Social and Emotional Learning Strategies for Students with Special Needs
By Karen Achtman, Former Special Education Teacher and Youth Yoga Teacher
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a hot topic in education these days, but do you know what it is? The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading organization in the area, defines SEL as, “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
They have identified 5 competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. Check out casel.org for more information and resources.
It is critical for all students to be explicitly taught SEL skills that they can practice and use throughout their lives. Teachers may think students will just know how to do or use something, but students do need instruction in these areas.
Some students, especially those receiving special education services, may need more explicit instruction or visual support, but these tools can be beneficial to all students in the classroom. The following strategies, in no particular order, are ideas that can be incorporated by all teachers to support SEL for students with special needs.
Explicitly teach emotions, which will help with emotion regulation. Let students know it is okay to feel a variety of emotions — happy, sad, mad, frustrated, scared, etc. Then, teach them different tools and strategies to use when they feel different feelings. Some teachers incorporate the Zones of Regulation with this strategy. Others may benefit from a choice board such as: “I feel ______. My body needs to _______.”
Have “calm down” or “chill out” corners in the classroom filled with different sensory tools. If students feel overwhelmed or frustrated, these are safe spaces to go to take a break. In these corners, there can be different sensory tools like poppers, fidgets, books, bean bags to sit on, and “I think” sheets for students to use. Students could potentially even have break cards to proactively show a teacher that they need a break.
Incorporate movement breaks throughout the day. Again, these can be whole class breaks or individual breaks for specific students. Some students benefit from a lot of movement — trampoline, running laps in an empty space, or GoNoodle videos. Other students may benefit from calming, quiet time like coloring, stretches, or yoga poses.
Use lots of visuals! There may be a visual schedule of the day already posted in the classroom, but some students benefit from individual visuals as well. These can include personalized schedules, checklists for different work activities, and First-Then boards. Some students benefit from work being broken down into smaller pieces or having modified expectations, so these visuals help them know their expectations.
Along with visuals, students may benefit from timers. This lets them know how long a break is or how long they have to work to finish an assignment or earn a break. Again, these can be for the whole class or individual students, depending on what the timer is for. It is important to note that sometimes timers can cause more anxiety because students feel pressured watching the time count down, so it is crucial to know your students and what works for them.
Offer fidgets and alternative seating options. Some students need to move while they listen or work, and it is not always feasible for them to walk around the room. Try different seats, such as a wiggle board, wobble stool, stability ball, or band beneath their chair to kick or fidget on. There are also different seating options if you have students sit on the floor. Some students may benefit from working in an independent area or with a privacy folder to minimize distractions as well. Some students may benefit from a fidget in their hands while listening to whole class instruction. It is important to teach students that these are tools to use to help them learn, not just toys to play with. It also may be important to teach students that everyone needs different things in order to learn successfully, which is why some people have different seats than others.
Hold morning meetings. These are great opportunities to have class discussions, share things going on, and role-play scenarios. There are also many picture books with an SEL focus that could be used to lead a discussion on various skills or concepts. SEL is about more than just emotional and body regulation, so morning meetings provide opportunities to practice a variety of skills, such as teamwork, communication, problem-solving, and building relationships with peers.
When supporting students with special needs, it is important for their entire team of teachers to collaborate and consistently implement the same strategies so students know the expectations. It is also important that SEL be incorporated throughout the school day, during academics as well as other activities. Teaching a once-a-week SEL lesson is a start, but it does not allow students to authentically practice and learn skills and strategies. SEL encompasses vital skills that students will use to regulate themselves and interact with others throughout their lives, so it is critical that teachers find ways to teach these skills throughout the day.
Karen Achtman is a former Special Education Teacher. She graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Inclusive Elementary and Special Education. She also earned her masters degree from National Louis University in Curriculum and Instruction and Teacher Leadership; many of her research and projects centered around social-emotional learning. Currently, Karen is teaching kids yoga classes through her business Pandaste Yoga.
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