Developing Accessible and Inclusive Social-Emotional Learning Approaches for Students With Disabilities
This toolkit can help you understand more about the importance of social, emotional, and academic development for students with disabilities. Then you can advocate at your child’s school and district for high-quality practices and policies to support this approach. Using these recommendations, you can encourage decision makers in your child’s school and district to create an inclusive vision, design supportive learning environments for all students, support educators, and use funding and resources in ways that will address the needs of students with disabilities.
When we think of learning in school, most people’s minds jump to reading, writing, history, math, and science. For students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans, conversations typically focus on academics. You might ask your child’s teacher how your child is doing in reading, or your child’s teacher might mention which math skills your child is struggling with.
But learning and developing as a student is about more than just memorizing facts, being able to read and write, or solving math problems. Research shows that students learn best when they actively engage with content and with others in positive and meaningful ways. Students must also grow in areas of social and emotional development.
The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Over the past year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students have had fewer opportunities to engage with each other and their teachers in meaningful ways. The pandemic has been devastating to millions of students. Many have struggled academically as well as socially and emotionally. The crisis may have caused students with disabilities to face new and different barriers to success. Now, as more schools reopen across the country and more students go back to in-person learning, it’s important to ensure that we’re prepared to meet the needs of all learners.
About this Toolkit
This toolkit is designed to help parents advocate at their child’s school, school district, or school board for whole child education that is inclusive of students with disabilities. The toolkit is grounded using the 7 Principles for Serving Students With Disabilities & Intersectional Identities Through Social-Emotional Learning Approaches.
The goal of this toolkit is to help you work together with your child’s school to ensure students with disabilities have the opportunity to successfully learn and develop. So dive into all or part of this toolkit and start advocating!
For decision makers at the state and local level who would like to support these policies, we have also developed “An Urgent Imperative for States: Developing Whole Child Policies to Support an Equitable Education for Students With Disabilities”.
What is Social-Emotional Learning (and other important terms)?
As you move through this toolkit, it’s important to understand how students learn best. You may hear a few key concepts when talking about social-emotional learning.
- Science of learning and development
- Whole child education
- Social-emotional learning
The science of learning and development is a relatively new field of research that seeks to combine what we’ve learned from many different sciences, including cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral science, biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The research conducted across these fields in recent years has resulted in the understanding that students learn best when schools provide:
- Positive developmental relationships: This includes relationships between adults and young people that are trusting and consistent.
- Environments filled with safety and belonging: This includes classrooms and other learning settings that are healthy, safe for young people to explore and build their individual identities, and free of bullying or other forms of harassment or exclusion.
- Rich learning experiences: This includes academic content and projects that are engaging, meaningful, and relevant.
- Development of knowledge, skills, mindsets, and habits: This includes learning how to learn, create, reflect, take responsibility, be empathetic, and plan for the future.
- Integrated systems of support (health, nutrition, discipline, etc.): This includes being able to access important services to be physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.
- All services in personalized, empowering, and culturally affirming ways: This means that adults and schools are able to provide individual young people what they need to learn and develop when they need it, including having their IEP, 504, and other needs met in timely and uplifting ways.
A whole child education “prioritizes the full scope of a child’s developmental needs as a way to advance educational equity and ensure that every child reaches their fullest potential. A whole child approach understands that students’ education and life outcomes are dependent upon their access to deeper learning opportunities in and out of school, as well as their school environment and relationships.”
Social-emotional learning (or SEL for short) “is the process of developing and using social and emotional skills … to cope with feelings, set goals, make decisions, and get along with — and feel empathy for — others.” SEL includes important knowledge, skills, and habits that must be intentionally taught and developed through instruction to meet the needs of the whole child.
Science of Learning and Development
Definition: A field of inquiry that synthesizes knowledge from multiple scientific disciplines to help describe how young people learn and develop in positive ways both in and out of school. Knowledge from the science of learning and development reveals that all young people need: positive developmental relationships, environments filled with safety and belonging and rich learning experiences, development of knowledge, skills, mindsets, and habits, integrated systems of support (health, nutrition, discipline, etc.), all services in personalized, empowering, and culturally affirming ways.
Whole Child Education
Definition: An educational approach that prioritizes the full scope of a child’s developmental needs (academic, cognitive, social, emotional, and physical) as a way to advance educational equity and ensure that every child reaches their fullest potential. This approach recognizes that students’ education and life outcomes are dependent upon their access to deeper learning opportunities in and out of school, as well as their school environment and relationships
Social Emotional Learning
Definition: 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.
