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Learning Disabilities and Child Altruism, Anxiety, and Aggression
by Anne Milan, Feng Hou, and Irene Wong
Most children in Canada are physically and emotionally healthy, and the majority of children do not have social and behavioural problems. Yet some children do experience challenges both in the classroom and the wider society. One group of children whose characteristics may affect their behaviour is those who have been identified as learning disabled. They may have difficulties with written or spoken language, comprehension, calculation, or reasoning and often experience academic disadvantages or difficulties with their social relationships.
This paper uses Canadian data from the 2002-2003 National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) to examine the levels of altruism or prosocial behaviour, anxiety or emotional disorder, and physical aggression or conduct disorder for children aged 8 to 11 with and without learning disabilities, controlling for characteristics of the child, the family and parenting style. Children were identified as having learning disabilities if they were diagnosed as having this long-term condition by a health professional.
What you should know about this study
How do learning disabilities influence social behaviour
According to the 2002-2003 NLSCY, about 4% of 8- to 11-year-olds were identified as being learning disabled in 2002. Existing research findings on the social and behavioural outcomes for children with and without learning disabilities have been varied, and may depend on how particular behavioural outcomes are measured. Some studies have concluded that there are few differences between children with and without learning disabilities on certain social dimensions, for example, in peer acceptance and self-concept.1 Two reviews of recent research literature reported that although children with learning disabilities have a lower self-perception in the academic domain, their overall self-concept is on par with other children.2 An earlier study, however, found that children with learning disabilities were less well-liked and less accepted compared to other children.3
Previous research indicated that social cues seem to be important to children with learning disabilities,4 and social skill deficits may be an important part of having this condition.5 Social indicators of children with learning disabilities may include impulsiveness, frustration, poor sportsmanship, and difficulties with creating friendships, accepting changes in routine, interpreting subtle or nonverbal cues, and working with others.6 The lack of self-esteem experienced by students with learning disabilities might create feelings of inadequacy or inferiority,7 which could be an impediment to establishing social relationships. Consequently, children with learning disabilities might find it difficult to develop an altruistic or compassionate attitude towards others. The results of the present study show that 8- to 11-year-olds with learning disabilities had lower average scores on the altruism or prosocial behaviour scale than did other children. According to the NLSCY, children identified as having learning disabilities scored 12.84 on the altruism or prosocial behaviour scale compared to 14.45 for children without learning disabilities. Once children's age and sex were taken into account in the statistical model, the altruism or prosocial behaviour scores for children with learning disabilities narrowed slightly to 1.51 points below children without learning disabilities (from a gap of 1.61 points).
Anxiety and aggression more common for children with learning disabilities
Children who exhibit emotional problems, depression or anxiety are less likely to develop to their full potential. Research results on the association between learning disabilities and anxiety or emotional disorder have been mixed. Some findings indicate that there is little difference in the depression or anxiety measures for children with and without learning disabilities when rated by children, although a higher level of depression among children with learning disabilities was found when rated by teachers.8 Researchers have also documented that children with learning disabilities experience more minor somatic complaints — such as fatigue — than do other children, which can increase anxiety.9 Other research found that although there were no consistent differences between children with and without learning disabilities in their nonacademic problem solving, the anxiety of children with learning disabilities increased in testing situations relative to other children.10
According to the present study, the anxiety or emotional disorder scores of children in the NLSCY was higher for those with learning disabilities, compared to other children (scale scores of 3.89 and 2.63, respectively). The presence of learning disabilities continued to be statistically significant after entering child's age and sex into the model. The results from Model 1 show that the difference between the anxiety or emotional disorder scores of children with and without learning disabilities remained virtually the same (i.e., 1.27 points higher for children with learning disabilities compared to other children).
Related to greater difficulties in the areas of anxiety and altruism, children with learning disabilities may also show more physical aggression or conduct disorder. The frustration that typically accompanies learning disabilities11 may result in aggression if children feel that circumstances are beyond their control. The social skills deficits reported to characterize children with learning disabilities12 may also be manifested through aggressive behaviour. In fact, patterns similar to the results of anxiety or emotional disorder hold for the findings of aggressive behaviour. That is, children who have learning disabilities have higher scores on the aggression or conduct disorder scale than do other children - a difference of 1.02 points (scores of 2.29 and 1.27, respectively).
Children's age and sex may influence their aggressive behaviour, given that recent research found that young girls (aged 5 to 11) showed less physical aggression compared to boys, and decreased with age for girls while remaining constant for boys.13 According to the results of the present study, the gap on the aggression or conduct disorder scale for children with and without learning disabilities remained largely unchanged even after including child's age and sex in the statistical model (a difference of 1.00 point).
Why family characteristics matter
Family-related characteristics such as growing up in a lone-parent household, or in families with low income or high levels of dysfunction can have a negative effect on child outcomes. Children of lone parents fare less well in their emotional and behavioural outcomes compared to all children.14 Similarly, previous research found some support for the influence of household income on the behavioural and cognitive outcomes of children.15 Perhaps most significant is the role of parenting practices. A 2005 study found that children whose parents use more punitive measures exhibited higher levels of aggressive behaviour, higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of prosocial behaviour.16
In the present study, controlling for family characteristics eliminated the statistically significant difference in the level of altruism or prosocial behaviour between children with and without learning disabilities. Once family characteristics were included in the statistical models, the scores on the anxiety or emotional disorder scale continued to be statistically significant, but the scores for children with learning disabilities were only 0.74 points higher than children without learning disabilities (from an original difference of 1.26). Similarly, when family characteristics were introduced in Model 2, the gap in aggression or conduct disorder scores between children who had learning disabilities and other children fell to 0.60 points (compared to a gap of 1.02 without controlling for such factors). Overall, the combined effects of family and child characteristics account for about 41% of the difference in the anxiety or emotional disorder score, as well as the aggression or conduct disorder score, for the children with learning disabilities compared to other children.17
Family characteristics reduce much of the impact of learning disabilities
According to the NLSCY, children with learning disabilities do experience less altruism, and greater anxiety and aggression, but the strength of the association is rather weak. In other words, children with learning disabilities exhibit only slightly higher behavioural problems than other children. It is clear that although the presence of learning disabilities is associated with behaviouraldifficulties, there are other factors which are better able to explain the variation in the child outcomes.18 Throughout the analyses, adding family characteristics to the models reduced the differences between children with and without learning disabilities. For example, children who experienced an ineffective parenting style also had higher levels of aggression or conduct disorder and anxiety or emotional disorder, and lower altruism or prosocial behaviour scores. An earlier study found that families of children with learning disabilities experienced greater stress but are similar to other families with respect to family cohesion and household rules.19
Early life experiences of children can have a significant influence on their development and well-being. The influence of these experiences for children with learning disabilities is found to be similar to other children. Children with learning disabilities did have lower altruism or prosocial behaviour, and higher levels of anxiety or emotional disorder and aggression or conduct disorder than did other children, however, the differences in the scores between children with and without learning disabilities were not large, and may well be within the normal range of these behaviours. Although children with learning disabilities were slightly more likely to exhibit behavioural problems than other children, including family characteristics in the statistical models reduced much of the impact of learning disabilities. This suggests that the challenges faced by children with learning disabilities may be at least partially offset by a positive and supportive family environment.
Anne Milan is an analyst with the Knowledge and Research Directorate at Human Resources and Social Development Canada. Feng Hou is a senior analyst with the Business and Labour Market Analysis Division, Statistics Canada. Irene Wong is an analyst with the Research Data Centre Program at the University of Alberta.
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