It was nine-year-old Tobin’s first day at a new public school, and like most kids he was nervous. He didn’t know the other students or his teacher, and he already had quite a history of behavioral problems at other schools. He likely wondered whether this experience would be just another failure for him.
However, on that first day, he took a simple but monumental step: He summoned the courage to ask his teacher to take a walk with him. (Tobin’s new classroom was intentionally small and supportive, and at times included extra staffing to accommodate such requests.) I don’t know what they talked about, but I do know this: In that small request, Tobin set himself on a new path in school, one pointed toward success.
Getting there required a year and a half of hard work and gradual progress. Eighteen months earlier, Tobin had come to my school, a private nonprofit that serves students with emotional, psychiatric, and developmental disabilities who have not been successful in public school settings. He had missed more than 30 days of school in the past year, and when he was in school his behavior was often unpredictable and sometimes explosive. He often struggled to meet academic expectations, and his reading skills lagged significantly behind those of other students his age. When an assignment was difficult for him—or looked like it would be too hard—he was easily overwhelmed, at times erupting with rude remarks or attempts to flee his classroom.
For a student like Tobin (whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy), there are many valid approaches that a typical school might take: extra attention to his reading skills, a course of rewards and consequences for his disruptive behavior, suspensions for particularly challenging behavior, perhaps a suggestion to seek outside counseling or medication.
But we took a different route. While we certainly provided intensive academic supports and efforts to reinforce “good” behavior (and reprimand “bad” behavior) after it occurred, and these strategies did help Tobin, we also focused more proactively on nurturing his social and emotional skills. This included strengthening his abilities to recognize his emotions and thoughts and how they influenced his behavior, cope with stressful feelings or situations, and maintain positive, cooperative relationships with peers and teachers. For example, we helped Tobin realize when he was getting overwhelmed by a difficult-seeming assignment, and ask for help instead of acting out.
Given all of the challenges facing Tobin—and the realities constraining public schools—it’s not hard to imagine a focus on social-emotional skills like these being considered a luxury (if even considered at all). And yet social and emotional learning (SEL) can actually prove essential to helping students meet their goals, even—or perhaps particularly—for children with significant behavioral problems. While these children have not traditionally earned the attention of SEL programs, I believe there is good reason for that to change.
But to help students like Tobin develop their social-emotional skills, I believe teachers and administrators must take two critical steps. First, they must change the way they think about the needs of these students, seeing them as children who need help developing key skills and strengths in order to meet school expectations rather than assuming they can eliminate their problem behaviors by enforcing consequences or firm limits. Then, educators have to tackle an important question: How can existing research-based SEL strategies and programs be tailored to the needs and strengths of these students?
Why use SEL for students with disabilities?
While only a handful of states, including Illinois and Kansas, have adopted their own statewide standards for social and emotional learning, many states (like Rhode Island, where I live and work) have made SEL a mandated part of the curriculum. And a bevy of SEL programs have sprouted over the past 20 years, many with documented benefits for students and their teachers.
Despite these trends, there has been little focus on SEL skill development for students with diagnosed psychiatric or developmental disabilities. Very few of the evidence-based programs have been specifically tested with these students in mind, let alone as the primary target. It is not uncommon for SEL programs to require extensive writing assignments or long classroom discussions, tasks that may be impractical for students who have trouble writing or sitting still. Indeed, in my own school program, although we have long had many ad hoc efforts to build the social and emotional skills that we think children need to be successful, it was only this past year that we began to write SEL goals into students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs); by contrast, our standard practice for years has been to write IEP goals targeting decreases in disruptive behavior.
Why focus on SEL development for students like ours? There are several good reasons.
The first reason is conceptual. As Virginia Tech professor and noted author Ross Greene and others have argued, disabilities like AD/HD or anxiety disorders, and the behaviors associated with them, are better thought of as deficits in certain key skills—deficits that may in part be remediated by intensive focus on SEL skill development rather than by trying to stop negative behavior through a regimen of rewards and consequences or even medication. For instance, students struggling in school might particularly benefit from help learning how to inhibit impulses to lash out and to practice calming techniques instead (like mindful breathing), or how to develop a realistic sense of what their strengths are and when they need to ask for help (and from whom).
There is now a wealth of evidence to suggest this approach works. Research led by SEL pioneer Joseph Zins has shown that supporting social-emotional skills like these not only reduces students’ distress and behavior problems but also improves their chances of success in school. Studies of specific SEL programs have shown similar results: The Second Step program has been found to reduce aggressive behavior and promote kind, helpful—or “prosocial”—thinking; the PATHS program has shown similar benefits while also helping to improve students’ academic performance. In fact, a meta-analysis of 213 separate studies found that, on average, kids who participate in SEL programs see their academic achievement test scores increase by 11 percentage points.
Finally, although students with significant behavioral problems frequently receive plenty of attention in school, too often this attention comes in the form of frustration, disappointment, and rejection from teachers and peers. Teaching them social and emotional skills—like taking the perspective of others—can help them reach the point where their relationships become sources of support, not of tension or judgment.
