Social and Emotional Development for Students with Diverse Learning/Medical Needs Including Sensory Loss

By: Suzanne & Rodger Dinwiddie

Children with diverse learning/medical needs have difficulty responding to traditional forms of social skill development, making friends, and identifying emotions. Social skills deficits are key criteria in defining many disabilities that hinder student’s academic progress such as learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), intellectual disabilities, physical impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), vision and hearing loss. Students with special needs have similar social responses as children with adverse child experiences (ACEs). The common component is seen with difficulty processing life experiences accurately or completely because their brain does not recognize implied social understandings.

The National School Climate Center defines school climate as “the quality and character of school life. It reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.” A key element of a positive school climate is the development of social-emotional competencies and at the core is fostering empathy, compassionate action, teaching perspective-taking, building social skills and establishing positive social norms. As Richard Carlson has stated, “Choose being kind over being right and you’ll be right every time.”

The practice of providing these important key elements begins the evidence-based practice of relationships. Healthy relationships provide experiences that are consistent, protective, validate feelings and address conflict without fostering mistreatment of others. The development of relationships and empathy begins “within arm’s reach” of a student. Attachment and empathy are developed through touch and joint attention. Empathy is cultivated when an adult or peer takes time with each other; stands within arm’s reach, makes eye contact, interacts with the student using a communication system the child understands, uses touch if appropriate, and establishes a shared focus.

Specific strategies are necessary to include students with diverse medical/learning needs. An educational team establishes system-wide “language” and visual supports used consistently so all students understand the social expectations. Constant language encourages problem solving skills and helps conflict resolution by labeling abstract emotions, setting school-wide limits/expectations, and providing supports as needed. Conflict is inevitable, but it provides an opportunity to repair, deepen relationships, and teach self-regulation. Other strategies include providing a structured, consistent environment with established routines that anticipate student needs. Adults create calming, “defined” spaces within the classroom. These spaces may be as simple as a duct tape boundary on a desk or floor, a carpeted space in the back of the classroom when a student needs to stand/move, or materials left in predictable spaces for easy access. Daily routines are the framework for learning and provide simple, predictable sequence of actions that communicates expectations.

Building a climate for empathy and social competencies is accomplished one relationship at a time, and needs constant attention and nurturing. Social connection must be a priority for any system that claims to address the needs of young people. Students have the right to expect truth and kindness during the day. This philosophy cannot be abandoned for even one day. Positive and caring relationships require daily commitment!

Suzanne Dinwiddie, M.Ed., COMS, CTVI, CEIM is an Educational Consultant for the Tennessee DeafBlind Project, a federal grant associated with Vanderbilt’s Children Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Previously, Suzanne worked with the Metropolitan Nashville Public School System for 38 years as an early childhood assessment specialist, vision teacher, and orientation and mobility instructor.

Rodger Dinwiddie, M.Ed., has been the CEO of STARS-Nashville, an evidence-based Student Assistance Program, since 1986. Prior to joining STARS, Rodger served as the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization working with juvenile court referrals and was also was a classroom teacher in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools for 7 years. Rodger serves as an Olweus Technical Assistance Consultant, Tennessee State Leader for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, and Safe Dates and Restorative Practices trainer. He currently provides consultation in the areas of best practices in bullying prevention and intervention, school climate improvement, bullying in the workplace, improving workplace relationships and culture as well as the development of social emotional competencies. Rodger is also a Past-President of the International Bullying Prevention Association and former president of the National Student Assistance Association.

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