SPED Students and The Pandemic are a Toxic Mix

While the pandemic continues to take its toll on all of us, it has been especially taxing on students with disabilities. Their schedules have been turned upside down, safe places in their schools may be inaccessible, and online or hybrid learning often proves too challenging for them. The result is multiple layers of new stressors.

When you factor in that students with disabilities generally have more difficulty with social skills than others, you have quite a combustible mix. That is why social-emotional learning (SEL) must be seriously considered as an option in helping these children survive and even thrive in our new reality.

But until recently there has been little focus on SEL skill development for students with diagnosed psychiatric or developmental disabilities. Very few of the evidence-based programs out there have been specifically tested with these students in mind.

The good news is that this is all beginning to change. And yet, while a welcome development, it would be unwise to just make a wholesale implementation. Careful consideration should precede the application of SEL programs to ensure they will be adapted in a way to maximize their effectiveness and not cause more harm.

SEL Adaptations for SPED students

1. Redefining Behaviors

As Virginia Tech professor and noted author Ross Greene and others have argued, disabilities like ADHD or anxiety disorders, and their associated behaviors, should be viewed as deficits in certain key skills. And these deficits can be partially remediated by an intensive focus on SEL skill development, instead of preventing negative behavior through a formula of “rewards and consequences” or medication.

For example, those students who struggle academically and socially might benefit from learning how to inhibit impulses to lash out, and to practice calming techniques instead (like mindful breathing), or learn how to develop a realistic sense of their strengths and when they need to ask for help (and from whom).

Recently a wealth of evidence has been uncovered that suggests the effectiveness of this approach. Research led by SEL pioneer Joseph Zins demonstrates that supporting these social-emotional skills, aside from reducing students’ distress and behavior problems, increases the likeliness of their success in school.

2. Establishing Supportive Relationships

While students with behavioral problems often receive more than their share of attention in school, this attention generally is experienced as frustration, disappointment, and rejection from teachers and peers. Imparting upon them social and emotional skills such as learning to see the situation from another’s perspective can help these children transform these relationships into sources of support, not of tension or judgment.

Not only will this help students, but it will help to mitigate another serious problem at the same time. Unfortunately, the rate of teacher burnout continues to accelerate; working with children who demonstrate challenging, disruptive, and resistant behavior can only intensify their stress.

There is preliminary evidence to suggest that teachers’ view of their students can be improved, as well as their stress levels reduced, by focusing on a model of addressing “skill deficits” for students with behavioral problems. The focus needs to be shifted away from reducing the students’ problems to developing their skills and strengths.

3. Identifying Emotions

Students with special needs have difficulty recognizing emotions. Not only do they have difficulty identifying the feelings of others, often manifest in their inability to pick up social cues, but their own feelings as well.

Teaching students with special needs to focus on identifying emotions, facial expressions, and their associated feelings is recommended. This change of focus can be extremely helpful in helping these students socially integrate and have more successful social lives.

One of the best ways to help these students to begin identifying others’ feelings is to teach them what different looks on people’s faces mean. Using pictures and videos of people’s faces expressing different emotions can be a very effective social-emotional activity to complete with these children that is fun as well.

For example, show them a picture with an expression of someone who is happy, and then ask the students to make a happy face, modeling it first yourself.  Help those students who are having difficulty by pushing up the sides of your mouth to make a happy face, and have them copy you.

Make sure to have a large enough mirror available so the students can look at themselves making a happy face and chant in unison, “We are all HAPPY!”  Next, try making a sad face by repeating the same steps. And when this is done remotely, remember to ensure that the students can see themselves in the teletherapy webcam.

Once you have these two emotions, talk to them about what makes you happy, followed by making a happy face, and then ask the students to do the same.  Begin a discussion with the students about what makes them happy, and have everyone make a happy face again. Then repeat this activity with the opposite emotion. Gradually add in more emotions.

Fine-Tuning Your Approach

Regardless of which program you choose, getting the most effective results requires that you add two additional steps.

First of all, as you present the material, it is important to implement real-time classroom strategies that will proactively address those challenges that could disrupt learning.

For instance, if you are working with a student who has a problem with hyperactivity when presenting a lesson you might need to provide frequent movement breaks, use specialized seat cushions, or allow that student to stand at his desk.

Or, if you have a student struggling with a tolerance for frustration, you might need to provide small chunks of work with frequent breaks.

The key is that you will need to consistently tailor the SEL programs to match students’ academic abilities, temperament, and particular weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which may include lowering written expectations, repeating key concepts, or providing visual/graphic supports.

And second, it is key to remember when adapting SEL programs is to ensure that there will be follow-up by therapists or others who work with the children. This may require more individualized coaching sessions, special reinforcement programs, or other methods aimed at incorporating group materials into the rest of the week’s curriculum.