Author: Peter Chaban
Source: Reprinted with permission from the author

Amongst identified exceptional students in Ontario, pupils with behavioural/emotional disorders represent 6 percent of the exceptional population and 0.53 percent of the overall school population*. As with learning disabilities, the definition used for this exceptionality has been controversial. Unlike, learning disabilities which defines its expcetionality within the context of a neurological etiology, behavioural disorders can occur as a result of neurological, psychological and environmental factors. As a result, the behavioural definition has to capture a diverse student population. At present, the definition for behavioural/emotional disorders includes the following criteria:

  • The student’s behaviour deviates in a significant manner from that expected for the situation.
  • The behaviour breaks from age, social and cultural norms.
  • Inappropriate behavior is consistently exhibited in at least two different settings.
  • The behaviour may be compulsive and/or impulsive, sad or withdrawn.
  • The behaviour may represent poor interpersonal relationships

Students who are identified as behavioral/emotional may have their behaviour described as internalizing or externalizing behaviour. Although this description gives a quick snapshot of the student’s behaviour, it does not allow for a clearer understanding of all the factors maintaining the behaviour. One such factor is a learning disability.

The relationship between learning disabilities and behaviour/emotional problems is complex. One area of interest to researchers has been the association between learning disabilities and psychopathology. In one study by Cantwell and Baker(1991), 600 children were identified as speech/language impaired and 300 of these children were followed up 5 years later. Of these children, 25 percent had learning disabilities and 75 percent of the LD children had a psychiatric illness. The most prominent diagnosis fell under the spectrum of anxiety disorders and a minority were diagnosed with depression. Other studies have pointed out that though LD children are not likely to suffer from depression more often than those in the general population, children who have both learning disabilities and depression reported less self-esteem, were more detached and had a bleaker view, than depressed children without learning disabilities.

Another area of interest is the relationship between learning disabilities and somatic complaints. Margalit and Raviv (1984) compared the prevalence of somatic complaints in learning disabled children with two control groups. In the LD group, 54 percent had somatic complaints as opposed to 9 percent and 13 percent in the two control groups. The primary complaint amongst the LD group was fatigue.

A third area where learning disabilities and behavioral problems coexist is with social behaviour. Often children with learning disabilities have problems with familial and peer relationships. This may be the result of processing problems which make it difficult for LD children to pick up social cues. This in turn may result in avoidance behaviour. This type of behaviour is often used as a defense to avoid stress generated by social interactions. Children who are unable to develop avoidance defenses may use irritable or aggressive behaviour to cope with stress associated with social interactions.

When learning disabilities and behavioural problems appear together, it is important to identify whether the behaviour is secondary to the learning disability or co-morbid. When the negative behaviour is caused by the learning disability, the solution to that behaviour often lies in dealing with the learning disability. When it is co-morbid, the interventions become more complicated, since the behaviour has to be treated separately from the learning disability. In this case, the burden of suffering should be seen as the primary problem. If it is the behaviour presenting the greatest suffering, then it should be managed first and if it is the learning disability, then it will become the top priority. Often when dealing with the complexity of coexisting learning disability and behavioural problems, finding the solution becomes a process of trial and error. Whatever the situation, it is important to be aware of the distress caused when the complex interactions of learning, emotions and behaviour are hampered by a learning disorder.

Cantwell, D.P. & Baker, L. (1991) Association Between Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder and Learning Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol. 24(2), 88-95

Margalit, M. & Raviv, A. (1984) LD’s Expressions of Anxiety in Terms of Minor Somatic Complaints. Journal of Learning Disabilities. Vol. 7(4), 226-228

*from Statistical Services Section, Policy Analysis and Research Branch, Ministry of Education for 1990-91.