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Written by: Lakshmi Mahadevan, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Extension Specialist – Special Populations, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Major General Paul D Eaton – retired of the United States army states that “the future of our kids will be greatly enriched and enhanced if we infuse their earliest years with sensitive and thoughtful skills that will help them develop into a healthy, connected, and constructive generation of adults.”.

The sensitive and thoughtful skills Major Eaton is referring to constitute social-emotional learning.  Social-emotional learning (SEL), as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Children with disabilities often find themselves struggling emotionally. Specifically, they tend not to be accepted by their peers, and they display shortcomings in the way they interact with peers and adults. Further, they have difficulty reading nonverbal and other subtle social cues.

Some children with more severe cognitive impairments may lack age-appropriate social understanding of complex interactions. Further, students whose language is impaired may have appropriate understanding of social situations but may have difficulty communicating effectively with others.

It is important therefore to teach children with disabilities the skills to recognize emotions, experience empathy, pursue goals and effective navigate interpersonal relationships (CASEL, 2012).

Parents/guardians can encourage social-emotional learning in their homes by:

1.) Being deliberate:

    • Teach children about emotions – have them point out how they feel perhaps by using a smiley face rating scale or flash cards.
    • Supplement the pointing by verbal prompts such as: “When my face looks like this I am feeling…” or “Today I feel like…”

2.) Using Scaffolding:

    • Use progressive supports –
      • Help your child identify a sibling’s emotions or of someone they see on television. – “Julie seems sad.”
      • Ask leading questions – “Why do you think she is sad?”; “how can we make her smile?”
      • Suggest solutions – “Maybe you can ask to play with her.”
    • Reading stories that evoke emotions:
      • “What do you think Johnny is feeling right now?
      • “What can Johnny do to make himself feel better?”
      • “What did you learn from the story about how Johnny felt during…”

3.) Modeling SEL at home:

    • Demonstrate and describe:
      • Sharing (cooking and sharing dinnertime with family members, passing on the tv remote for someone else’s favorite program etc.)
      • Kindness (helping a family member find something, organize for school next day)
      • Friendship (visiting with friends at home, having a game night with friends)
      • Cooperation (willing to change schedule to accommodate a family member’s needs)
      • Teamwork (sharing chores, cleaning up together etc.)
      • Sharing your feelings (“I feel upset right now”, “this makes me so happy”)

4.) Encouraging resilience:

    • Building feelings of competency and mastery – “that is the best work, so well done!”; “Look how far you have come…”
    • Encouraging optimism – “I know our amusement park trip got canceled because of rain but you know we have a lot fun indoors everyday and we will postpone the park to another day!”
    • Teaching children to reframe – “I am sorry our picnic got canceled, how can we make a picnic indoors?”
    • Disarming with charm – “You seem really upset, would you like to talk about it, get a glass of water, put your head down for a bit?”
    • Modeling resiliency – “ I feel bad that I got sick and we couldn’t go on our vacation last week, but I am happy to be well again and we now have a whole new plan for next time.”

5.) Reviewing the school day:

    • What was one cool thing you learned today?
    • What is one question you didn’t get to ask today that you would like answered?
    • What was your most favorite activity today, why?
    • What was one thing you did with someone else today that you really enjoyed?
    • What was something you learned today that can help you at home?
    • What do you think we will learn next?

6.) Validating expression of child’s emotions:

    • When emotions are expressed, do ask questions (for e.g. “what’s wrong?”; “You seem so happy today, I like it, what’s up?”)
    • When emotions are expressed, don’t:
      • Invalidate – “stop crying”
      • Minimize – make the child laugh for example
      • Punish – impose time-out etc.
    • Take the time to debrief and teach SEL.


Supporting the Emotional Needs of Kids with Disabilities

Raising Caring, Confident, Capable Children