Relationship Management for Students with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

Many students with learning disabilities have strong and meaningful relationships with others, but they sometimes need help managing these relationships. This lesson shows how you as a teacher can be most helpful to these students.

Learning Disabilities and Relationships

As a school psychologist, Mrs. Atkins has a lot of responsibilities. She oversees the testing and accommodations of students at her elementary school and plans and supervises IEP (individual education program) meetings.

One of Mrs. Atkins' most important jobs, though, is helping teachers understand how to build strong social and interpersonal worlds for their students. Over time, Mrs. Atkins has learned that students with learning disabilities can sometimes need special help managing relationships with peers and adults.

Learning disabilities are usually understood as discrepancies between students' overall intelligence and their capacity to acquire new knowledge and skills in a specific subject area. Because these students can seem confusing or uneven to their peers and even to some adults, they often have interpersonal struggles.

Mrs. Atkins thinks about what she can do to help teachers scaffold meaningful relationships for students with learning disabilities at her school.

Understanding Yourself, Understanding Others

Mrs. Atkins realizes that the key to any strong relationship is having a good understanding of yourself as well as the person you are trying to relate to. She focuses on helping develop the identity and sense of self in students in her school with learning disabilities. This means:

  • Helping teachers demystify, or clearly explain, what learning disabilities are, how they work, and what they do and do not mean
  • Holding lunchtime support groups for students with learning disabilities to build their sense of identity together
  • Explicitly instructing all students over time in empathy and the importance of seeing things from multiple perspectives
  • Building classroom communities where children see each other as whole people with a range of strengths and struggles

Working Cooperatively

As she works with teachers on achieving these different goals, Mrs. Atkins also understands that more opportunities for cooperative learning, or learning and working alongside others in small groups, will help students with learning disabilities develop more meaningful and lasting relationships.

She encourages teachers to build at least one cooperative activity into each school day. However, she is careful to explain that students with learning disabilities may need some extra help understanding exactly what is expected of them in a group, how to access their own strengths as group members, and how to maintain their confidence and identity when working with others.

Mrs. Atkins also tells teachers to end each week with reflection time in which students think and talk about what did and did not go well that week in cooperative learning.

Struggles with Stereotypes

Many students with learning disabilities have to struggle against stereotypes, or preconceived notions about who they are and generalizations about what they can and cannot do.

At Mrs. Atkins' school, teachers talk openly with students about the dangers of stereotypes for all sorts of students. Encouraging students with learning disabilities to speak up against stereotypes and advocate for themselves in relationships goes a long way toward helping them build meaningful connections with others.

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