Although these terms are related and sometimes used interchangeably, be cognizant of whether you are referring to the field, an approach, or a process in communication. We encourage readers to recognize that the different terminology can be used in different settings to effectively communicate with school and district staff. In short, the biggest takeaways are:
- Every child’s academic, social, and emotional learning and development are inherently linked, and you can’t successfully attend to one without the others.
- Each child’s context — experiences, environments, relationships, cultures — is the defining feature that determines how they learn and develop.
This toolkit focuses on social-emotional learning as an embedded component of a whole child education framework.
Frequently Asked Questions Relating to Social-Emotional Learning by Students With Disabilities
Can my child’s IEP goals include social-emotional learning?
Yes! Social-emotional learning can and should be used in your child’s IEP goals if appropriate and agreed upon by the IEP team. Social-emotional skills are an essential part of learning and can go a long way toward helping your child make progress in school. SEL goals should be an option for any student regardless of their type of disability. Too often, SEL is only a priority for students who have disabilities that impact behavior, but all students can benefit from these types of goals. For example, one social-emotional skill area your child might focus on is emotional regulation.
Sofia will increase social-emotional regulation skills as measured by the following benchmarks:
- Sofia will identify emotional states in herself 80% of the time.
- Sofia will state what would be an appropriate response to a particular emotional state 80% of the time.
- Sofia will use a self-regulation/coping strategy (i.e., movement break, deep breathing, quiet space) in frustrating situations 80% of the time as measured by observations and documentation.
I’m concerned about academics because my child is behind in subjects like reading and math. Shouldn’t I focus on those areas instead of advocating for social-emotional learning?
It may seem like the focus on reading and writing may be diminished if SEL is added. But that’s not the case! SEL should be embedded throughout the school day, including in subjects like reading and math. In fact, when this process is done effectively, students’ academic achievement grows in other areas too. One review of over 200 studies found that students participating in SEL programming not only had positive outcomes related to their social and emotional well-being like managing stress and depression, but on average, students increased their academic performance by 11 percentage points on standardized tests and grades.
My child struggles with executive function. Won’t focusing on social-emotional learning in addition to every other subject area be hard for my child?
For students with executive function challenges*, explicit instruction and additional supports are key. Effective SEL in your child’s education can help bolster executive function skills. For example, SEL requires students to develop skills in the area of emotional regulation, self-awareness, conflict resolution, and more — all skills that demand a certain amount of executive function. Therefore, essentially, executive function is foundational to developing SEL skills. For SEL to benefit a young person, it is important for educators to: (1) be aware when students are having difficulty with executive function, and (2) be intentional in their instruction and support for students who have learning disabilities and attention issues. Your child’s teacher or IEP team may want to consider providing explicit instruction and accommodations related to executive function to ensure that your child is equipped with stronger skills and supports to successfully engage with the SEL curriculum.
*Executive function is a set of mental skills and processes that we use repeatedly in our daily lives as we perform tasks. Executive function skills allow us to plan, focus, remember instructions, and manage multiple competing tasks at one time. Executive function includes skills such as working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.
How do self-advocacy skills fit into social-emotional learning?
Self-advocacy is a skill that enables us to understand our strengths and weaknesses, know what we need to succeed, and communicate that to other people. Social-emotional learning supports the growth of this skill by assisting students with becoming more self-aware, recognizing how to have positive relationships, and understanding societal dynamics that impact them. Effective self-advocacy cannot occur if a student isn’t given the tools to create this baseline understanding. Therefore, implementing SEL in your child’s school can be a powerful step toward helping your child develop strong self-advocacy skills.
My child struggles to interact with peers because of a disability. How will social-emotional learning benefit my child?
It’s true that some students’ disabilities impact the way in which they interact with others. However, a major focus of social-emotional learning is helping students develop relationship skills. Therefore, SEL can be particularly beneficial for students with disabilities as it can explicitly teach them more about relationships and social interactions. For example, in addition to fostering a sense of safety and belonging, SEL can help students develop skills related to feeling and showing empathy for others, as well as skills for working cooperatively with others, establishing supportive relationships, and making caring decisions. When all students engage in this learning process, the entire culture and climate of the classroom can improve, making it an environment where your child feels more comfortable engaging with peers. In addition, SEL places an emphasis on affirming an individual’s unique identity, so your child may develop more self-awareness and confidence at the same time.
