Calming corners. Movement breaks. Calming toolkits. Mindfulness. These are all becoming common terms in today’s classrooms. The teaching of such soft skills through character education-like programs was once considered to be an accessory to the curriculum. Today, though, Social Emotional Learning has emerged as an integral component in a student’s ability to learn.
By now, we have all heard of the meta-analysis study that publicized an average increase in academic achievement of 11 percentage points (Durlak, et al., 2011). Other studies have determined that an increase of students’ Social Emotional Learning skills reduce student distress and behavior problems (Catalano et al., 2002; Greenberg et al., 2003; Zins et al., 2004, Zins, et al., 2007).
With all of these benefits, embedding Social Emotional Learning into our schools seems logical. And furthermore, it seems like a natural fit for our students with Learning Disabilities.
The co-morbidity (meaning the presence of more than one disorder in the same student) rate research shows that they are consistently higher than expected by chance between reading disorders and other neurodevelopmental disorders (Moll, et al., 2020). Students identified with reading disorders demonstrate a co-morbidity rate range between 20 to 50 percent for a reading disorder and a behavioral disorder (i.e. ADHD) and 9 to 29 percent for reading disorder and emotional problems like anxiety.
Learning disabilities do occur in isolation as do other neurodevelopmental disorders. This fact doesn’t help us though. This means that whether a student has more than one disability or just one, the student is at-risk for poor socio-emotional outcomes (Haft, et al., 2016).
It’s pretty simple what this all means -
Our students with learning disabilities benefit from Social Emotional Learning.
When students reflect on their own academic and social emotional competencies, they can begin to set goals for these skills. And through the pursuit of these goals, educators can support students in their achievement.
We can help students to periodically pause and reflect. Reflection, paired with goal setting, allows academic experiences to transfer into genuine, lifelong learning. It helps students to develop an understanding of their own strengths and lagging skills for improvement, increase their higher order and critical thinking skills, make connections and generalize problem solving skills to real life situations. Students learn to analyze and apply their learning independently - and isn’t independence always the goal of Special Education?!
Educators can use reflection tasks such as discussion, journaling, free writing, or in response to a content-based prompt.
From the classroom to the playground, all students have moments that upon reflection, they are able to make connections between what is taught in theory to its application in real life. Reflection leads to learning.
Relationships are the heart of the classroom and the key to successful student learning and management. The core Social Emotional Learning skills teach the initiation, development, and maintenance of healthy relationships. Healthy relationships are the pervasive outcome that are intertwined as the outcome of ALL Social Emotional Learning competences.
Supportive and healthy relationships, and the skills they entail, are the one commonality of all prevention programs for at-risk students. And at-risk students often demonstrate lagging emotional competencies as well as acting out behaviors. But if we can teach these students how to initiate, maintain, and develop healthy relationships, we can change their futures.
Strong relationships help students grow from their learning, both academically and behaviorally. They also shape student development and health. One way that they do this is to protect against the negative impact of stress on a student’s development and health. Research has shown that relationships are able to provide this protection against stress.
And this research is very important for our students with learning disabilities. Our students with learning disabilities experience stress at high levels. In one study, 16.6 percent of participants with learning disabilities stated that they were experiencing severe stress (Panicker, et al., 2016). Supportive, healthy relationships can offer protection against such stress.
We build relationships with students by greeting each of them daily and saying “good-bye” to each of them every afternoon. Student and family inventories, surveys, and questionnaires can help educators learn more about student preferences, obtain actionable feedback, and have the ability to relate to our students.
I love getting to know my students! And I use all of these strategies and then some to get to know them. But let me share my tried and true key to building relationships with students. Personally, I find good old-fashion discussion to be my best relationship builder! Ask them questions about themselves. And be a kid watcher. I try to notice strengths in my students: “You are such a talented artist!” Throughout the school year, these strengths can be used to build a student’s academic and social emotional abilities.
Letting students inside my world - just a little bit - allows us to deepen our relationships: “This morning my chihuahua Zoe was so lazy she tried to hide under her blanket.” By doing this, I can make connections with my students: “I have a dog too” or “I tried to hide under my blanket this morning too.”
Relationships are free to implement. And with all of their benefits to student performance, why would we not build relationships with students?!
It is believed that the average student can sustain attention for 10 to 15 minutes on one task. Students with ADHD have an even lower ability. And the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health (NCSH) found that 31 to 45 percent of children with ADHD have a learning disability, and vice versa (DuPaul, et al., 2013).
Task Checklists can be used to increase students’ attention and metacognition (awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes). We can use checklists to communicate the details or goals of an assignment for students and keep them on track toward achieving the learning goal. Student learning is supported when we use checklists to present complex tasks as being broken down into the simpler concrete tasks needed for the successful completion of the whole complex task. The checklist teaches a student to follow multiple steps to complete a task. They also help to make order in the relative chaos of learning and provide a means and memory aids for students to accomplish complex tasks. When students know how to learn, how to apply effective strategies when challenged by learning obstacles, and have strategies for assessing their progress, they become better learners.
Task Checklists give control over learning to the students, reinforcing independence of the skill. We know that students who track their own behaviors gain greater control over those behaviors. So inevitably, students who can learn to track their behaviors in conjunction with task completion can gain greater control over both.
The checks indicating completion of tasks on the Task Checklists give us visual data on a student’s task completion!
