Adolescents with Learning Disabilities

Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Emotional Well-Being: Findings From the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Setaz M. J.A.H.: 27(5), 340-348

In the very early days of this century, when cyber-literacy and mastery of technology seem to be the basic ingredients for survival in the competitive job market, the number of children and adolescents with learning disabilities (LL's) appears to be increasing. Today LDs appear to have prevalence in the order of 5% of children and youth.

The association between LDs and emotional problems has been well described. Although the federal definition of LDs excludes those that are secondary to emotional disturbance, adolescents with LDs have a high incidence of emotional and behavioral problems. Additionally, Jackson et al. found that compared with non-learning disabled peers, those with LDs saw themselves to be significantly less socially competent and were rated lower in social competency by their respective teachers. Given that a critical element of social skills is the ability to accurately perceive the environment and interpersonal relationships, this deficit contributes to social isolation. Deficits of social perception improve during developmental maturation; however, for those with LDs, it appears that a lag persists through adolescence.


Data were obtained from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. This is a longitudinal study of adolescents in grades 7 through 12 and the multiple social contexts in which they live. Initially 80 high schools were identified across the United States.

In the present analysis, LD was defined as an affirmative response of parents to two questions: (a) Does your adolescent have LD and (b) has he or she ever been in special education classes? The comparison group consisted of those adolescents whose parents answered no to both questions. Because of the complex sampling design, each case was assigned a weight so that the resulting analyses are generalizable to the U.S. adolescent population. These sample weights were used in the analyses. The longitudinal sample consisted of 16,340 adolescents, (78.6%) of whom 1603 met the criteria for LDs.

The sample of young people with LDs were disproportionally male (twice that of females), older than the comparison group, and more likely to be on welfare.


The three outcome variables included: suicide attempt, emotional distress, and violent behaviour. Suicide attempt was based on a dichotomous variable: "have you attempted suicide in the last year?" Violent involvement was based on an eight-item scale that has a Cronbach a of .83. Emotional distress was measured by a 17-item scale that had a Cronbach a of .86. Details on scale construction have been previously reported.


To explore the relationships of having a LD with emotional outcomes of emotional distress, suicide attempts, and violent involvement, odds ratios were computed controlling for age, gender, grade, socio-economic status (SES), family structure, and race. Having a LD was associated with nearly double the odds ratio (OR) for emotional distress. Likewise the OR was 1.67 overall for suicide. Violence involvement was also greater for both males and females, compared with peers. Adolescents with LDs were at least twice as likely as teens without LDs to report emotional distress. Boys with LDs were also twice as likely to report suicidal attempts; the same was true for girls.

Secondly, youths with LDs were significantly more likely than others to report involvement in violent behaviors.

Adolescents with LDs were more likely to report carrying weapons: 13% vs. 9% with differences reported for both boys and girls.

Adolescents with LDs were as likely to report that they feel connected with their families as were those in the comparison group. They were less likely, however, to report that they engaged in activities with their parents but they reported more parental presence throughout the day.

School connectedness did not differ significantly for young people with or without LDs. Both boys and girls with LDs were less likely to report that they perceived prejudice from other students in their schools than did comparison groups.

Multiple Regression Analyses:

Specifically, youth with LDs who had emotional distress reported eight times the number of suicide attempts and five times the violence involvement as those without distress. Factors associated with the increased risk included: having had intercourse before the age of 12 years, weapon carrying, and substance use. Those young victims were twice as likely to report emotional distress, 3 times as likely to report a history of a suicide attempt, and almost 80 times more likely to report to be engaged in violent activities than peers who did not report such victimization. Among the factors associated with lower levels of emotional distress, suicide attempts and violence involvement, religious identity was one of the strongest individual level variables associated with lower risk for the three outcomes; however, it was statistically significant only for suicide.

Family connectedness was the most strongly associated with lower risk for the three study outcomes. However, across the individual, family, and school factors for each of the three outcomes: distress, violence, and suicide attempt, school connectedness was the factor associated with the lowest risk.

Protecting Youth with Learning Disabilities:

The present study may be the first to explore factors that are associated with diminished risk for emotional distress, suicide attempts, and violence involvement. Factors that emerge include: family connectedness, school connectedness, and religious identity.

Reproduced from: The Monthly News in Adolescent Medicine, November 2000.