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Learning Disabilities and Extreme Patterns of Responding to Others

By George Tucker, PhD
Child Psychologist

In addition to classroom challenges, one of the challenges facing students with learning disabilities or challenges is learning to curtail extremes in the way they respond to various social interactions and/or not getting their way when they want something.

What do I mean by extreme patterns of behavior?


There are essentially three ways that we can respond to various situations in our lives.  These ways have been termed Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive by many researchers in the past, and these terms have a great deal to recommend them.  That is, most children (and adults!) can understand the definitions of each of these terms, and most children can think of or name a friend of theirs who exemplifies each pattern of behaving.  In fact, most children can name an example of how they have used each way of responding in their own lives.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that Passive means that you do not stand up for yourself.  That is, you say yes when you mean no, or you say no when you mean yes.  You act as if everything is fine, but you may be seething underneath.

Many people mistake Passive for “easy-going.”  The difference is that the easy-going person says he doesn’t care when he doesn’t care, but he says he cares when he does care.  For example, if I respond to “What would you like for dinner?” with, “I don’t care,” and I enjoy whatever is served, then I am probably easy-going.  However, if I complain that I wanted a hamburger after having said “I don’t care,” then I am either passive, or I have changed my mind.  The trick, of course, is how often and how frequently I change my mind.  If this is a once in a lifetime thing, then I could still be considered easy-going, but if I constantly complain after saying it does not matter, then I am probably passive.

It is easy to see that Passive people often become frustrated because they do not make their desires known.  They go through life either thinking that others should know what they want, or hoping that others will guess correctly about what they want.  This leads to frustration and not getting their needs met or their desires known.  It also frustrates others, who may want to please the passive person, but they have no idea about how to please the passive person because the passive person does not tell them what they need or want.

Passive people often do this because they think they are being nice and not “putting other people out,” and they are surprised when the fail to make or keep friends.  This often leads to more passive behavior, depression, and other negative consequences.

Aggressive children, on the other hand, demand things from others, including parents, bully others, and intimidate others to get what they want.  They tend to have difficulty, too, because people either are so afraid of them that they act friendly toward them (in order to avoid a beating!), or give them what they want and avoid them as much as possible thereafter.

Aggressive children also often do not know that they are being aggressive.  They think that they are getting their needs met, they get what they want, and they do not understand why people take off the other way when they see them coming.

The golden mean of these ways of interacting is Assertiveness.  Ideally, when one is Assertive, they make their needs and wants know by asking for what they want, but they also take into account the feelings of others, and they are generally more often to compromising with others.  Assertiveness is an ideal, and few people act in an Assertive fashion all of the time.  However, it is a good goal for which to strive.

It is easy for a parent to discuss these terms with a child of eight or older.  Ask them if they sometimes hurt others feelings by being Aggressive in order to get what they want.  Ask if they are aware of the consequences of this kind of behavior.  Ask what they could do differently, and ask if they notice other children engaging in this kind of behavior, what the outcome of this kind of behavior is for the other child, and whether or not it is really working, in terms of forming close friendships with others.