This blog post was originally published in July 2017. As educators, researchers, and policymakers continue to focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), there has been increasing interest in how specific populations of students fit into those conversations. In this blog post, AYPF’s Logan Beyer explores the current and potential intersections between SEL and special education. For those interested in learning more, we invite you to register for AYPF’s forthcoming webinar on SEL and Traditionally Underserved Populations.
Where is special education in the broader conversation about social and emotional learning (SEL)?
SEL is a buzzing topic in education policy. Though an exact definition is hard to pinpoint, it’s no secret that “deeper learning,” “21st century skills,” “non-cognitive abilities,” and even the more controversial terms “soft skills” and “character education” are becoming fixtures within conversations about improving American schools. Traits like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, grit, and a growth mindset have been linked to reduced behavior problems, increased health and wellness, and even significantly improved academic outcomes. Is it any wonder that school leaders and policymakers are clamoring for educational opportunities to foster these skills?
As someone whose heart has always belonged to students with disabilities, however, reading these lists of words has me confused – how is this “whole child” focus different from what special educators have been trying to instill in their students all along? Despite the leadership of the special education field, the growing national conversation on SEL often neglects students with disabilities.
According to the Council for Exceptional Children, the goal of special education is “the optimal development of the student as a skillful, free, and purposeful person, able to plan and manage his or her own life and to reach his or her highest potential as an individual and as a member of society.” Are these not the goals of the SEL movement, expanded to the general education setting?
To be purposeful necessitates self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making.
To feel free to maximize one’s potential requires a growth mindset and the grit to overcome adversity.
To fill a meaningful role in society demands social awareness and relationship skills.
In many ways, the field of social and emotional learning is providing the evidence base behind a truth special educators have long understood – academic success, health, wellness, and belonging are all rooted in a set of basic competencies that enable us to respect ourselves, others, and the potential we all possess to improve and to contribute.
Because these competencies can be particularly challenging for students with disabilities, those in the special education field have long understood their importance. For example, difficulties in emotional/behavioral regulation and social interaction are part and parcel with the unique challenges and perspectives some children bring into the classroom each day. Special educators are trained to develop the supportive environments that make success possible despite these barriers. For other students, a history of academic difficulties and discouragement has impeded the development of these competencies. The emphasis on relationship building in special education helps students navigate their self-doubts. And too commonly, adversity at home can contribute to a diminished sense of security, purpose, and trust. Special educators have long addressed these challenges head-on by capitalizing on their students’ unique and individual strengths.
So – why is special education nearly absent from the national conversation on SEL?
The SEL movement has repeatedly overlooked students with disabilities – often designing non-inclusive interventions, and seldom reporting basic demographic information within program evaluations. It is short-sighted for champions of social and emotional learning to neglect the perspectives and expertise of special educators, who have long understood the value of these competencies and sought to instill them in their students.
A review of recent research reveals that the emerging SEL field, in general, lacks both the means to assess SEL competencies (in all groups to some extent, but particularly for youth with disabilities) and programs tailored to meet the unique needs of the special education population. In order for the lessons learned from SEL in general education settings to benefit special education, existing interventions must be modified to better reach these students and to more seamlessly fit within the curriculum their teachers are already employing. While recent work lead by Dr. Dorothy Espelage, an SEL-expert at the University of Florida, provides promising evidence that SEL programs can be just as effective for students with disabilities, much work is needed to confirm this research and to translate practical strategies into guides for teachers. In order to advance, the SEL movement must incorporate the voices and experiences of special educators, whose backgrounds make them well-equipped to address non-cognitive competencies in their classrooms. Collaboration promises big wins on all sides, particularly for students with disabilities.
As state and national policy increasingly focuses on the role of SEL in schools and in out-of-school time, it is critical that special education settings don’t get left behind. How might a renewed focus on SEL competencies change the way we craft IEPs and transition plans? As states like Kansas and Illinois create SEL standards that parallel academic standards for their teachers and school districts, what role will these new guidelines play in determining how special educators structure their classroom time? And if SEL finds a place in accountability – as it now has the potential to do under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – how will decisions about growth vs. proficiency impact teachers who are especially focused on these skills, but whose students may fall below standardized benchmarks?
As students who have a particular need for and significant challenges with certain social and emotional competencies, youth with disabilities will be deeply impacted by changes in practice and policy that promote SEL. If done correctly, social and emotional learning has the potential to improve outcomes and services for these traditionally underserved students – but only if special education gets a seat at the table in national conversations about SEL.