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A Sibling’s Role in the Social and Academic Development of a Child with Disabilities

Two little kid boys taking bath in oceanSiblings to children of disabilities are a key element to the social development of their handicapped sibling. Brothers and sisters have a lifelong relationship with one another that tends to extend past the relationship they have with parents (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, p.12). Siblings are their own first social network (1985, p. xiii). Understanding and empowering a non-handicapped sibling could turn feelings of resentment, guilt, anger, and jealousy into positive actions of helpfulness and effective teaching. Educators should be aware of the ways that sibling can be both a positive influence and outside resource for a student with disabilities.

Bank and Kahn’s 1982 research study accurately depicted the disruption in the traditional family model. The traditional family no longer consists of working father and housewife mother. As cost of living has risen, both parents work; they also work longer hours. Divorce and remarriage is an ongoing trend. Family size is decreasing, as people are having less children. Families are relocating. Parents are increasingly growing more stressed from professional and financial duties, leaving less time for their children. These factors lead siblings to have stronger and more interdependent relationships (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, pp.13-14; Heller & Arnold, 2010, p.16). Educators understanding the family dynamic for a student with disabilities is critical for differentiation. Being aware that there is a non-handicapped sibling in the family, as well as potentially even in the same school, could be a great asset for in-home instruction and assistance outside of the classroom.

Cicirelli’s 1972 research was one of the first to denote teaching effectiveness of siblings by gender. He “found female siblings more effective than male siblings or female non siblings in teaching simple conceptual tasks to younger brothers and sisters” (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, p.18). In a June 2011 ABA therapy session with a young child diagnosed with mild autism, the older sister urged him more than the mother herself to perform the suggested activities. She would beckon him to the table and personally hand him the toys and flashcards, using her own knowledge to assist him (2011). The brother’s engagement and the sister’s desire for involvement create the mutually beneficial connection that interdependent sibling relationships require to assist a child with disabilities.

Educators and parents alike play a large role in teaching siblings about their brother or sister with disabilities. Adults can be role models in how they recommend siblings to handle behaviors, how they facilitate engagement between the handicapped and non-handicapped sibling, and how they address the concerns of the non-handicapped sibling. In Meyer and Vadasy’s workshops for siblings of children with disabilities, brothers and sisters reported the “two major areas of need [were] the need for simple, clear explanations about the causes and nature of handicaps, and the need for reassurance and support for their feelings about their sib who has special needs” (Meyer & Vadasy, 1985 p. ix). Educators and adults can be the resources children need to learn more about the disability. They are also the confidants that children may need to turn to if their brother or sister is being teased by the non-handicapped sibling’s friends.

Teachers first should take into account the family situation of a child with disabilities. In a family where there is a child with a disability, the stresses are drastically increased than in families without any children with disabilities (Gallagher, Beckman, & Cross, 1983, p.10). Older siblings claim they feel a significant weight of the responsibility in attending to their sibling (1983, p. 13). While most siblings have the inherent desire to engage and learn with their sibling, data has proven the toll such responsibility takes on older female siblings specifically. Powell and Gallagher reported how relationships older sisters have with their siblings with handicaps can impact their futures.

“Oldest female siblings reported having significantly more responsibility for the handicapped child…in the course of almost daily contact with the retarded child, they placed less emphasis on close friendships, marriage and family, and community membership…Self-reports from siblings in this study also suggested that siblings assume responsibilities for inferred parental psychological needs, i.e., a responsibility to overachieve…compensate for the limitations of the handicapped child” (1985, p. 33).

Heller and Arnold’s 2010 article further claims that female siblings surveyed were more involved in the life of their sibling with disabilities than the male sibling (Heller & Arnold, 2010, p. 23). Male and female siblings also tend to be plagued by the three future-related questions that commonly arise within these situations: what will happen when the sibling grows older, who will care for for the sibling after parents have died, and if the disability will be passed onto the non-handicapped sibling’s future children (Meyer & Vadasy, 1985, p. 91). These crucial questions can impact the non-handicapped sibling’s relationships and life goals. It is important for educators to be sensitive to these sibling questions. Positive attention to these types of inquiries from both educator and families can stimulate the hope the sibling needs to create a strong, beneficial relationship with their sibling with disabilities. Once these questions are addressed, all siblings alike could build a more positive attitude and understanding of their sibling’s disability.

