Providing access to SEL for students with disabilities

In implementing an SEL program, a special education representative should have a seat at the table to ensure students with disabilities are included, both in remote and in-person situations.

The extended isolation and unrest associated with the continuing pandemic and protests for social justice have made it crucial for schools to focus on students’ social-emotional learning as they return to school.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, in partnership with about 40 other organizations, recently released Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Roadmap for Reopening School to guide schools on how to support staff and students in the transition back to school.

The guide focuses on four critical practices:

  • Take time to cultivate and deepen relationships, build partnerships, and plan for SEL.
  • Design opportunities where adults can connect, heal and build their capacity to support students.
  • Create safe, supportive and equitable learning environments that promote all students’ social and emotional development.
  • Use data as an opportunity to share, power and deepen relationships, and continuously improve support for students, families and staff.

When it comes to including students with disabilities in implementing SEL, either in person or remotely, the key will be that a special education representative has a seat at the table when planning SEL for the district, says Kathleen Airhart, program director of special education outcomes at the Washington D.C.-based Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the agencies involved in developing the roadmap. And educators must make considerations for students with disabilities before embarking on SEL activities in the classroom.

“You just have to make specific considerations or accommodations if a student has a disability that would preclude them from various activities,” Airhart says. “The reality is you can include all kids within every aspect of education given some foresight and thoughtfulness about how they can be included.”

For example, the roadmap suggests teachers ask students to share how they feel after reading a short news article from a reliable source about COVID-19 as part of a SEL lesson. A teacher may want to consider if a student with a disability in her classroom needs assistive technology to better comprehend the article or articulate his feelings about the article, or should receive a warning ahead of time about the lesson because he is coping with depression after the loss of family members during the pandemic.

In another example, the guide suggests teachers implement restorative practices in their classrooms to address behavioral issues while reducing exclusionary discipline. A teacher may want to consider if a student with a disability needs prompts and supports to adhere to meeting norms and participate meaningfully in a restorative circle with his peers.

“We anticipate that students will have challenges as they come back to school after they’ve been isolated for a number of months and things may flare up,” Airhart says. “Students with disabilities are general education students first, … so the things that we do are not necessarily different, they just need to be modified slightly so all students can access them.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. 

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