When social-emotional learning leaves out students with disabilities
Erin Crosby doesn’t recall social-emotional learning (SEL) being part of her student experience. Crosby, now a special education teacher at an elementary school in Massachusetts, was in college by the time SEL programming went mainstream in public school K-12 classrooms across the country.
Today, most districts select and implement specific SEL activities, lessons, or formal curricula throughout their schools, intended to help children manage their emotions and develop critical skills for making decisions, building relationships, and cultivating self-awareness, among other goals. Crosby believes that SEL has the potential to do all this and more for every child, but she brings an often-overlooked perspective to her classroom: She has learning disabilities, and she has seen how SEL lessons often exclude or marginalize students like her.
Though an estimated quarter of the student population in the U.S. has a disability of some kind, SEL worksheets, videos, and activities may not have been designed for accessibility in the first place, making it difficult or impossible for children with disabilities to participate. Those materials may not include portrayals of students with disabilities in everyday experiences, like conflicts, social interactions, and instruction. Teachers may also assume that every student should be able to demonstrate the same emotion-regulation skills.
A child with a sensory, intellectual, or psychological disability that affects impulse control, for example, may fidget to focus and stay on task during a long academic lesson. But a teacher who holds implicit biases about what focusing should look like may become frustrated by the fidgeting, perceive the child as disruptive, and then punish them.
“Every child is different,” says Crosby, who is a former member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Young Adult Leadership Council. “There’s lots of different approaches, and there’s going to be a lot of trial and error.”
What we know about SEL and students with disabilities in the classroom
Crosby isn’t alone in her concerns. Dr. Christina Cipriano, assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, knows that SEL can positively influence children’s emotional development. Yet she’s been alarmed to discover that studies on SEL infrequently consider students with disabilities.
In 2021, Cipriano led an evaluation of 242 studies of elementary school SEL programs(Opens in a new tab) and found that three-quarters of them didn’t mention disability at all. A fraction of the studies included students with disabilities in their analysis of whether SEL worked. Only one of them considered both disability and race. Black students are more likely to be identified as having a disability, and they’re more likely to face punitive discipline at school, according to previous research(Opens in a new tab). Understanding whether Black students with a disability are provided effective access to the benefits of SEL programming is an urgent issue, says Cipriano, who is also director of research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
In a new preprint of a forthcoming Child Development study(Opens in a new tab), Cipriano and her co-authors looked at more than 400 SEL studies conducted worldwide. Just 16 percent of those papers mentioned students with disabilities, but none studied how they fared with SEL in ways that would help researchers and educators make conclusions about what’s effective, and what’s not.
There are plenty of studies demonstrating that SEL is associated with(Opens in a new tab) improved classroom behavior, increased ability to manage stress and depression, and more positive attitudes about one’s self and others. Yet Cipriano worries that SEL may be inaccessible to students with disabilities since most research on curriculum lacks “accurate representation” of those children.
Cipriano doesn’t think that students were left out of SEL research and programming with the intention to exclude them. Instead, she says it reflects a lack of awareness of what it would take to fully include them.
“It’s not inclusive by their mere presence in the room,” says Cipriano. “It’s the interaction and engagement, their access to the curriculum, the way they’re treated that creates that wholly inclusive community.”
How can SEL include students with disabilities?
Charting a path toward full inclusion can feel daunting because so many SEL programs are firmly in place in schools across the country, but the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) created a roadmap to help guide educators. The nonprofit organization outlined seven “principles” for serving students with disabilities(Opens in a new tab) and intersectional identities.
The NCLD’s recommendations focus on ensuring access to an SEL curriculum. This can include practices like explicitly teaching background knowledge before a lesson, or offering a glossary of terms; providing accommodations such as extra time or text-to-speech capabilities; and guaranteeing that instruction can be tailored to each student.
In the classroom, this can look like recognizing that a student may have a disability that affects how they interact with others. A student may not feel comfortable maintaining eye contact with their peers or educators, for example. That skill shouldn’t be required when assessing whether a student is proficient in certain aspects of SEL.
“What we seek as normal behavior needs to be broadened and inclusive of individuals with disabilities and individuals coming from different backgrounds,” says Lindsay Kubatzky, NCLD’s director of policy and advocacy.
Similarly, Cipriano says that while mindful breathing is widely promoted by SEL programming as an effective calming tool, many kids, including those without disabilities, will never choose that technique. Instead, they might prefer to connect with a peer or supportive adult when they’re feeling stressed. Cipriano says it’s exclusionary to all students to offer or favor only a single type of coping skill.
Developmental psychologist Dr. Tia Kim says that all students, regardless of whether or not they have a disability, can improve their SEL skills. She says that if a child is struggling to do so, it’s important for educators not to single them out. Instead, in addition to classroom SEL lessons meant to benefit everyone, they might also need what’s described as “tiered” support, like individual or small group instruction and opportunities to apply what they’re learning in ways that work for them.
As vice president of education, research, and impact for Committee for Children(Opens in a new tab), Kim leads the nonprofit’s efforts to continually evaluate and improve its SEL programs, known by the name Second Step. Kim said that the organization is working toward ensuring that its curriculum serves diverse learning styles by giving students multiple ways to engage with the lessons. In the past, for example, a lesson might have required students to respond to a prompt with written answers, but that has been expanded to include alternatives like drawing and acting.
Kubatzky says that parents of students with disabilities who are concerned that SEL isn’t inclusive of their child can ask the school questions about when families like theirs were included in the curriculum-selection process and if the programming was developed in concert with the disability community. They can also reflect on whether they or their children see themselves in the curriculum.
Per law, individualized education programs (IEPs) and 504 plans both formally designate the necessary services or accommodations a student needs to access any curriculum, including SEL. For parents of students with disabilities, IEPs and 504 plans can help guide educators on what students require to fully participate in SEL education.
Based on her own experience as a student with disabilities, Erin Crosby also wishes SEL routinely included disability education so that all students understood the social impact of having a disability. Such education could make a meaningful difference for students with disabilities who are frequently bullied by students, teachers, and even their own parents.
Crosby believes that this behavior remains “rampant” because students with disabilities receive certain types of support and accommodations to thrive, which can engender resentment and negative attention both from students and educators who don’t understand how disabilities affect students in the classroom.
“There’s more understanding, but there’s still a long way to go,” says Crosby. “People still think that fair means everybody should get the same thing, instead of equity, [which means] people get what they need to access the same thing.”