How does SEL fit into returning to school and making up for lost instructional time?
SEL is important to rebuilding classroom community upon returning to in-person instruction. Students need to feel comfortable in their classroom to engage in learning experiences, especially after rapid changes to their learning environments since March 2020.
SEL is a critical component of states’ plans for addressing the needs of those most impacted by the pandemic. In spending COVID-19 relief funds, states and local education agencies are required to not only consider how planned interventions will address lost instructional time but also how students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs will be addressed.
Advocating in Your School Community for Social-Emotional Learning
The responsibility of implementing high-quality social-emotional learning approaches in schools is not just on teachers. Everyone in the school community has a role to play. For example, educators can ensure that their classroom embeds SEL within their instruction during the school day. School leaders can provide resources and guidance to make sure the entire school community is involved. The IEP team can ensure that SEL goals are integrated into your child’s programming. And as a parent or caregiver, you can affirm your child’s identity and model positive relationships and SEL skills in your own life.
If your child’s school is using an SEL program already, you can use this toolkit to ensure they are including and supporting students with disabilities. If your school is not yet prioritizing SEL, you can use this toolkit to help decision makers understand why SEL is so important and how to support all students using SEL. Together, we can help ensure that districts address the needs of students with disabilities when implementing a social-emotional learning approach.
There are some priorities where you, as an advocate, can raise awareness to ensure that SEL programs meet your child’s needs:
Explicit Instruction and Accommodations
When schools implement any new initiative, or are working to enhance and improve an existing program, it’s important that educators and school leaders recognize that all students learn differently and that some may need additional accommodations or support to access the curriculum or intervention. For example, students with learning disabilities or attention issues may struggle with executive function. This set of skills is foundational to successful SEL, so schools should be thinking about how to explicitly teach skills related to executive function and provide accommodations to students in this area. Educators will need to use evidence-based strategies in the classroom and work together with special educators and service providers to ensure that students with disabilities are effectively accessing and benefiting from the program, including any SEL program or approach.
Universal Design for Learning
Designing social-emotional learning that is accessible for all — including students with disabilities — also means embedding flexibility and multiple means for educators to share content. This concept is known as Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. Students must have multiple ways to engage with learning and the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways as well. When programs are designed universally, every student has the opportunity to learn.
Have you ever felt as if your child were being seen as “separate from” peers, or treated as “different from” students without disabilities? If so, you aren’t alone. Students with disabilities have often been an afterthought when new initiatives were planned in schools. Students with disabilities should be included alongside their peers and meaningfully incorporated into all programs within the school.
Inclusion and Impact
In order for the rights of students with disabilities to be upheld and to ensure equal access to learning opportunities, SEL programs must be designed inclusively from the start. This means that in addition to planning for accessibility (see above), schools will also need to think about inclusion, measuring progress, and the impact that SEL programs have on students with disabilities. Educators will need explicit knowledge and skills to incorporate evidence-based SEL instruction into the school day in ways that will work for students with disabilities.
For any program or initiative to work well, school funding and resource allocation will be important. It will take adequate resources to ensure that your child’s school can implement high-quality social-emotional learning for all students. Fortunately, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government is providing billions of dollars to schools with a great deal of flexibility in how it is used. Schools and districts should use these funds to select SEL initiatives that hold high standards, are accessible to and inclusive of students with disabilities, and prepare educators to serve students with disabilities effectively and equitably.
First Step: You can ask your child’s educators these questions.
How does/will this SEL program enable my child to access content in a variety of ways?
- I believe educators should use the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a way to meet the needs of all types of learners such as my child. UDL is a framework that requires creating multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement to set up all students for success.
- Some students, like my child, may also have social, emotional, and/or academic needs that are different from those of their peers. I believe that to effectively serve all students, adults who work with young people must understand the ways that instruction and assessment can be adapted or differentiated for students with different strengths.
- I also think educators should have meaningful agency within their work and have positive work environments that embrace their own social and emotional needs to support students.
Does/will the content include built-in accommodations for students with disabilities like my child?
- My child needs specific accommodations to access content, such as assistive technology, extra time, or a note-taker. I believe it’s important that educators consider needs like these as they embed social-emotional learning opportunities throughout the day. Accommodations should be “built in” and not retrofitted later which can lead to students not being included in the initiative in a meaningful way.