If you don’t know how you feel, you can’t do anything about it. This goes for teachers and students!
Students with learning disabilities experience just as many emotions as their peers, but some of these emotions may be connected to their learning. For example, reading aloud can produce even more fear in a student with a reading disability in comparison to a typical reader. An abundance of research supports students with learning disabilities experiencing high levels of emotional distress related to their difficulties with learning. Depression, loneliness, and low self esteem are experienced at higher levels by students with learning disabilities than their peers. In one study, 14.2 percent of students with learning disabilities had severe depression and 23.8 percent had severe anxiety (Panicker, et al., 2016).
Emotional check-ins are designed to help students slow us down and assess their feelings. We can take some time throughout the day to emotionally check in with students. Ask all community members to pause and ask, “How am I feeling - in this moment?”
When we know what we are feeling, we can do something about it.
(Remember, though, if you are checking in on students’ emotions, make sure you know what you are going to say and do when students say they are not doing well. It is also important to know what your school’s process for handling disclosures of distress.)
Check-ins can be implemented in several different ways. Daily feelings check-ins help students to recognize different emotions within themselves, use emotional vocabulary by labeling the emotions, recognize the emotions, and take steps to manage these feelings. And ultimately, this normalizes emotions for students while communicating that how others feel is important.
When using Task Checklists, a task could be a “Check-In.” Perhaps this check-in asks a student to check-in on their progress towards the task’s completion. Or maybe this check-in asks a student to assess their attention to the task: “Was I just being attentive to the task? If not, what can I do to regulate myself?”
Executive Functions are those cognitive functions that supervise, control, and regulate our emotions and behaviors. These functions contribute significantly to the academic and social emotional difficulties faced by students with learning disabilities. This is why students with learning disabilities often display difficulties with organization, prioritizing, controlling impulses, applying effective learning strategies, memory, self-regulation, and metacognitive skills.
But if we can help students to improve their Executive Functioning, we can further support our students’ learning. These skills can be learned through active participation in motor control activities, activities that require waiting - you know, the reverse of impulse control - or mental focus, breathing exercises, and/or cognitive distraction activities.
So how can we support students’ Executive Functions? We can implement a Self Reg Toolkit. And by this I mean, we can teach students a sequence of exercises, using coping tools, to independently self regulate.
When students feel frustrated over a task or over-stimulated, teach them to independently implement a Self Reg Toolkit to de-escalate.
As much as we can, we should seek to connect the language of each of these supports to visuals. This will further support understanding and recall, while also increasing student independence in applying the Social Emotional skills that these must have’s teach!
It’s been about 2,000 years since Plato wrote that “All learning has an emotional base.” But since then, we have the research to support the practice of teaching the whole child. At the time this is being written, there are numerous states in the United States that have made Social Emotional Learning a mandated part of the curriculum.
Research has found that 83 percent of students make academic gains when participating in an SEL program with an academic component (Durlak, et al., 2011). Research shows when interventions link academic and social emotional learning students with learning disabilities have the greatest likelihood of helping students.
Despite these trends and research, though, we still have a few miles ahead on our journey. Research has focused little on Social Emotional Learning skill development for students with diagnosed psychiatric or developmental disabilities. While there are numerous evidence-based Social Emotional Learning programs, very few of them have been specifically evaluated for their success with students with diagnosed psychiatric or developmental disabilities. Additionally, many of the programs require significant accommodations for students with disabilities to participate successfully.
With years of research to come, this will be considered the start of a growing list of research-based Social Emotional Learning must have’s for the classroom. But for now, these top 5 Social Emotional Learning must haves are for students with learning disabilities!
By: Miss Rae
Catalano, R. F., Berglund, M. L., Ryan, J. A. M., Lonczak, H. S., & Hawkins, J. D. (2002). Positive youth development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. Prevention & Treatment, 5, Article 15. doi: 10.1037/1522- 37220.127.116.115a.
DuPaul GJ, Gormley MJ, Laracy SD. Comorbidity of LD and ADHD: implications of DSM-5 for assessment and treatment. J Learn Disabil. 2013;46(1):43-51. doi:10.1177/0022219412464351
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, 405-432.
Greenberg, M. T., Weissberg, R. P., O’Brien, M. U., Zins, J. E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., et al. (2003). Enhancing school-based prevention and youth development through coordinated social, emotional, and academic learning. American Psychologist, 58, 466–474.
Greene, R. W. (2008). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.
Haft, S. L., Myers, C. A., & Hoeft, F. (2016). Socio-Emotional and Cognitive Resilience in Children with Reading Disabilities. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 10, 133–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.06.005
Moll, Kristina & Snowling, Maggie & Hulme, Charles. (2020). Introduction to the Special Issue “Comorbidities between Reading Disorders and Other Developmental Disorders”. Scientific Studies of Reading. 24. 1-6. 10.1080/10888438.2019.1702045.
Panicker, A. S., & Chelliah, A. (2016). Resilience and Stress in Children and Adolescents with Specific Learning Disability. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry = Journal de l'Academie canadienne de psychiatrie de l'enfant et de l'adolescent, 25(1), 17–23.
Zins, Joseph & Elias, Maurice. (2007). Social and Emotional Learning: Promoting the Development of All Students. JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL CONSULTATION. 17. 233-255. 10.1080/10474410701413152.
Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H. J. (Eds.). (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.