Kids Need Love When They Deserve It Least: A Review of It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend, by Rick Lavoie (Part I)

A girl with learning disabilities was having a very bad day.  Her best friend was not too happy either: the two had gotten into a tiff and found themselves squarely in the principal’s office.  “You know, it’s so much work to be your friend,” said her acquaintance in exasperation.  Rick Lavoie realized this statement would make a very apt title for the book he was writing.  When most educators speak of learning disabilities, they refer to the condition in academic terms.  Others focus on taming the “wild animal” of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  What Rick Lavoie has done is to present learning disabilities from the perspective of the child and urges adults to adopt the same empathy and advocate for these children – helping them find social success.

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      In the past, conventional wisdom held that a lack of social competence and rejection were consequences of the child’s learning disability (LD).  Many other educators believed that a child’s LD caused academic failure, which – in turn – caused social isolation.  What Mr. Lavoie found, however, was that social challenges remained, even when the child was fortunate enough to be in a school environment that allowed him to experience academic success.  In other words, Mr. Lavoie found that there was “a direct link between LD and social incompetence.”

The importance of social skills cannot be underestimated – even more than academic subject mastery, these skills enable or prevent one form experiencing success in all areas of life.  With assistive technology, a child can overcome many academic and physical disabilities, but social skills pose a much different and greater challenge.  Only through extremely patient adult support can a child learn to find ways for compensating for his or her social deficiencies.   There are four key areas of social skills one needs to master to enjoy success at home, in school, at work, and in the community.

  • Joining or entering a group
  • Starting and maintaining friendships
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Tuning into the requirements of social skills.

The question arises: why teach social skills?

  • Children with poor social skills resolve conflict through aggression rather than negotiation, resulting in teasing and rejection among peers. Even worse, this inability can lead to criminal behavior in later years.
  • A child’s poor social skills affect all family members.
  • Nearly every situation and environment in which one finds oneself requires a degree of social competency.
  • A child can compensate for most disabilities, through habit or assistive technology, but not for a lack of social competence.
  • Strong social skills will determine a child’s future success, happiness, and acceptance.

However, many common popular strategies, no matter how well intentioned, are ineffective.  These include forcing the child into social situations and behavior-modification approaches, especially those involving external rewards.  What does work?  Concrete positive feedback changes behavior; negative feedback only stops it for the time being.  Adults should reward direction, not perfection, Mr. Lavoie emphasizes.  Children with a LD also need a predictable and structured environment and approach.  Lavoie advocates using what he refers to as a “social autopsy,” a reflection whereby the child and adult reviews and analyzes a social situation as to what went wrong, what events led to the error, and what would be a more constructive and effective way of handling the situation when it occurs again.  Thus, social miscues become “teachable moments.”  Or, to quote, Mr. Lavoie, “Kids need love most when they deserve it least.”  This sentiment, as well as the use of the term friend in the title, reflect Mr. Lavoie’s deep compassion and understanding of children, seeing issues from the perspective of the child, for which he has earned fame and respect in his early PBS videos, How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop and When the Chips Are Down.  Says Mr. Lavoie, “If you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for almost anything.”

This review article will be continued in installments, as follows:

  • Why Do They Do the Things They Do?
  • Social Skills on the Homefront: Dealing with Parents, Siblings, and Other Strangers
  • Social Skills at School: Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic, and Relationships
  • Social Skills in the Community: No Kid Is an Island
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