My child sometimes needs tools to help with organization, self-control, and paying attention. Does/will your program recognize the differences in students’ executive function capacities and provide for explicit instruction in this area?
- I know that social-emotional learning requires students to exercise their executive function skills. I believe our school should include explicit instruction to help students strengthen these skills. Additionally, any assignment or activity should be done with the understanding that some students may need additional support in planning, organizing their thoughts, and engaging with the content.
What, if anything, are you doing differently or better to support students with disabilities in the area of SEL?
- I believe educators should have the same high expectations regardless of their students’ backgrounds or identities. Just like in reading and math, my child needs accommodations and supports for SEL, and explicit instruction may be different from that of other students.
- I believe my child would benefit from some instructional modifications such as added wait time and multiple opportunities to share and contribute.
How are you working collaboratively with other professionals such as special educators and specialized instructional support personnel (counselors, social workers, paraprofessionals, school psychologists, therapists, etc.)?
- I believe SEL should be a schoolwide approach, not something that is done by a single individual within our school. I think it’s important that all educators in the building coordinate with others in the building and learn from each other in order to best support my student.
What kind of data are you gathering to know if this SEL approach is helping your students? Are there things I can look for as well?
- I believe that our school’s chosen SEL approach should be evidence-based. It is important to me to know what information my child’s school is using to measure progress and to know that the SEL approach they’ve chosen is actually benefiting students with disabilities.
- I also believe there should be a plan for gathering data and making observations to know if my child is making progress. I’d like to know more about what kinds of assessments our school will use to measure effectiveness.
- I’d also like to learn more about how I can support SEL at home and ways I can contribute, such as sharing observations with you.
How can parents and community members support your social and emotional well-being?
- I believe educators should be recognized for their efforts in the classroom and should be provided with resources to support their own social-emotional needs.
- I think we should allocate funding to address the health of educators, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next Step: You can ask your child’s school leaders these questions.
How does/will the structure of the school day and the physical environment of our school make SEL content accessible for my child as well as all students, including those with disabilities?
- I believe we should be prioritizing collaboration and clear communication between all educators — general educators, special educators, and specialized instructional support personnel. All of these educators will need to work together to ensure that accommodations and services are provided appropriately and in a coordinated way.
- I believe we should ensure that extended learning time programming is accessible to students with disabilities and prioritizes opportunities for a well-rounded education, including education in the arts and music, physical education, and other extra- and co-curricular activities such as apprenticeships and mentoring supports.
How have students with disabilities, their families, and educators been included in the process of developing the SEL approach, or how will they be?
- (If your school has not yet chosen an SEL approach) I believe we should include students, families, and the educators who are directly serving students with disabilities in developing the SEL approach.
- (If your school has an SEL approach in place) I believe we should create ongoing feedback loops in case any approach is not working as intended. I think it’s important that families be able to share observations and help our school improve and refine the SEL approach over time.
Can you share the evidence behind the SEL approach you’ve chosen, and particularly how you will know if it is benefiting students with disabilities?
- I’d like to learn more about how this SEL approach was chosen and how it will be implemented across the school to ensure that students, particularly those with disabilities, benefit.
- I believe there should be a plan for gathering data and making observations to know if students are making progress. For example, we could use surveys of school climate as one way to know whether SEL has improved the school environment over time.
- I’d like to know what current data exists on school climate and where it’s published so families can follow changes over time.
How will/do you support educators to ensure that they have the resources and knowledge they need to fully understand and affirm the unique identities and needs of students?
- I believe we should ensure that SEL approaches are beneficial to and inclusive of all students by requiring that the approach affirm student identities and meet students where they are.
- I think educators will need certain knowledge and skills in order to effectively teach SEL to all students. We should have plans to provide educators with strong professional development and time to collaborate with one another to continue improving their instruction.
- I believe we need to create a culture that encourages and incentivizes IEP teams to create IEP goals that emphasize growth and improvement in students’ social and emotional development.
How are you funding the SEL program, or how will you fund it? What is your plan to ensure sustainable funding in the years to come?
- I think our school should use COVID-19 relief funds to directly address academic and SEL challenges faced by all students during the pandemic, and these funds can and should be directed to students with disabilities as well. We should also plan to continuously fund and prioritize SEL programming once these relief funds run out.
How will you invest in building educator capacity and expertise so that the SEL program is equitable for all students?
- We should plan for sustained professional development that focuses on meeting the needs of students from specific communities, such as students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and more.
