Support Groups for Students with Learning Disabilities

Daniel J. Berkowitz, M.A.

An article that I wrote on Stress and Students with Learning Disabilties discusses stress factors that affect students with learning disabilities as they make the transition into postsecondary education. That article includes a study by Geisthardt & Munsch (1996) on the coping strategies of students both with and without learning disabilities, and concluded that organizing and maintaining a professionally led student support group may prove beneficial to students dealing with stress and other issues. The following article outlines further research in this area, along with some concrete strategies for facilitating a student support group.

Social support is known to directly enhance psychological well being and may buffer the effects of stress on students (Delworth and Hanson, 1989). Offering opportunities to meet in a small group atmosphere, with clear objectives, and positive leadership, may provide students both an outlet for their stress and the opportunity to share coping strategies with their peers.

Furthermore, since students with disabilities also experience greater pressure to adjust to the educational environment, this may place them at greater risk of dropping out of school. Therefore, support groups for these students may be one factor toward helping them complete their educational programs and thereby increase retention rates. Kroeger and Schuck (1993) point out that such support may be "as crucial for the success of students with disabilities as ensuring academic accommodations" (pg. 64).

In all likelihood, such a group will not spontaneously develop overnight, or at any point during the semester. It is you, the Service Provider, who will need to be the catalyst. The formation of a student support group can be a stressful experience unto itself. It can be frustrating to have the foresight that such a group would benefit students, and the understanding that they are probably reluctant to actively seek out other individuals and resources with which to form such a group.

Some groundwork will have to be done before you can begin arranging meeting times and inviting students. A good place to start would be with a formal survey inquiring as to student interest. This survey should contain a list of topics that may be covered in discussion and from which students can choose those that most interest them. The survey should clearly explain the purpose and goals of the group and offer students the opportunity to provide feedback. By offering students a voice group structure right from the start, you can instill in them the feeling that the group will be focused on them and their needs. Such input will also help you, as the facilitator, to clarify the structure and mission of the group. Do not forget to ask questions of a logistical nature as well. Information and enthusiasm collected through such a survey may be useless if there is no consensus on a meeting time and location that suits those interested in taking part.

You may also wish to survey students informally. Each of us has developed relationships with particular students with whom we feel more comfortable discussing campus events and from we can ascertain student attitudes. It may be simple enough to ask some of these students if they feel that such a group would be beneficial to them and seek their reactions to proposed topics. In fact, you should consider working with a core group of one or two students from the start. Not only will this provide students with an opportunity to empower themselves; it will also contribute to "word of mouth" advertising essential before a larger number of students will commit to such a venture.

Keep in mind that deciding upon discussion topics and agreeing on meeting times are only two aspects of laying the groundwork. Brinckerhoff, et al (1993) outline a number of steps that have been found to maximize both the organization and success of support groups for students with learning disabilities, these include:

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Determining the purpose of the group (Will this group be formal or informal, academic or counseling based?)

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Determining who will facilitate the group (initially this should be you, the learning professional, but may become a student responsibility in the future.) 

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Determining both group membership and how individuals will be recruited (Open to all students, just students with disabilities or only students within a particular academic major?)

As a component of the advance planning, it is important to delineate what will actually take place during group sessions and provide an outline of topics and activities. At the same time, you must also allow for a fair amount of flexibility. Your framework should provide a skeletal structure which is open enough that students feel they have ownership of the group, and can determine for themselves what they will both give to and get out of the relationship. At the same time, having such a skeleton will allow you a base structure from which to facilitate and continue leading the group should student interest not be at a point where they can appropriate leadership responsibility. This can be a tricky line to walk because if the group is too structured, students may feel they are simply taking another class and decide not to attend. But, if things are too loose, they may feel nothing is being accomplished and lose interest.

