominated the field of social skills frain- 
ing and is fhe model fhaf 1 have used in my own work. 

Volume 28, Spring 2005 179 

Social Skill Interventions 

Since the early writings on this topic in the 1960s and 
1970s, formal social skill assessments (e.g., Gresham & 
Elliott, 1990), curricula (e.g., Cartledge & Kleefeld, 1991, 
1994; Goldstein & McGinnis, 1997; Stephens, 1972, 
1978; Walker et ak, 1997), and numerous intervention 
studies (see Gresham, Cook, & Crews, 2004) have 
emerged. This work is reported to result in varying 
degrees of success. Schumaker and Deshler (1995), for 
example, reflecting on their research at the University 
of Kansas since 1978 with students with LD, conclude 
that these students can be taught complex social be- 
haviors and can learn to apply these skills under natu- 
rally occurring conditions. More recently, however, 
researchers have begun to notice the rather modest 
gains reported in social skills studies and have begun to 
question the overall effectiveness of social skill research 
(Bullis, Walker, & Sprague, 2001; Gresham, Sugai, & 
Horner, 2001). 

Nevertheless, there is good reason to view social skill 
interventions positively. While Gresham et al. (2004) 
note that much of the existing work is riddled with 
methodological errors, closer analysis shows that empir- 
ically valid studies produced modest to good returns. 
Furthermore, the scrutiny of past work gives us direc- 
tions for future social skill interventions. As we con- 
tinue our efforts to improve the social behaviors of 
students with mild disabilities, we must prepare to 
make changes in our instructional practice and our 
research practices, and to expand our focus for social 
skill intervention. 

Changes in Instructional and Research Practices 

Prepare teachers. All teachers must be thoroughly 
prepared to teach social skills. This is especially the case 
for general education teachers, who are likely to be the 
teachers who first encounter students with LD who 
present social skill deficits. These teachers can have the 
greatest impact on preventing or minimizing future 
behavior problems. Skilled and confident teachers are 
more likely to teach social skills as needed. In research 
studies treatment procedures must be implemented as 
prescribed; they must be closely monitored, and the 
fidelity of treatment must be clearly described. 

Teach in classrooms. Social skill instruction must 
occur in the classroom and, to the extent possible, be 
taught by the classroom teacher. Much of the instruc- 
tion reported in the research literature shows students 
being taught in small groups outside the classroom and 
then returned to the same classroom conditions with no 
adaptations to either reinforce or heighten the opportu- 
nities for newly taught behaviors to occur. Newly 
acquired behaviors are not likely to persist under such 

Teach more. Social skill instruction should not be 
treated as a fad. Social skills are critical to school success 
and overall adult competence. There is no evidence that 
social skills are systematically being taught in our 
schools, and since a majority of students with LD evi- 
dence social skill deficits, social skill instruction must be 
an explicit and permanent part of the school curricu- 
lum. The lessons must be comprehensive and ongoing, 
for children will not acquire the desired levels of social 
competence with 10 weeks or 30 sessions of social skill 
instruction, for example. Social skills must be taught 
throughout the grades with developmentally appropri- 
ate lessons. Research studies need to be structured so 
that the intervention continues over an extended 
period of time, lasting throughout the school year and 
beyond, when possible. 

Teach according to learner deficits. A major problem 
with the current social skill interventions is that social 
skill lessons are taught sequentially through published 
curricula, regardless of the specific needs of the learner. 
The lessons must be tailored to the learners, so that 
instructional activities might be revised and intensi- 
fied accordingly. Instructional pace and movement 
through the curriculum must be based on skill acquisi- 
tion, not simply focused on covering the material. 
Further, the lessons must reflect genuine need. 
Students are more likely to be responsive, and growth 
is more evident, if students see a real purpose in the 
social skill instruction they receive. Additionally, 
instruction needs to differentiate between those who 
possess the skill in their behavioral repertoire, but will 
not perform it, and those who do not know how to per- 
form a given skill. The former may only require rein- 
forcing contingencies, whereas the latter warrant direct 
social skill instruction. 

Assess according to skills taught. Social skill findings 
are obscured by a tendency to assess skills that have 
not been taught. It does little good to spend several 
weeks teaching students to make positive comments to 
others, for example, and then assess the effects of this 
instruction on a standardized social skill instrument 
designed to measure a full array of social behaviors, 
with only one or two items on positive statements to 
others. The beneficial effects are not likely to be 

Teach with other interventions. Social skill instruc- 
tion may not be the sole intervention indicated for 
some students, particularly those who evidence comor- 
bid psychiatric disorders. In these cases other thera- 
peutic interventions might be needed, for example, 
drug or family therapy (San Miguel, Forness, & Kavale, 
1996), and social skill instruction might be part of 
a comprehensive intervention program (Gresham et 
al., 2004). 

Learning Disability Quarterly 180 

Expand the Focus 

Prevention. Social skill instruction must begin early 
in the preschool and primary grades, when the child 
is most receptive to behavior change. Good social skill 
instruction early in the child's life can he instrumental 
in minimizing or preventing problem behaviors, which 
are likely to become more severe or resistant in later 
years. With relatively simple interventions, many stu- 
dents can be helped to he maintained in less restrictive 
settings and to have more positive school outcomes. 

Culturally and linguistically diverse populations. As 
our public school populations grow in diversity, school 
personnel are increasingly challenged to understand 
and meet the behaviors students bring to the class- 
room. School personnel must be able to differentiate 
between cultural differences and behavioral deficits, to 
use culturally relevant and effective practices to bring 
about behavior change, and to be committed to the 
growth of every child no maffer how great the differ- 
ence or severe fhe behavior (Cartledge & Milburn, 


There have heen many changes in social skill insfruc- 
fion over fhe pasf three decades. Many of fhem are 
good, some continue to challenge us. I am just as con- 
vinced today as I was at the beginning of my career 
fhaf children can be faughf fo be more adapfive. We 
cannof afford fo fail, because fhis is germane to our 
educational mission. Perhaps not a perfect analogy, but 
I think of medical science confronfed with a particu- 
larly resistant viral strain, unresponsive to existing 
medications. Ignoring the virus is not an option. 
Instead, medical research efforts are intensified and per- 
sisf until they succeed in containing the virus and 
improving health. Similarly, despite the challenges, we 
must increase, not relax, our commitment to effective 
social skill interventions. Few things are more impor- 
tant than the successful educafion of all of our children, 
parficularly fhose with special needs. 


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Volume 28, Spring 2005 181