Emotional Growth in Individuals with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Teaching students with learning disabilities means attending to their development and needs on a holistic level. This lesson focuses on the trajectory of emotional growth in individuals with learning disabilities.

Remembering the Importance of Emotion

Janice has been a fourth grade teacher for three years, and she is excited that this year she will be teaching in an inclusive setting, one where students with disabilities learn and study alongside their typically developing peers.

Janice feels that she already knows a fair amount about students with learning disabilities, or discrepancies between their overall intelligence and their ability to learn in one or more specific domains. She has focused on learning to support these students as they gain independence in reading, writing, and math.

Lately, though, Janice has started to wonder about emotional development in these students. After all, as a classroom teacher, she is interested in the whole child, including emotional growth and well being. She decides to do some research on emotional growth in students with learning disabilities.

Early Childhood

As Janice discovers, early childhood, or the years from birth to age 6, is not usually a time of great emotional differences for individuals with learning disabilities. Like many young children, these individuals tend to love play and sometimes have emotions that overwhelm them, leading to occasional tantrums.

Young children with learning disabilities benefit from strong attachments to one or more special adults, and, as they grow older, they will form attachments to peers as well.

Because children with learning disabilities are sometimes slow to acquire language, they may grow easily frustrated. They will not necessarily be able to communicate their wishes and needs clearly at the same time as typical peers, and this frustration can cause them to act out. Janice learns that it is important to be patient and gradually provide language that will help these children navigate their strong emotions.

Middle Childhood

Janice already knows that middle childhood, the period from approximately 6 to 11, is when learning disabilities are often diagnosed. The demands of school start to include literacy and numeracy, and it becomes more evident who is struggling to learn.

This can cause challenges in self esteem, or how students with learning disabilities conceive of themselves. They may exhibit signs of depression, including social isolation and anxiety.

Individuals with learning disabilities also tend to remain concrete thinkers even when peers are moving toward slightly more abstract thinking, and this can make it hard for them to understand and communicate about their own emotional experiences.

Janice learns that students with learning disabilities in middle childhood benefit from close relationships with adults, explicit instruction in emotional language, and narratives about themselves and others that help them see their strengths as well as their struggles.


Adolescence, Janice knows, can be a complex emotional time for any individual. Students with learning disabilities sometimes come a bit later to the strong and erratic emotions associated with adolescence, though this is not necessarily the case.

Janice learns that adolescence is an important time to look out for stereotype threat, or how those with learning disabilities are responding to stereotypes about who they are and what they are capable of. Many individuals with learning disabilities will experience depression, anxiety, and low self esteem in adolescence.

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