Secondary school places added social demands on students. The challenges of social media, moving away from the familiar community of elementary school, having to form new supportive relationships, and having to work with groups of people, all add to the need for high levels of social competence.
Social competence is a protective factor in good mental health . It helps us to develop strong social supports and to work effectively with others. Individuals who struggle with social competence are more likely to experience difficulties in forming lasting and supportive relationships or may have poorer outcomes in mental health and well-being as adults. Alternatively, individuals with better social competence achieve better career success .
Social competence requires more than just social skills; it is a complex and interconnected set of skills that enables us to navigate social interactions and initiate and maintain relationships with others . Approximately 75% of students with learning disabilities (LDs) struggle with social competence . Students with LDs often develop social competence at a slower rate than their peers, and the problem compounds over time. It can be harder to make or keep friends, and these students may not have the same opportunities at an early age to learn how to negotiate a fight with a best friend or how to apologize for a social misstep. By adolescence, navigating social relationships are even more complex. Students with LDs are at greater risk for bullying and peer victimization , social rejection , and loneliness . They may stop trying to engage with others and may avoid social situations or may focus on computer games as a way to interact. This can lead to a ‘vicious cycle’ in which these children miss out on opportunities to learn and develop more effective social competence, thus further isolating them and having an adverse impact on self-esteem .
In order to offer support in the area of social competence, educators may have to give students with LDs more time, more direct teaching, and supported opportunities to practice social competence skills in a safe environment.
Teacher’s attitudes can also increase the social challenges that students with LDs go through. Listen to this excerpt from the TalkLD podcast, recorded with Dr. Judith Wiener, clinical psychologist and professor at OISE/University of Toronto, in which she discusses the effects negative feedback from teachers can have on peer relationships.
Social Skills Training
If you notice some of your students with LDs are facing challenges in social situations and do not respond to the strategies for social competence provided above, it may be a sign of larger deficits in social skills that require more targeted intervention.
A number of social skills training (SST) programs exist to teach students to acquire healthy social relationships by improving their social skills and social problem-solving skills. SST involves explicit teaching of positive social behaviours and social problem-solving skills to groups of children or adolescents who are experiencing difficulties with social relationships . The aims of SST interventions are to teach new skills, enhance existing skills, and facilitate maintenance of previously learned skills . SST interventions for students with LDs are typically based on cognitive behavioural principles . SST programs can be offered by therapists, teachers, and educational assistants both in school and in clinical settings.
If you are concerned about a student’s social skills development, the following SST programs, geared at secondary students, exist:
- ASSET: A Social Skills Program for Adolescents
- Social Life - LD
- Social Stories™
- PEERS® for Adolescents
- The local chapter of the LDAO in your area may be running social skills courses
Research has shown that, when given access to social skills training programs like those listed above, students with LDs achieved significant gains in: negotiation, providing positive feedback, providing negative feedback, taking negative feedback , providing prosocial conflict resolution strategies , resisting peer pressure, and being perceived as having improved social skills and less aggressive by teachers and classmates .
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 Amdurer et al., 2014
 Stichter et al., 2012
 Kavale & Forness, 1996; Milligan et al, 2015
 Mishna, 2003
 Bryan, Burstein and Ergul, 2004
 Valas, 1999
 Sideris, 2007
 Gresham, Sugai, & Horner, 2001; Kavale & Mostert, 2004; Wiener & Timmermanis, 2012
 Gresham, 1998
 Wiener & Timmermanis, 2012
 Hazel et al., 1981
 Kalyva and Agliotis, 2009
 Wiener & Harris, 1997