Students with disabilities comprise a large, diverse portion of students in the United States. The National Center for Education Statistics found that in the 2015-16 school year, about 6.7 million students ages 3-21 (13%) received special education services in the U.S. public education system. My work is focused on a specific group. Students with learning disabilities, who make up a third (34%) of all students with disabilities in U.S. public schools. A learning disability is “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.” One common example is dyslexia.
My expertise speaks to what students’ social lives tell us about their educational achievement. Here’s what we know. Having friends matters for educational success. Students with learning disabilities are no exception here! In particular, friendships are critical for graduating from high school. My own research suggests the odds of earning a high school degree increase for each friend a student has. It’s also important who those friends are. For example, I found that students were more likely to graduate when their friends held higher educational expectations. Based on my research, it’s clear that the quantity and quality of student friendships are important resources. They help determine how far students will go.
Yet, friends can also be a source of inequality. That holds true for students with learning disabilities. My analyses find that differences in the quantity and quality of student friendships explained over a quarter (27%) of the high school graduation gap between students with learning disabilities and students without disabilities. These results account for students’ personal academic performance, too. In other words, having more, highly-ambitious friends are important for graduating high school. But they also contribute to important inequalities in educational success.
Why is it that fewer friends means fewer degrees? Friends are important because they foster a sense of community and belonging, bolster students’ access to social support, and shape their educational aspirations. Students who feel supported and like they belong are more likely to enjoy and stay in school. And when their friends encourage them to aim high, they will! But not having friends to collaborate and socialize with can make students feel alone. It’s no wonder why students who feel lonely or isolated in school more-often drop out of high school and are less likely to pursue higher education. My work applies this knowledge to understand how students with learning disabilities experience social barriers in their educational journeys. Extensive work focuses on educational inequalities across race, gender, and sexuality. But what about disabilities?
Research tells us that students with learning disabilities tend to have more negative social experiences than their peers. Compared to other students, they tend to feel lonelier, have fewer friends, and feel like they don’t belong. I found support for these conclusions using a nationally-representative sample. In other words, findings from this kind of sample apply to high school students in the U.S. In my research, high school students with learning disabilities tended to have fewer friends, have friends who hold lower educational expectations, and feel less-like they belong than other students.
What are some reasons for these social inequalities? There are several. But we know that disability stigma is a big piece of the puzzle. Public awareness continues to grow yet stigma still shapes the social lives of students with disabilities. Students who are neurodiverse (i.e. Autism; ADHD) have invisible disabilities, similar to learning disabilities. Yet they continue to experience stereotyping amongst their peers, teachers, and parents. What that looks like includes adults holding lower expectations about students’ capabilities and independence, and peers not expecting mutually-supportive friendships from students with disabilities. More extreme examples include increased bullying and victimization.
Interpersonal troubles are one reason for having fewer friends, but disability stigma also limits students’ chances to meet friends with high ambitions. In school, students are far more likely to become friends when they share classes. But net of academic performance, students with learning disabilities are more-often placed in remedial school tracks than their peers. This means that even with higher ambitions and educational success, it is harder for students with learning disabilities to make friends who will encourage them to aim high. My analyses found support for this end result. Students with learning disabilities have friends who hold lower educational expectations, compared to other students’ friends.
It is important to better understand social problems that affect student success, and in this case for students with learning disabilities. But how do we approach a problem so abstract? Stigma and school tracking are important, but not the only reasons for the social inequalities I’ve discussed here. There is no clear-cut solution. What we can do is devise creative pathways to bolster the resources available to students with learning disabilities. For example, we know some of the reasons why peer relationships are important, such as collaboration on course work and planning for college enrollment. Creating additional opportunities for students might help close the educational inequalities that stem from social inequality. Programs that assign either adult or student mentors can provide a source of consultation, on schoolwork and plans for life after high school. Only additional time and research will tell if these types of initiatives are helpful.
Tyler Bruefach is a graduate assistant and doctoral candidate in Florida State University’s sociology department. Tyler researches the intersections of education, health, and disability across different life stages, using statistical analyses of large datasets. You can find more from Tyler on Twitter, or you can connect with him on LinkedIn.
The feature image is from Pexels.