Why Smart Kids Do Dumb Things

By Michael Ryan

It has been encouraging to see the growing attention that the emotional aspects of learning disabilities have received in the last few years. Both clinicians and researchers are beginning to realize that a learning disability is more than just a school problem. There is also recognition that these problems do not manifest themselves in the same way for every child with a learning disability. Each child has to be dealt with individually.

Research suggests that the majority of students with learning disabilities do not demonstrate significant social and emotional problems. However, they are more at risk for developing negative self images and may have difficulty processing social cues. A small but significant group of these children suffer a number of other problems which have an impact on their social and emotional functioning. These problems include what psychologists call reality testing, judgment, emotional control and relatedness to others.

Reality Testing

Reality testing refers to an individual's ability to accurately perceive and interpret his or her environment. Many people with learning disabilities do not perceive the world as others do. Their perceptions are not bizarre or irrational; but, just as they have difficulty reading written materials, sometimes they misread their environment. They may scan their environment quickly and make decisions based on too little information. Stated in another way, they leap before they look. Or they may misinterpret either visual or auditory stimuli and come to faulty conclusions. For example, they might look at a group of friends on the playground, misinterpret their body language and assume they are about to have a fight. The child with learning disabilities inappropriately jumps into this group, swinging.


In spite of their average to above-average intelligence, some children with learning disabilities demonstrate extremely poor judgment or lack common sense. Judgment is knowing what is right and wrong and understanding the consequences of one's actions. Many children with learning disabilities may not understand the rules and conventions of society. This can make them appear awkward or uncomfortable in social situations. Furthermore, they may act before they really have considered the consequences of their actions. They, therefore, may only feel remorse after they have acted inappropriately.

Emotional Control

Emotions can be extremely conflictive for the child with a learning disability. As infants grow, they become more and more able to modulate or control their feelings effectively. For some children with learning disabilities, however, this process is delayed, and they have great difficulty controlling their feelings.

Lack of control manifest itself in one of two ways. First, the feelings may be pushed down and denied. Children in this situation demonstrate few emotions. They sit rigidly with wooden expressions and respond very slowly in any social interaction. It is almost as if they are censoring their every thought and feeling. The second possible response is to be swept away by one's emotions. The children in this group appear extremely moody and have great mood swings. They seldom use language to mediate their feelings and are at the mercy of their emotions. Painful events may have a greater impact on these children than on other children.

Relating to Others

Finally, although many children with learning disabilities have excellent social skills, there is a small group who has great difficulty relating to others. Their deficits appear to have had an impact on their social development, and they tend to view others as objects to be manipulated to satisfy their own wants and needs. These individuals demonstrate little empathy for the thoughts and feelings of others. It has been my clinical experience that this is one of the more devastating problems that can occur with learning disabilities. It is possible to hold down a job with poor literacy skills. However, if one is unable to make and sustain social relationships, it will interfere with one's ability to keep most jobs and maintain meaningful relationships with friends and family.

How to Help

Many children will have demonstrated one or two of these characteristics. However, when a child with learning disabilities demonstrates three or more of these symptoms, to the extent that it severely interferes with his or her life, it is extremely important for parents and professionals to understand the problems and help these children develop more effective coping skills. They must be approached differently than other children with learning problems.

It is important to help children with learning disabilities to better understand reality. As parents or professionals we may be tempted to interpret the child's feeling or motivation. However, this child's perceptual problems or impulsivity causes confusion about what really happens in a situation. It is, therefore, important that we help the child understand the sequence of what happened. Similarly, these children often get caught up in their feelings and can't break free. Stressing how you feel or how they feel may just confuse them. Directing their attention to concrete reality such as an activity or a simple discussion may help them "get their emotions under control". Sometimes a "time-out" in their room or another neutral place may be necessary. However, the child should understand that this is not a punishment, rather a time to get him or herself under control.

Teaching control is important. Relaxation exercises or "thinking out loud" may be helpful. It is possible to identify frustrating situations and to coach the child. For example, "John, you may lose this game, usually you lose control and stamp off. Let's see if you can hold your temper. You'll win an even more important game!"

Confronting inappropriate behavior is also critical. Although this may injure the child's self esteem for a short time, being obnoxious has a far more lasting effect on the child's self image and happiness. Neutrally giving the child information about the consequences of his or her behavior is an excellent method. "If you cheat, other people will not want to play with you." Teaching new behaviors through role playing gives the child appropriate behaviors to replace the undesirable ones.

Finally, most children with learning disabilities respond well to warm, outgoing adults who are very empathetic. However these individuals may become very anxious when presented with intimacy. It is, therefore, important to let these relationships develop slowly and let the child approach you. Within families, intense intimacy or demonstrations of affection may be rejected. It is important to let the child know that he or she is welcome to join in but can choose not to participate. Try to find safe ways for the child to express affection.

A careful understanding of the child's strengths and weaknesses can help us give these children the tools they need to succeed in life as well as in school.