Trained teachers also provide tools to make siblings great teachers. As discussed, siblings are one another’s first social network. Xiao Lei Wang’s recent study on language shows that siblings greatly impact language development; older siblings influence the younger, while younger siblings correct errors of the older (Wang, 2014, pp. 48-49). The sibling connection here already sets the scene for peer learning and influence. Additionally, Piaget’s theory of peer learning and social interaction is a common theory frequently implemented in the classroom. Teachers leverage collaborative peer learning within the academic setting because peers influence one another in ways that adults may not be able to (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 43). The combination of interdependent sibling relationship and effectiveness of peer learning dictate that siblings can be the teachers that students with disabilities need to reach key levels of social and even academic learning.

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Teachers and parents can also influence siblings to use behavior-related tactics. When siblings get angry with their sibling with disabilities, for example, they can work on using “I-statements” rather than angry statements. Saying “I don’t like when you say that because it hurts my feelings” instead of “Stop that!” allows siblings to provide instruction to the sibling with special needs, as well as context. This is also a significantly less hurtful way to let off steam (Meyer & Vadasy, 1985, p. 9). Ignoring negative behaviors and promoting good ones are also a key way for siblings to integrate learning into the interdependent sibling relationship. Siblings can be encouraged to look for good behaviors and reinforce them with positive praise or tangible items their sibling particularly likes (1985, p. 50). The sibling with disabilities is likely to be more open to the sibling than the parent, and the non-handicapped sibling will benefit from the result of having a brother or sister they could more easily relate to. Siblings have the teaching-learning relationship because of their ability to be influencers as well as peers (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, p. 121).

The benefits that siblings can have on their sibling with disabilities in both the social and academic settings have been consistently reviewed.

“Increased social interaction between a handicapped child and his or her siblings should have positive effects on the children’s development…In cases where there is extensive, positive contact between the handicapped child and the sibling, the sibling may exert considerable influence on the behavior of the handicapped child, perhaps even more influence than parents. When opportunities for social interaction are enhanced, both children benefit from the outcome” (1985, p. 107).

During Lesley University’s Family Weekend, two sisters and their brother with low-functioning autism went to the hotel pool with their father. The brother refused to get in the pool as there were no stairs, only a ladder that would require him to go backwards into the pool. The father encouraged the brother to go into the pool to no avail. It was not until both sisters led by example in entering and leaving the pool multiple times via ladder that their brother attempted and successfully entered the pool by the same medium (Charalambous, 2015). Similar to children without disabilities, children with disabilities may look towards their peer group rather than their parents for advice on and examples of social actions.

While the positive influence of non-handicapped sibling’s efforts on their sibling with disabilities is evident, educators and families must also be aware of the negative effect this can have on the typically developing sibling. Siblings have reported feeling neglect, jealousy, guilt, and other feelings of resentment because parents direct more attention to the sibling with disabilities (Burbidge & Minnes, 2014, p. 149). They may feel resentful at the different privileges and items their sibling might receive and they do not (Williams & Piamjariyakul, 2010, p. 43). There are also recorded cases where siblings exhibit behavioral and emotional problems that may lead to family and career disruptions (Cuzzocrea, Larcan, Costa, & Gazzano, 2014, p. 54). While negative emotions tend to be inevitable, educator and parent intervention techniques can very easily come into play here (Smith, Polloway, Patton, & Dowdy, 2008, p. 77).  Parents should answer children’s questions about their sibling’s special needs, coordinate activities with the child without disabilities, and highlight their achievements separately from those of their sibling with disabilities.

In a 2003 study, Richard Hastings assessed the sibling relationship with siblings and their siblings with disabilities. His research assessed that “where parents have relatively poor relationships with their child’s therapy team, this is likely to reduce the level of support, which again may affect parents’ relationships with siblings of the children with autism” (Hastings, p. 142, 2003). In 2015, almost four years after the aforementioned June 2011 ABA therapy session, the female sibling’s mother reported to the assessing ABA therapist that her daughter wanted to be involved in helping her brother with autism therapies. She also admitted that she believed her daughter felt “left out” when she would see different therapists coming to “play” with her brother and not with her. This simple parent intervention and inclusion did wonders for the therapy sessions; the brother with autism became more animated and engaged when the ABA therapist did involve his sister, and the sister was more helpful and effective herself. (2015; Tsamparli, Tsibidaki, & Roussos, 2011, 10).