Ground rules should be established for group participants, but it is preferable to cover them as the need arises rather than opening the first session with a lecture on group etiquette. General rules should include an understanding by all members that confidentiality is of the utmost importance. Students will only participate, and such a group can only be successful, if those taking part in discussions feel comfortable speaking freely, knowing that what is said in the group will stay in the group. Members must show respect for each other and not take part in personal attacks. It will prove extremely difficult to maintain group cohesion if participants feel threatened by the words and attitudes of those with whom they are supposed to be developing supportive relationships.

It is likely that only a small number of students suited for group membership will decide to participate. With that in mind, the group should never discuss students who are not members. Not only are these students unavailable to defend themselves, should that be necessary, but their non-participation in the group does not negate their right to personal confidentiality. Instead, the group may discuss incidents in generic terms with no names of individuals being used. In fact, the use of generic incidents as illustrative examples during group discussion will facilitate student understanding within a variety of topics.

Commitment to the group is another important consideration. Positive and productive peer interaction can only be successful if members participate. This is also why it is important to poll potential members beforehand as to when and where the group should meet. It is one thing if students are unable to attend, but another if they are unwilling. It is important for the group leader to stress the importance of group attendance, especially the fact that every person has something to offer and that they cannot offer their perspective and experience if they are not there to do so.

How long the group will meet is something else to be determined. Whether this is to be an open group that meets weekly or monthly for as long as there is interest, or a closed group with a set agenda and planned topics for each meeting should be determined beforehand. It may be best to start the group with the understanding that it is planned to run for only a prescribed period of time and will strive to accomplish a small number of preset goals. Again, any agenda should be flexible enough to allow alteration as the group becomes more cohesive and finds its own path. It is possible that members will decide for themselves to continue meeting after the time comes to wrap up for the semester. If the group comes to realize they are getting something positive out of the experience, there is little reason to suspend activity.

Presented below is a sample list of discussion topics for a semester's worth of group meetings. It is for the readers' convenience and is not meant to be the final word. As you can see, the first session includes an assessment of the needs and interests of group members. Depending on where such a conversation leads, it could easily disrupt the rest of your carefully outlined plans.

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Session 1: Introduction of group and leader with assessment of group interests and needs.

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Session 2: Defining and understanding disabilities.

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Session 3: Understanding your rights and responsibilities as an individual with a disability.

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Session 4: Understanding the rights and responsibilities of the academic institution.

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Session 5: Living with a disability.

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Session 6: Coping strategies and interpersonal skills.

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Session 7: Self-advocacy and assertiveness skills.

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Session 8: Academic strategies (making use of accommodations in the classroom).

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Session 9: Academic strategies (test taking strategies and accommodations).

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Session 10: Group closing and wrap up.21

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Sources

I would like to thank Allen Bruehl and Amy Ward of Assumption College for information and inspiration from their presentation at the 1996 LAANE Conference: "Building Support Groups for Students with Disabilities in a Postsecondary Setting".

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Berkowitz, Daniel J. (1998). Issues of Transition: Stress and Students with Learning Disabilities. Learning Assistance Association of New England Newsletter. 11 (2), 1, 4-6.

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Brinckerhoff, Loring C., Shaw, Stan F., McGuire, Joan M. (1993). Promoting Postsecondary Education for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Handbook for Practitioners. Pro-Ed: Austin, TX.

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Delworth, Ursula, Hanson, Gary R. & Associates. (1989). Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession - Second Ediation. Jossey Bass: San Francisco.

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Geishardt, Cheryl & Munsch, Joyce. (1996). Coping with School Stress: A Comparison of Adolescents With and Without Learning Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(3), 225-336.

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Kroeger, Sue, Schuck, Judy. (1993). New Directions for Student Services: Responding to Disability Issues in Student Affairs. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.   

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About the Author:

This article was submitted to the LCN by:

Daniel J. Berkowitz
Assistant Director
Office of Disability Services
Martin Luther King Jr. Center
Boston University
19 Deerfield Street
Boston, MA 02215

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