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By Sarah Glover, M.Sc., Clinical Supervisor, Integra Program, Child Development Institute and Dr. Marjory Phillips, C. Psych. Director, Integra Program, Child Development Institute

Learning Disabilities (LDs) are the most common category of learning exceptionality within the school system: 43% of students in Ontario who are formally identified with exceptionalities have LDs. This means that most students in Ontario will have classmates and peers with LDs. However, LDs are ‘invisible disabilities’ and it may be difficult for other students to understand the LD experience.  By definition, students with LDs are smart yet have specific impairments in psychological processes that impede their ability to ‘show what they know’.  In addition, students with LDs are two to three times more likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression (Wilson et al, 2009).

Most importantly for the school setting, 75% of individuals with LDs struggle with interpersonal relationships (Kavale & Forness, 1996; Milligan, Phillips & Morgan, 2015).  School is inherently a social place, with increasing expectations for group work, collaboration, and friendships.  Students with LDs have more difficulty navigating social relationships, and experience greater levels of peer rejection and bullying (Mishna, 2003) and loneliness (Valas, 1999). We know that having positive social support and friendships is an important protective factor for good mental health and well-being.

So how do we help peers to empathize with students with LDs so that they can respond with support rather than negativity?


Empathy is simply the ability to understand the feelings and emotional experiences of another person (Eisenberg, Fabes and Spinrad, 2006). This means that we are empathizing if we ‘feel’ what the other person might be feeling. In order to ‘feel’ what someone else is feeling, we have to understand what it is like to experience what he or she experiences. Empathy allows us to understand behavior from different perspectives and shapes our reactions to behaviors (Bugental, Johnston, New & Silvester, 1998). If we can increase empathy among peers, our students with LDs may feel better understood and supported, and we may see improved reactions to students with LDs.

How do we increase empathy?

As adults, we can start by modelling empathy and understanding.  By applying Ross Greene’s theory that “kids do well if they can,” we can understand a student’s behavior from the perspective of developmental skills.  Children generally want to succeed and do well, and if they aren’t doing well it is often because something is getting in the way, such as not yet having the skills needed to complete the task or having brain-based challenges that make it hard to do something.

For example, a child whose LD reflects difficulties with printing and writing may be ashamed and embarrassed about their written work, and may refuse to put pen to paper because the effort does not match the output.  Understanding that the refusal to write may reflect feelings of frustration, anxiety, and shame, helps us, as adults, to think of creative solutions to help accommodate the challenges.  As adults in the classroom, we can model understanding and empathy for our students by not singling out the student and not calling out the student publicly for their perceived fault, for example messy handwriting.

Skills Perspective

It is probably not going to be just poor writing or reading skills that are going to get other students frustrated with kids with LDs. Kids with LDs tend to struggle more with interpersonal relationships and emotion regulation (Milligan et al, 2015). This principle of ‘kids do well if they can’ still applies to those situations.

Imagine this:

Alex (who has an LD in visual reasoning and ADHD) bumps into John as he walks into class. John says, “Hey, watch it! You almost knocked me over!” Alex looks annoyed and says, “No, I didn’t”. John retorts by saying, “you totally did! Everyone saw you. Why are you lying?” Alex (who is mad now) replies, “I’m not lying! You’re lying! You’re always trying to get me in trouble”. Alex then continues to yell as all the other kids in the class filter in. They whisper to each other, “What’s his problem”.

Dr. Greene would ask us to look at this situation from a skills perspective. What skills is Alex missing? Visual spatial reasoning, body awareness, impulse control and emotion regulation skills are all a challenge for Alex. Given that frame, is he being unreasonable ‘on purpose’, or is he just lacking the skills to “do well if he could”? Having discussions with students in response to other students’ challenging behaviours can help shift their understanding to a more empathic frame. If you can frame the student’s behaviours as a SKILL challenge, not a WILL challenge, then you will be able to help other students do the same.

Fairness VS Sameness

As an educator, your ability to model empathy will have a strong impact on the student in question and the students in general. This will also then help all students to see that everyone has different abilities and we are being ‘fair’ if we respond to each person’s needs.

Visual example that helps understand the difference between sameness and fairness

Visual examples, like the image above can help students understand the difference between sameness and fairness. In the image on the left, the three children are all treated equally and given the same supports, whether they need it or not. The tallest child is getting more support than he needs and the shortest child is not receiving enough support and still cannot watch the baseball game.

Fairness, on the other hand, means that each student gets the support that he or she needs, as illustrated by the image on the right. As a result of the appropriate supports being given all the children are able to watch the baseball game. Although the children do not receive the same treatment, the students are being treated fairly and each is getting what he or she needs to be successful.

Do you have a question about LDs? Click here to ask our experts!

Additional Resources

Lives in the Balance: Changing the Conversation About and With Behaviorally Challenging Kids (Dr. Ross Greene’s website on the Collaborative Problem Solving model) www.livesinthebalance.org

The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children(1998) - Ross Greene


Bugental, D. B., Johnston, C.,  New, M. &  Silvester, J.(1998). Measuring parental attributions: Conceptual and methodological issues.   Journal of Family Psychology 12. 459-480.

Eisenberg N., Fabes R.A., & Spinrad T.L. (2006). « Prosocial development ». Cited in : Eisenberg N., Damon W., editors. Handbook of child psychology, vol. 3. Social, emotional, and personality development, 6th edition, Wiley; New York, p. 646-718.

Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1996). Social skill deficits and learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29, 226–237.

Milligan, K., Phillips, M. & Morgan, A. (2015).  Tailoring Tailoring Social Competence Interventions for Children with Learning Disabilities. Journal of Child and Family Studies, online Sep 03 2015.

Mishna, F. (2003).  Learning disabilities and bullying: Double jeopardy. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36, 336-348.

Taylor, Z.E., Eisenberg,N., Spinrad,T.L., Eggum, N. & Sulik, M.J. (2013). The Relations of Ego-Resiliency and Emotion Socialization to the Development of Empathy and Prosocial Behavior Across Early Childhood.  Emotion, Vol. 13, No. 5, 822– 831

Wilson, A.M., Armstrong, C.D., Furrie, A. & Walcot. E.  (2009).  The Mental Health of Canadians with Self-Reported Learning Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(1), 24-40.

Valas, H. (1999). Low achieving students: Peer acceptance, loneliness, self-esteem and depression. Social Psychology of Education, 3, 173-192.

Sarah Glover is the Clinical Supervisor of the Integra Program at the Child Development Institute, which specializes in treating youth with Learning Disabilities (LDs) and co-occurring mental health problems in Toronto, Ontario. Sarah has a Master’s Degree in Family Relations and Human Development from the University of Guelph and is a Registered Psychotherapist. She has worked for many years as a Child and Family Therapist providing therapy for families, parents, youth, children and groups. She now supervises the Therapy and Intake services, Social Competence Group programs, and the Parenting Group program at Integra.

Portrait Marjory PhillipsDr. Marjory Phillips is the Director of the Integra Program at the Child Development Institute, the only accredited children’s mental health agency in Canada to specialize in providing mental health services to children, youth and families with Learning Disabilities.  Dr. Phillips received her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the University of Waterloo.  Cross-appointed as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, Dr. Phillips worked as a clinical psychologist and clinical director in a children’s treatment rehabilitation in Kingston for 12 years.  She joined the Queen’s University Psychology Department on a full-time basis in 2004 to establish a psychology training clinic for graduate students and to pursue research interests in paediatric acquired brain injury and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.  Dr. Phillips moved to Toronto in 2008 to join Integra where she has also held cross appointments as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at York University and is a Clinical Supervisor with the University of Toronto.