Social-emotional learning programs improve the grades and behavior of all learners—but special ed students may benefit even more from lessons on mindfulness, self-regulation and cooperation, experts say.
Social-emotional learning—also known as SEL, and sometimes called “character education” or “soft skills”—teaches students to: 1, understand and manage emotions. 2, set and achieve positive goals. 3, feel and show empathy for others. 4, establish and maintain relationships, and 5, make responsible decisions, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Special needs students may be less likely to pick up on social cues or may struggle with emotion and behavior management, says Melissa Schlinger, the learning collaborative’s vice president of programs and practice.
“When a school focuses on SEL for all kids, it’s helping special ed kids in two ways,” Schlinger says. “Building the social and emotional consciousness of non-disabled kids promotes a climate of inclusion and tolerance of different needs. It also helps special needs kids develop their own social and emotional competence.”
Social-emotional learning programs come in different forms—some schools may bring a counselor into a classroom for a full lesson, while others embed the core curricula with practices such as problem-solving and mindfulness (activities promoting moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations).
Intermediary District 287, located 15 miles west of Minneapolis, is a collaboration of 12 metro-area school systems that provides smaller classes and social-emotional programs for students with multiple and complex needs.
Social-emotional learning for special education often involves more visuals and repetition of core concepts, says Charlene Myklebust, education consultant and the district’s former executive director of mental health. For example, students who lack strong language development may learn hand gestures to express their feelings and learn to classify others’ facial expressions.
Students in 213 social-emotional learning programs demonstrated significantly improved interpersonal skills and academic performance compared to their peers, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Child Development.
Another study published in November’s American Journal of Public Health examined 753 adults who had been evaluated for social competency 20 years ago as kindergartners.
Researchers found that kindergarten students who had scored high for sharing, cooperating and helping other children were more likely to have finished high school on time, graduated college, found full-time employment and stayed out of the judicial system than were their peers with lower scores.
“SEL recognizes that children are best viewed as whole persons, and that there are components beyond cognitive functioning and measurable skills, such as self-awareness, getting along with others, conflict resolution and problem-solving,” Myklebust says. “They are really important skills for all students to get along with others and to function in our social world.”
Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina, where more than half of the 25,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, received a $1.2 million U.S. Department of Education grant in 2014-15 to implement social-emotional learning. The program covers K5, but the district will expand it through high school in coming years, says Director of Student Services David Thompson.
Many teachers introduce a social-emotional learning concept at the beginning of the day, and lead a mindfulness exercise, such as deep breathing. Some classrooms have “calming corners” with yoga mats and games that students can play to settle down before they can return to class.
Special education teachers also participate in social-emotional instruction, Thompson says. Though there is not yet data on academic performance or discipline rates, anecdotal evidence suggests that students act out less and aren’t referred as frequently to the principal’s office, Thompson says.
Administrators should first assess individual school needs and resources, and provide professional development to bolster social-emotional learning curricula, says Schlinger, of the learning collaborative. “The effective leaders we’ve seen have been clear about their vision, communicated it, and been willing to allocate human and financial resources to achieving it,” she says.
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