Ask the Expert: Dr. Mark Bailey on learning disabilities and emotional intelligence


Dr. Mark Bailey
Focus on Adoption magazine

One of my children (nine), has learning disabilities and receives learning assistance at school. My other child (11), is gifted and is a grade ahead of her age. How do I maintain the self-esteem of my child with learning disabilities - she constantly negatively compares herself to her sister?

Sibling rivalry, and comparisons among siblings, are natural tendencies that are difficult to modify but can be especially problematic for children with learning disabilities. The approach that I recommend for the parents of a child with a learning disability is to make a point of explaining to the child how no two people are alike, including people within the same family, and all have their own strengths and weaknesses. For the child with a learning disability, one of his or her primary weaknesses relates to academic skills.

Conversely, his or her siblings or friends may perform well in school but have weaknesses in other, non-academic areas such as art, music, athletics, peer relations and so forth. Additionally, it can be especially affirming for a child with a learning disability, to learn how a parent, or another adult whom they look up to, struggled with a lifelong weakness (particularly if it is an academic weakness), but still succeeded in other life areas.  Information regarding celebrities with learning disabilities can often be obtained from the Websites or publications of various learning disability associations.

In addition to emphasizing how everyone has weaknesses, it is important to attempt to identify and solidify any strengths that the child may possess. For a child with a learning disability, such strengths often fall outside the realm of academia, in areas such as dance, art, music, martial arts, computers, mechanics, and so forth. Still, for some children, it is difficult to identify any true areas of strength.  In such cases, a strength may need to be created. This can often be accomplished by helping the child identify areas of interest, then arranging for his or her involvement in activities that relate to this interest. Optimally, this will lead to the development of a useful skill or strength. If not, it will still allow the child to balance his or her school-related frustrations with increased involvement in enjoyable activities.

My 11-year-old son has always struggled at school and, though he tries, works way below his grade level. He has very good social skills, is good at sports and has friends. I have heard about Emotional Intelligence - can you explain what it is and how it relates to children with learning disabilities? Is this something we should focus on for children with learning disabilities? Can we help develop it in our children so that they meet their potential?

Emotional Intelligence is a concept that refers to an individual’s ability to identify his or her own feelings, identify the feelings of others, and solve problems involving emotional issues. It has some relationship to the concepts of empathy and social awareness. It is a term that was popularized by a New York-based writer, Daniel Goleman, who began writing about it in Popular Psychology and the New York Times, then appeared on Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donohue after writing a book entitled in 1995 entitled Emotional Intelligence. Like many ideas that have made their way into popular psychology, Emotional Intelligence has its roots in the science of psychology, but many of the claims that have been made about it far outstrip the actual research findings. Consequently, it is not a concept that has gained widespread acceptance among psychologists.

Despite the currently limited research support for the Emotional Intelligence concept itself, there is a strong history of research supporting the importance of many of its underlying concepts, such as empathy, emotional awareness and social comprehension, in childhood development. While there is no direct relationship between any of these skills and a specific learning disability, meaning that a child with a learning disability may well have strong social skills and many friends, a learning disability is certainly one factor that places a child at risk of developing a poor self-concept and thus having difficulties in peer relations. This is why it is not only important to assist a child with a learning disability to improve his or her academic skills but to also focus on identifying and developing non-academic strengths, such as art, athletics, drama, dance, and so forth. While taking this approach will not cause a direct improvement in weak academic skills, it should help strengthen the self-image of the child with a learning disability, which may, in turn, improve his or her ability to cope with school-related frustrations. There is also always the chance that it will begin laying the foundation for a post-secondary career.