This is particularly important for students’ relationships with their teachers. The teaching profession has high rates of turnover and burnout; working with children who demonstrate challenging, disruptive, and resistant behavior can only intensify that stress. However, there is preliminary evidence to suggest that teachers’ view of their students can be improved, and their stress levels reduced, by emphasizing a model of “skill deficits” for students with behavioral problems—focusing on the skills and strengths students need to develop rather than the problems they need to reduce—and giving teachers a framework to help students develop these skills.
How to teach SEL to students with disabilities
Clearly, teaching SEL skills to students with psychiatric or developmental disabilities has great promise. But, as with teaching academics to such students, it also comes with great challenges. How do we approach this?
In our school programs, we use a variety of strategies to both explicitly teach social-emotional skills and to embed practices that reinforce these skills throughout the school day. We do use evidence-based programs that offer direct SEL instruction, such as Second Step, Skillstreaming, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Typically, this instruction occurs through group therapy sessions taught by our psychologists, social workers, or speech/language therapists.
But regardless of the program, getting positive results out of these lessons for our students requires two additional steps. First, as we present the material, we often use classroom strategies that proactively address the challenges that might otherwise disrupt learning. For instance, with a student who has a tendency toward hyperactivity, when presenting a lesson we might take frequent movement breaks, use specialized seat cushions, or allow that student to stand at her desk. Or, for a student struggling with low frustration tolerance, we might provide small chunks of work with the opportunity for a break or other earned incentive.
Along these lines, we also consistently tailor SEL programs to match students’ academic abilities, which may include reducing written expectations, repeating key concepts, or providing flow charts, outlines, or other visual/graphic supports.
The second key to using the evidence-based group lessons from SEL programs is to have follow-up by our teachers and classroom staff. This may involve using language from the program in more individualized coaching sessions, special reinforcement programs (e.g., “catch ‘em being good” programs targeted at prosocial behaviors such as kindness or persistence), or other efforts to translate group materials into the rest of the week’s curriculum. What’s more, in some of our schools, we also try to use similar language and programs at a whole-school level to ensure consistency across classrooms.
But much of what we do to facilitate SEL skill development is less structured and more opportunistic. Having a brief “check-in” about a particular challenge or taking walks (as Tobin requested) are opportunities to help students develop awareness of their strengths and needs, and strategies to better regulate their behavior. (Asking a school counselor or administrator to cover a classroom or talk with the student might make these options more realistic when a teacher is alone with a large class for most of the day.) At our school, we sometimes have these conversations with an entire class, as when a class I was working with was having a difficult time listening quietly as their teacher read aloud to them; a targeted conversation with students led to the (student-generated) idea of having them draw at their desks while the teacher read, which in turn led to much more attentive and quiet read-alouds!
One of my favorite ways to practice social and emotional skills in school is to use games. Games are naturally engaging and fun; plus, I believe they offer a decent real-life approximation of situations where students might apply the skills we’re targeting. With selected games, I can have students practice skills like impulse control, oral communication, listening, or empathy without even realizing they are learning these skills. For example, I sometimes play a game where two students sit back-to-back with an identical set of Lego blocks, and one has to match the design created by the other without seeing it. Students must practice both giving specific instructions and active listening to succeed. Another game, to promote empathy skills, involves a variation on the old “Newlywed” game, where students gain points by correctly guessing how other students would answer questions about their favorite sport, likes, or dislikes.
Even with all of these efforts, I think it’s important to note: Rewards and consequences do have their place; they help us strengthen budding skills and set limits on unhealthy behavior patterns/reactions. For instance, our classrooms often employ individualized behavior plans, allowing students to earn points for responsibility, safety, or on-task behavior, and then later redeem those points for privileges such as time playing games or using the computer. In addition, we also set limits on certain disruptive behaviors, limits that may include asking students to leave the classroom or requiring them to make a plan for how they will cope safely with a particular challenge before they can resume their regular activities. These systems play an important role in helping us make explicit and monitor the social-emotional skills that we are attempting to instill in our students and in creating a safe place where these skills can be nurtured.
Teaching social and emotional skills to children with significant behavioral problems is not easy. It requires both a good grasp on existing evidence-based strategies and a creative approach to modifying these strategies. It requires a patient teacher who can build strong relationships with students and has an eye for seeing students’ challenges as opportunities to teach and coach (not to mention catching a situation before it erupts into a crisis).
For Tobin, at our school this involved taking away his old go-to strategies (like running away from class), despite his initial strong opposition, and helping him see teachers as adults who could also care for him. And it involved teaching him to take a deep breath or ask for help before he got totally overwhelmed by an assignment that looked difficult.
On a practical level, he went on a lot of walks with his teacher (while an aide remained with the class) to take a break from the classroom, discuss what he was worried about, and make a plan to tackle the challenge. Over time, he internalized this set of strategies—enough so that when he finally returned to a public school setting, he was able to ask his teacher for that helpful walk and set out on a new, more constructive path to success.