Social-emotional learning provides the tools needed to regulate emotions, display empathy, develop impulse control, and make responsible decisions—all skills that special needs students often struggle to master.
Correctly implemented, SEL can also reduce behaviour problems and foster the strong educator-student relationships necessary for a productive learning environment. Let's take a closer look at how social and emotional learning benefits students with special needs.
Helps Understand the Students' Needs
When educating special needs students, it is essential to assess the student's strengths, weaknesses, and disabilities. A significant part of this is their emotional and social needs.
With the right data, educators can reinforce positive capabilities and provide support for students in problematic areas. Unfortunately, most state educational standards and benchmarks don't provide clear guidance for assessing social-emotional skills.
Many SEL programs bridge this gap, providing educators with an easy way to identify student strengths and weaknesses.
Improves Academic Outcomes
Traditional schooling systems often set special needs students up for failure. Reading and writing difficulties, learning disabilities, and the awareness of being behind their peers often plunge these students into a cycle of mutually reinforcing low self-confidence and poor achievements.
An evidence-based SEL curriculum can help special needs students overcome these challenges by teaching them how to:
- Practice better self-control and curb impulses
- Improve self-awareness and know their strengths and weaknesses
- Know when and how to ask for help
When educating special needs students, it is essential to assess the student's strengths, weaknesses, and disabilities.
Of course, these programs must be adapted to the individual student's capabilities. For example, a student struggling with hyperactivity may find it much easier to cope with a lesson if he or she is allowed to stand at their desk and take several short, active breaks. A different student might benefit from breaking the lessons into shorter increments or earning tangible incentives.
Other adaptations of social and emotional learning programs for special needs students may include enhanced visual learning, fewer written assignments, and frequent core knowledge reinforcement.
Contributes to Improved Behavior and Relationships
Positive behaviour and healthy social interactions go hand-in-hand with improved academic performance. This correlation is especially true for students with special needs, who often have trouble recognizing and controlling their emotions.
The core principles of SEL instill the skills necessary to identify and manage emotions, avoid impulsive behaviour, make well-balanced decisions, and take personal responsibility for behaviour and decisions. Social and emotional learning can also help special needs students understand others' emotions and develop empathy, allowing them to cultivate good relationships with their peers and teachers.
A child with better-regulated emotions, a higher sense of self-control and responsibility, and better interpersonal skills will be happier, better adjusted, and more capable of unlocking their full potential.
For example, children suffering from disorders on the autism spectrum might find it difficult to recognize people's emotions by looking at their faces. This becomes doubly challenging in the COVID-19 era since we are all wearing masks.
This difficulty in interpreting social cues may lead the student to inadequate response and increased frustration. Social and emotional learning principles address this problem and provide valuable coaching.
Helps Students Overcome Disadvantages
Students with special needs suffer from disadvantages that may be exacerbated by an unhealthy home environment or a low socioeconomic status. These factors may form an insurmountable wall between the child and their present and future competence.
Improved social and emotional skills can help special needs students overcome adversity by promoting:
- Better emotional capabilities
- Improved social skills
- Realistic, healthy adaptability to circumstances
- Self-motivation and positive goals
- Empowerment by making decisions and acting upon them
Promotes Acceptance and Inclusion
Including all students in social and emotional learning programs cultivates a universally positive social climate of tolerance and inclusion. Children with better social and emotional skills and higher self-confidence are more likely to understand and accept students with special needs.
When implemented correctly, SEL programs help achieve:
- Reduced incidence of bullying
- Improved peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher relationships
- Increased empathy and readiness to help
The impact of an effective program goes much beyond the school setting. It may have a profound, long-lasting influence on the student's entire future. The real-life skills students learn in these programs can increase their job prospects, social networking abilities, and personal happiness.
SEL and COVID-19 Educational Challenges
Students with special needs are among the more vulnerable groups receiving a hard hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Often, special needs students are less responsive to distance learning and find it more challenging to process emotions such as fear, anxiety, and stress.
On the other hand, a flexible social and emotional learning program can see this global pandemic as an opportunity to foster a sense of unity and connection. The cognitive and behavioural skills emphasized can promote healthier adaptability in an inevitable situation.
Including all students in social and emotional learning programs cultivates a universally positive social climate of tolerance and inclusion.
Lockdowns and the transition to distance learning have put a severe obstacle in the face of IEPs (individual education plans). These plans often include physical, speech, and occupational therapy, as well as other educational services.
To keep up with IEPs, educators will need to adapt SEL principles to remote learning, which requires flexibility, motivation, and innovation.
Educators can apply these strategies to their distance learning routine:
- Risk evaluation for specific activities: Will participating in activity put children at risk? For example, singing in a closed room can spread germs.
- Providing emotional support for students: Make the effort to listen to your students and encourage them to share their emotions, especially with remote learning challenges.
- Helping students conform to social distancing norms: For many children with special needs, physical expressions of support and validation – such as hugging, holding hands, or sitting close to the teacher – are important. Teachers must redirect this need to a more appropriate behaviour to help students adhere to social distancing guidelines.
All students benefit from SEL programs, and this is doubly true for special needs students. The current regulations of COVID-19 provide both a challenge and an opportunity to learn and adapt. With a concerted effort and an effective social and emotional learning plan, your students can feel more included and understood.