Children with Learning Difficulties

When we consider children facing some sort of challenges with learning, we often associate their difficulties with reading, math, organization, attention, and focus in school. However, it’s important to recognize that the majority of students struggling with learning as well as attention disorders also encounter communication and social problems.

These children struggle to connect with their peers, make friends, and comprehend social expectations. They may have difficulty interpreting social cues, misinterpret tonal voice and body language, and exhibit inappropriate or untimely speech. Some may find it challenging to express themselves, engage in conversations, and comprehend humor. 

They often struggle to grasp concepts that come naturally to other children, and they may face difficulty understanding group dynamics and finding their place within a social setting.

Unfortunately, these social challenges can lead to being sidelined by their highly perceptive peers, making them susceptible to bullying and teasing. From time to time, young kids exhibiting deficits or social awkwardness are incorrectly diagnosed with autism, as these behaviors overlap with certain aspects associated with an autism diagnosis. 

However, it is crucial to acknowledge that behaviors of this nature are also present in many children who are not on the autism spectrum.

Scott Bezsylko, the executive director of Winston Preparatory School, a specialized institution for children facing challenges with learning, observes, “Most kids with learning problems have social dimensions to their problems.” But why do these challenges in communication and socialization arise in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?

Understanding the Cognitive Process

In order to comprehend the connection between learning difficulties and social challenges, it is helpful to consider the cognitive process involved in successful social interactions.

Socialization requires processing new or latest information or situations that demand a response. While we often perceive these interactions to be intuitive and immediate, where the appropriate response seems to come naturally, they actually involve several steps of the cognitive process. 

It entails understanding the information, organizing thoughts, prioritizing the desired response, and retrieving the appropriate words to convey it.

Although this description might seem burdensome for a phenomenon that appears instantaneous for the majority of individuals, Bezsylko recommends likening it to an arithmetic problem. Just as individuals adept at resolving multi-step arithmetic complexities can solve them mentally, others may need to solve them step by step.

Likewise, when we deconstruct these seemingly “immediate” social interactions into a series of steps, the majority of individuals excel at executing these steps rapidly. However, children with communication and social difficulties may struggle with one or more aspects of this cognitive process.

While this isn’t reflected in their intellect, it highlights distinct acquiring abilities that they cannot access automatically.

While the superficial behaviors of children who have difficulty connecting with others or responding suitably in socialization may appear similar, they can stem from different fundamental causes. A kid may struggle with:

  1. Understanding the novel circumstance or facts.
  2. Arranging the data to produce the desired outcome.
  3. Finding the appropriate words to convey that response.

Challenges in Comprehension

Children who struggle with comprehending social information often have what we refer to as a “non-verbal learning disorder.” They encounter difficulties in recognizing social behaviors or patterns and fail to intuitively grasp the unwritten social scenarios and rules. Whether it involves joining a group, responding to a greeting, or understanding a joke, they cannot fit the situation into a pattern that guides appropriate behavior.

The wonderful news is the fact that children with non-verbal learning disorders often excel in rote learning. This means that the missing social patterns can be taught to them. For example, children who have trouble recognizing facial expressions associated with different emotions are able to be trained to complement expressions with their corresponding meanings. 

With practice, this can become easier for them, although it may still require conscious effort rather than occurring effortlessly.

At Winston Prep, when a student experiences a negative or bleak social interaction, their teacher assists them in conducting a post-evaluation analysis. By breaking down the interaction, the student gains insights into what exactly happened and identifies which area of the chronology or sequence they struggled with and can improve upon in the future.

Challenges in Organization

Children with executive function difficulties, including those diagnosed with ADHD, may comprehend or understand the information they need to answer but face challenges in organizing and prioritizing it effectively. They may select the wrong stimuli to answer to, such as focusing on a comment whispered by a classmate rather than addressing a question asked by the teacher. 

Additionally, they may act impulsively and say something inappropriate because of the inability of their brains to highlight the negative consequences.

When these children consistently ignore people in authority or express themselves inappropriately, they receive a significant amount of backlash. Bezsylko notes, “The narrative about themselves becomes that they are always doing the wrong thing, that they’re not smart but impulsive and socially inept.” However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Children with executive function challenges are not devoid of social awareness; they simply struggle to make optimal choices regarding which cues or signals to answer to and how to package their responses effectively.

Thus, they need to work on regulating oneself or effectively managing self-behavior.

At Winston Prep, the ultimate objective is to help these children comprehend how their weaknesses in executing certain functions affect their capacity to form a connection with others, just as their capability to solve multi-step arithmetic problems might. The aim is to foster resilience and openness to correction when they are in the wrong or make mistakes. 

Instead of focusing on their disorganization and telling them to “pay attention,” it is essential to present self-regulation as a constructive skill that can be developed, similar to reading or math comprehension.

Challenges in Language Retrieval

For children with dyslexia, the primary difficulties typically lie not in understanding social interactions or reading gestured signs, but rather in decoding language and inadvertently following several steps and prompts effortlessly. Consequently, they may struggle with retrieving words rapidly.

This, in essence, affects not only their writing and reading abilities but also their verbal communication.

Their speaking or talking vocabulary may not be as advanced, and they might experience difficulties in finding the right words or occasionally using the wrong words, leading to imprecise and idiosyncratic oral expression.

“As a result, their ability to transact in a language is compromised,” explains Bezsylko. While they may excel in non-verbal aspects of socializing, as social interactions become increasingly verbal, they might paint the picture of being unsophisticated, immature, or somehow not fully attuned to their coequals’ expectations.

Bezsylko has witnessed instances where children with these profiles have been subjects of bullying at their previous schools due to their perceived social uneasiness. “Even if the language challenges associated with dyslexia do not directly impact socialization, they can still undermine self-confidence, necessitating teachers to rebuild skills like resilience and self-advocacy.”

Lack of Confidence

Lack of self-esteem can be a problem for children without developmental problems as well. However, when children with significant learning barriers have labored through multiple grades primarily focused on mastering or grasping writing and reading, their self-confidence can be profoundly affected.

Undiagnosed children have likely faced accusations of not putting in enough effort to learn, grasp or monitor their belongings or complete assignments. Consequently, they may develop concerns that they are not as intelligent as their peers. The majority of the kids with dyslexia or ADHD (or both) attempt to conceal their struggles, hence going the extra mile to prevent others from realizing that something is amiss.

“Kids who are feeling badly about themselves and ashamed of their failure to master basic skills are going to have trouble interacting with peers,” notes Bezsylko.

For these children, the initial step is to make them see the point that they are as intelligent as their peers and that, with proper support, they can catch up. The following step involves providing the necessary assistance to aid them develop the abilities and strategies required to overcome their underlying difficulties, enabling them to succeed not only academically but socially as well.

By viewing inappropriate social attitudes as a result of missing or absent skills, adults can defuse situations where teachers, parents, and other individuals get dismayed, inadvertently exacerbating the child’s situation.

Bezsylko emphasizes that adults are often emotional when children do not exhibit desired social behaviors. He points out, “Nobody would ever call somebody a bad kid because he gets a word problem wrong. But if he’s impulsive in class and blurts out something to his teacher, then they may get upset.”

According to Bezsylko, emotional confrontations between teachers and students in many schools hinder clear thinking, which reduces opportunities for learning. Therefore, at Winston Prep, the focus is on perceiving both errors and the remediation of those errors as part of a skill-based rational process rather than resorting to punitive measures like sending the child to the principal’s office.