Blog Post

SEL and IDEA – Social Emotional Learning and Special Education

The Honorable Robert H. Pasternack, Ph.D, is our guest blogger for November. This month’s blog post provides a brief overview of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) factors and what schools and teachers can do to address those factors.

Interested in more great professional learning resources for educators? Check out this CORE webinar: Trauma, Language, and Child Development: Teaching Reading Well, IS Trauma Informed Care

The number one reason students are referred to Special Education is difficulty with reading. The second reason why students are referred to Special Education is behavior problems. The number one reason why students have behavior problems is difficulty acquiring literacy skills, e.g. Reading.

There are a plethora of reasons why students struggle to become literate and develop academic skills leading to success in school. This blog post provides a brief overview of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) factors which are gaining increased attention in research, policy, and practice. The barriers to learning experienced by too many students, the skills students need to overcome those barriers, and what teachers and the learning community need to do to improve SEL must be addressed, particularly among students with disabilities receiving Special Education, often considered our most vulnerable students in schools.

A variety of SEL factors prevent students from learning. These include the following: mental health issues; poverty; family discord; opioid addiction in the home; physical abuse; emotional abuse; neglect; insufficient food and poor nutrition; poor attendance; high rates of mobility; and language differences. In order to combat and overcome these barriers, SEL research has identified qualities that students need to succeed. These qualities include grit, perseverance, resiliency, determination, persistence, focus, perceived need for achievement, good physical health, adequate nutrition, and good attendance in school.

So what can schools and teachers do?  First, the learning community must acknowledge that these SEL skills can be taught and can be increased by evidence-based teaching strategies deployed in our classrooms. Teachers, administrators, and school boards must acknowledge the importance of supporting teacher social-emotional competence to create better learning environments and positive development in students. In order for students to acquire SEL skills, we must reduce the stress teachers are experiencing and support our teachers to have the SEL skills we want to see in our students.

Teachers must serve as the stable adults for many of the students they serve. This means they are important role models and mentors. School psychologists must conduct Functional Behavioral Assessments needed by students exhibiting significant behavior and emotional problems in classrooms. School teams, supported by school psychologists, must design and implement Positive Behavior Intervention and Support Plans as part of a comprehensive MTSS system, a general education model designed to identify and serve struggling students in both the academic and social/emotional domains. The Schoolwide Behavior Intervention Plans the teams design should include a continuum of positive behavior supports in all classroom and non-classroom areas.

Four key elements are part of a comprehensive MTSS system to support behavior. The elements of the behavioral domain include 1) having clear behavior targets, 2) implementing evidence-based practices, 3) identifying the data that will be used to plan prevention and intervention and track whether interventions are working, and 4) identifying and implementing durable systems that will sustain the work over the long haul.

Teaching is very hard work and incredibly challenging in the Common Core era. Recent data document the stress that teachers report in executing their difficult jobs. The challenges faced by students today make the job of the teacher and the school more difficult but also more critical. By understanding SEL and attending to the issues and variables that affect student behavior, by proactively implementing PBIS within a comprehensive MTSS plan, teachers can improve their ability to differentiate instruction and meet the complex needs of EVERY student. Every student, whether with an identified disability or not, is first a general education student, and collaboration between general and special education to identify and ameliorate SEL factors impeding learning is required for ALL students to succeed.

About the writer:

The Honorable Robert H. Pasternack, Ph.D. served as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) at the U.S. Department of Education from 2001 to 2004. During his tenure, he was responsible for the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In addition, Dr. Pasternack served on two Presidential Commissions, including the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education and the President’s Mental Health Commission. Currently, Dr. Pasternack is the Chief Executive Officer for Ensenar Educational Services, Inc. a consulting firm that works with State Departments of Education and the largest school districts in the country. Recipient of numerous honors and awards, he is a frequent presenter at local, state, regional, national, and international conferences. The Princeton Review named Dr. Pasternack as one of the 100 Most Influential Educators of the past decade.

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