- I also think we should recognize the existing shortages facing our public schools and develop plans for recruiting and retaining special educators and other specialized instructional support personnel (such as school psychologists or interventionists) who are necessary to successful SEL programs. This might include financial incentives for educators, stronger professional support, and more.
Sample Email to School Leaders
You can start to tailor this letter by copying the text into your email browser. You may want to create different versions to send to your child’s principal, a school board member, or a local teachers’ group.
Before sending, remember to (1) attach the SEL principles fact sheet, (2) adjust the words in brackets, and (3) remove the brackets.
[SUBJECT LINE:] Parent Request for Our [SCHOOL/DISTRICT] to Support Social-Emotional Learning
I’m reaching out about our [SCHOOL’S/DISTRICT’S] ongoing response to the COVID-19 crisis. I’m writing to ask you to make social-emotional learning a priority for all students and to make this learning inclusive of and accessible to students with disabilities.
Getting our school to focus on social and emotional aspects of learning would be especially helpful for kids like mine. [OPTIONAL: INSERT A SENTENCE OR TWO ABOUT HOW YOUR CHILD WOULD BENEFIT FROM HAVING A FOCUS ON SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING]
There are a lot of benefits to social-emotional learning. If done well, social-emotional learning can:
- Enhance student engagement
- Improve students’ academic outcomes
- Increase students’ ability to manage stress and depression
- Improve classroom and school culture
- Foster inclusivity for all students
I know that school leaders and educators need support to do these things effectively and inclusively. In light of the increased federal funds available to help schools recover from the pandemic, I urge you to target resources within our school budget to support educators in implementing these strategies.
I’m attaching a fact sheet with more information about social-emotional learning and students with disabilities. I’d like to schedule a time when we can meet in person or talk on the phone about our [SCHOOL’S/DISTRICT’S] goals for supporting students’ social and emotional needs after the pandemic. Please let me know when it would be convenient for us to discuss this.
Thanks in advance for your time,
Going Further: 5 Tips for Parents on School Board Advocacy
Your local school board makes many decisions that can affect your child’s education, such as approving the school district’s budget and allocating state funding for things like teacher training on a specific topic. Parents can influence these decisions by speaking up at school board meetings. Use these tips to advocate to your school board for the prioritization of accessible, inclusive, and equitable social-emotional learning in your school community.
Take some time to learn what your school board meetings are like.
Try to go to a board meeting or two so you can see how the meetings are structured. It’s also a good idea to sign up for the school board’s email list. School boards must post the agenda for each meeting ahead of time. Knowing which topics will be discussed can help you get ready to speak.
Look for an ally on the board.
Before you raise an issue at a meeting, try to find a board member who is especially interested in things like engaging parents or meeting students’ social-emotional needs. (One way to do this is to read news stories about board elections or meetings.) Most districts post each member’s contact information online. You can reach out ahead of time to see if a particular board member might be interested in speaking with you to learn more, or even take up the cause themselves!
Look for other parents to join you in speaking up.
Seek out local parents whose children have similar challenges and/or parents who have interests around social-emotional learning. Encourage them to join you in speaking up about the issue or idea. Here are some groups that could help you find supportive parents:
- Your district’s special education parent committee (often called SEPAC, SECAC, or SEPTA)
- Local learning disability, ADHD, or dyslexia support groups
- Parent organizations like your school’s PTA or PTO and neighborhood or cultural groups
Consider reaching out to a local teachers’ group.
Many schools encourage teachers to develop professional learning communities (PLCs). These groups help teachers collaborate and learn from each other. PLCs are likely to be interested in efforts to get more resources or training to help teachers better support their students’ social-emotional learning.
Prepare your remarks.
Use this resource to develop your talking points. Be sure to highlight areas of concern that you might have for children like yours (using data and evidence where you can). Provide reasons why social-emotional learning will benefit them. If you know other people who are planning to speak, you can work together to make sure key points are covered. Let the board know if anyone needs an interpreter or needs board materials translated. Once the meeting is over, follow up with your school board members on any next steps you’d like them to take.
- Inclusive Social Emotional Learning for Students with Disabilities
- 7 Principles for Serving Students with Disabilities & Intersectional Identities through Social Emotional Learning Approaches
- SEL Parent Advocacy Toolkit
- An Urgent Imperative for States
- Case Study: Genesee Community Charter School
- Case Study: The GALS Denver Middle School
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