In terms of providing information to the sibling without disabilities, Featherstone’s 1980 assessment touches on a key point. Researchers in the past said that siblings “should not know everything because siblings are not parents.” Featherstone claimed that siblings generally did not know life without that sibling. Siblings will most likely have a lifelong relationship with that sibling beyond the parents’ years. That being said, they would need information that changes as they grow and develop and that gives them an idea on how they will be supporting this sibling (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, 59-60). Educators and families also must take into account that even though having siblings teach their sibling with a disability might relieve some of the family’s burden, siblings without handicap should by no means be coerced into providing this service (1985, 124). Forceful interdependent learning and relationships will also most definitely foster resentment and the aforementioned negative feelings. Providing information and choices are the key elements to eliminating negative feelings and creating acceptance.

Cerreto and Miller’s 1981 research indicated “a positive outcome for the normal sibling who has a brother or sister with a handicap” when the typically developing siblings reported to having adequately coped, prepared, informed, and adapted to the situation (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, p. 33). With workshops, support groups, and literature for siblings without disabilities, as well as parent intervention, knowledge and involvement of the non-disabled sibling in teaching the sibling with disabilities has increased. Some therapists even encourage the typically developing sibling to be involved in therapy sessions and imitate the actions of the sibling with disabilities to create an awareness and a connection to the differences in behavior (Ahmed, 2015). Now that the sibling role has been further surveyed, there are wide and varied methods to leverage it to positively impact a sibling with disabilities.

With IDEA’s incorporation of inclusion in the general education setting, siblings are becoming a source of first-hand knowledge and assistance to the community as a whole (Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, 2013). Key changes with development and promotion of inclusion in schools further embed the social dynamic siblings help to create within a school setting (Powell & Gallagher, 1985, p. 152). Siblings pave the way for positive influence and can use their own experiences and insights in the school system to make informed decisions with parents. They can also be advocates for their own sibling or other students with disabilities in the school inclusion community (1985, p. 124). By being a support system both in and out of the classroom, siblings can be a valuable contribution to the community for students with disabilities. While the benefits typically developing siblings have on their siblings with disabilities are evident, research and current interventions have shown how siblings can also benefit from having a brother or sister with disabilities. It is the role of educators and families to ensure the beneficial relationship between the sibling with disabilities and the sibling without is mutually understood and appreciated.

Now more than ever, siblings are becoming a more valuable resource to both educators and students with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities age out of effective special intervention and education programs, such as ABA, at age 21. In large states like Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois, and New York with the largest populations of students with disabilities, limited funding is allocated compared to “their small-state counterparts” like Delaware and Rhode Island (McCann, p. 20, 2014). With funding for special education programs limited within schools and outside of the typical academic setting, space for students with disabilities in daytime rehabilitations or other special programs is limited. Insurance coverage also expires at 21, leaving families to expend exorbitant amounts for special education services out-of-pocket. Families with lesser incomes struggle with keeping their families afloat and assuring the constant progress of their child with special needs. With little to no programs or opportunities available, students with disabilities will rapidly regress from the progress they made during their time in the academic setting (Snow, 2015).

The study, improvement, and benefit of the sibling relationship should be studied to serve as an extension to the education of students with disabilities. Whereas individuals with disabilities will lose access to special programs at a certain age, the likelihood that a sibling can continue to promote, design, and assist in their lifelong education is significantly higher. Educators serve their students for their present and future when they understand and promote the sibling relationship.


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A Sibling’s Role in the Social and Academic Development of a Child with Disabilities

Anna Maria Charalambous

Anna Maria Charalambous is a dually-certified ENL and Theatre Arts teacher at the Brooklyn Institute for Liberal Arts in New York City. She is currently working as a graduate assistant at Pace University for Dr. Jennifer Pankowski as she completes her Advanced Certificate in Adolescent Special Education. As the oldest of four siblings, one of which has low-functioning autism, Anna Maria strives to promote an equitable balance between individuals with different abilities - both in the classroom and in the home. She thanks her brother, Pantelis, and Dr. Pankowski warmly and with high regard - without them, this work would have never been brought to light.

APA Reference
Charalambous, A. (2018). A Sibling’s Role in the Social and Academic Development of a Child with Disabilities. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 22 Dec 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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