Social Skill Deficits and Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 57 describes the following:

Title | Social Skill Deficits and Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis

Author | Kavale, K.A., & Forness, S.R.

Source Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(3), 226-237

Year Published | 1996

Over the past 15 years, increased attention has been directed at social skills and their relationship to learning disabilities. Using the methods of meta-analysis, this investigation explores the nature of social skill deficits among students with learning disabilities. Across 152 studies, quantitative synthesis shows that, on average, about 75% of students with learning disabilities manifest social skill deficits that distinguish them from comparison samples. Approximately the same level of group differentiation is found across different raters (teachers, peers, self) and across most dimensions of social competence. Although social skill deficits appear to be an integral part of the learning disability experience, a number of questions about the relationship between learning disability and social skill deficits remain unanswered. Until these questions are answered, social skill deficits are best viewed as one among many elements of the learning disability constellation, and no significant definitional changes related to social skill deficits appear warranted.

Many children with learning disabilities have social skills deficits. Social skills deficits can be broken down into three general types:

  • Skill deficit – when a child who has never learned the required social or cognitive skill to use in a particular social situation.
  • Performance deficit – when a child has learned a social skill* but fails to perform in the appropriate situation.
  • Self-control deficit – when a child’s lack of self-control results in negative behaviors, which interfere with both acquiring and performing appropriate social skills.

Children with learning disabilities (LD) may struggle with any combination of these areas. This meta-analysis examined both how prevalent social skills deficits are among students with LD and the nature of these deficits.

Research Questions

  1. Does the perception of the level of social skills deficits in students with LD differ when reported by teachers, other students, or students with LD themselves?
  2. What social skills deficits do teachers, non-LD students, and students with LD perceive as the most prominent in students with learning disabilities?

Research Design
Meta-Analysis *

  • Number of Studies Included | 152
  • Number of Subjects | 6,353
  • Years Spanned | Not Reported

Research Subjects

  1. Seventy-two percent of the participants were male.
  2. Subjects averaged 10.75 years of age.
  3. The mean IQ of students was approximately 95.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Average age = 10.75

Specified Disability
Learning Disabilities (LD)


  • Teachers were asked to fill out a variety of rating scales, behavior checklists, and classroom observations.
  • Students with LD were given self–assessments in the form of ratings, reports and standardized tests. Non-LD students were given peer assessments including rating scales and nominations.

Duration of Intervention


  1. Teachers, non-LD peers, and students with LD all reported students with LD had greater social skills deficits than non-LD students. Almost three quarters (74%) of students with LD received a negative assessment of their social skills that distinguished them clearly from the non-LD comparison group.
  2. Teachers perceived lack of academic competence as the biggest problem faced by students with LD, and viewed their social skills deficits in relation to their academic problems. Teachers also rated students with LD as having higher levels of hyperactivity, distractibility, and anxiety.
  3. Peer assessments by students without learning disabilities showed that nearly 8 out of 10 students with LD were rejected by their peers. Students without LD also perceived students with LD as having lower social status and more difficulties in communication, and reported that students with LD interacted, played, and empathized at lower levels than their peers.
  4. Students with LD rated deficiencies in academic areas as their primary problem, with more than 8 out of 10 rating themselves as deficient in academics. The second most commonly reported deficit by students with LD was interpreting nonverbal communication. More than 7 out of 10 students with LD rated themselves as having social skills deficits that made them different from their peers.

Combined Effects Size

  • The overall effect size across all ratings of social skills deficits in students with LD was 0.653.
  • Teachers rated their students with LD as having social skills deficits in several areas, with effect sizes of 01.171 for lack of perceived academic competence, 1.018 for deficits in interaction, 0.812 adjustment issues, 0.824 for hyperactivity and 0.757 for distractibility.
  • Peers rated their classmates with LD as far more likely to be rejected, with an effect size score on rejection measures of 0.786 and an effect size for the category of “limited acceptance” of 0.775.
  • The mean effect size of self-report or self-rating measures by students with LD on their own perceived academic difficulties was 0.949. Students with LD also had high effect sizes in their ratings of deficiencies in non-verbal communication ability (ES=.0938) and social problem solving (ES=.898).


  1. Even though there was no significant correlation for length of training, it is possible that longer interventions might be needed to produce results.
  2. Since very few of the studies used pilot tested social skills training programs, any lack of effectiveness shown by social skills training in this meta-analysis may reflect more on the social skills training programs selected or developed for these studies than on social skills training programs in general.
  3. The controversies around the origin of social skills deficits in children with learning disabilities could be another explanation for the poorest results. If low achievement in fact leads to poor self-esteem or peer-rejection, then the efforts might be directed to academic deficits instead to social skills deficits.
  4. Monitoring fidelity of treatment was not a priority in these studies; therefore, interventions may or may not have been delivered in an efficient, consistent manner. Future research should focus on these issues to ensure more confident results.
  5. Future research should focus more thoroughly on issues concerning length of training, assessment instruments, and training components.


* Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

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