Social Development 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.

It is not unusual for an individual's social development to be impacted by a learning disability. This lesson looks at the different ways learning disabilities can affect social development across the life span.

Students with Learning Disabilities

Tamara is a fifth grade teacher who has taught many students with learning disabilities, or disabilities that impact a student's capacity to acquire and assimilate new information. Tamara has a good understanding of how they can impact reading, writing, and math. Lately, though, she has also developed a hunch that learning disabilities can influence her students' social worlds.

In fact, no two students with learning disabilities are the same, and the impact of the disability on their social development varies greatly. However, Tamara learns about some general ways learning disabilities can impact social development across the life span.

Early Childhood

As Tamara knows, learning disabilities are rarely diagnosed in early childhood. From birth to age five or so, the development of a child with learning disabilities is unlikely to stand out, though many parents and teachers can recognize a difference in retrospect.

Some of the ways learning disabilities can influence the social development of the youngest children include:

  • Young children with learning disabilities may be very creative and come up with good ideas for imaginative play.
  • Learning disabilities may make it difficult for young children to 'read' their environment, including implicit social cues.
  • It may take young children with learning disabilities longer than others to acquire language and as play becomes more linguistically advanced, they may struggle to keep up.

Middle Childhood

Most of Tamara's students with learning disabilities were diagnosed sometime in middle childhood, the period of time between approximately ages 6 to 10. This is when children are typically expected to learn to read, write, and do basic computation, so differences and struggles in learning really stand out.

Tamara knows that the self-esteem, or sense of self, in a child with a learning disability can be truly shaken by the diagnosis and this, in turn, can affect social development. Some of the features of social development in individuals with learning disabilities in middle childhood can include:

  • Increased reliance on nonverbal communication or finding their niche in the arts or athletics
  • Withdrawal from social scenarios due to a lack of self-esteem
  • Increasingly noticeable lack of impulse control
  • Low tolerance for frustration in social situations

Tamara keeps her eye out for social struggles in her students with learning disabilities and provides support to help them believe in themselves and communicate effectively with others.


Tamara comes to understand that the social development of a student with a learning disability in adolescence is going to depend significantly on how much support, both socially and academically, they have received over the years.

For a student who has been well supported, adolescence often includes:

  • An increasing sense of themselves as belonging to a group
  • A newfound ability to explain their own struggle, which goes along with developing individual identity
  • Using the arts, athletics, or other nonacademic strengths as modalities for self-expression
  • Development of leadership skills and better social discernment

On the other hand, adolescence can be really challenging for students with learning disabilities who remain unsupported. Tamara finds that some of these struggles are typical:

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