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Can a Social-Emotional Learning Curriculum Make the Difference?

Tynishia Williams Sep 25, 2021 11:03:51 AM

We are approaching two years into the pandemic, and students have suffered the loss of a substantial amount of social and educational time. How has this affected autistic students? How will schools handle the setbacks that the pandemic is continuously throwing at them?

The academic curriculum is undoubtedly a concern for school officials and parents, but it’s far from the only issue affecting students.

Students have been missing the social element that comes with interacting with others at school. How can parents, teachers, and school administrators ensure all students, including those with IEPs, receive the academic and social education that they have a right to?

The answer may be more straightforward than one would think. A strong social-emotional learning curriculum is the key to helping autistic students during and after the pandemic.

What is social-emotional learning?

Social-emotional Learning Image

People with deficits in social-emotional learning (SEL) often struggle with ordinary conversation, social cues and awareness, anger management, perception, and other day-to-day skills that people use constantly. It may be challenging to build or maintain relationships with family and friends.

SEL is critical for children throughout adolescence and adulthood – from the classroom to the workplace – and the means by which both children and adults develop self-control and interpersonal/intrapersonal skills. It also teaches how to make decisions, set goals, and the skills necessary to feel empathy and create relationships.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) establishes five pillars of social-emotional learning:

  • Self-awareness: The conscious identification and understanding of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.

  • Self-management: Taking responsibility for one’s own behavior and well-being as well as stress management.

  • Social awareness: Understanding other people’s feelings, perspectives, and expectations.

  • Relationship skills: Creating and maintaining relationships in a healthy manner.

  • Responsible decision-making: The ability to evaluate consequences of one’s behavior in physical, emotional, or social aspects.

What are the benefits of using a strong SEL curriculum?

The need for a social-emotional learning curriculum for autistic students is clear: these students often struggle with social aspects (such as communication, eye contact, building relationships, and overall social skills) and the pandemic is only further hindering their abilities. A strong curriculum followed by both parents and teachers can make a difference for these children.

SEL has proven to show a positive outcome in academics for both students and teachers. Improved social skills, emotional regulation, and behavior are closely tied to personal and academic success.

Being surrounded by other students and adults is necessary for social development, but many children couldn’t be in those types of environments due to the pandemic. SEL has shown to have a significant improvement for autistic students, pre-pandemic.

While following a set curriculum can be challenging for both educators and students, a research-driven curriculum aligning with IEP goals helps students develop tools to help them thrive, both in and out of the classroom. A solid curriculum should provide data for educators to measure progress as well as plan new goals appropriate to the student’s individual level.

How can teachers incorporate SEL into their classrooms?

SEL is best taught via direct instruction, much like other core subjects. Social skills aren’t much different from grammar or the order of operationsat least when it comes to teaching.

New Orleans Milo robot is changing the way students with Autism learn-thumb

First, decide which skills you want to target. Lessons should align with the student's IEP goals. Use class time to discuss, demonstrate and do the skill in context. Finally, monitor student progress and remind them of the skills.

There are three core elements of planning and executing SEL in the classroom.

1. Instruct SEL throughout the day, every day

Don’t be afraid to branch out of your comfort zone and get creative! Practicing SEL skills can sometimes seem repetitive and boring to unengaged students. Try to incorporate varying group-sized instruction, class discussion, and activities.

A few examples of SEL exercises and activities include:

  • Beginning the class with a journal writing activity

  • Use stress visualization to expel negative feelings

  • Discuss a relevant quote of the day

  • Play starfish and tornadoes (or other self-regulation games)

2. Reinforce and give positive feedback.

Children like affirmation from adults. Address the social skill the student performed or improved upon and compliment them. If the student has not exhibited appropriate behavior, then keep practicing by reinforcing what they’ve learned.

A helpful tip for feedback would be to use what’s referred to as the sandwich method. You’ll want to give a positive comment, constructive feedback and then follow it with another positive comment. 

3. Involve more people.

If only the educator and the child are working with the SEL curriculum, then the student may not make the tremendous progress you are hoping for. If parents, administration, and other community members are involved, then the student has more advocates looking out for their well-being. 

If you add student interaction at the school and classroom level, there are infinite ways for the student to apply their newly acquired skillsas well as opportunities to observe and see how the student is progressing.

Remember, keep the child's parents up-to-date on everything. Pair at-home offline activities with in-school lessons for extra support. Not only does it keep them in the loop, but it also gives them an idea of ways they can incorporate those SEL lessons outside of the school and into the real world.

What will change after the pandemic?

The widespread social and academic deficits children have due to online learning has lead to nationwide efforts and mass amounts of funding to support schools and help reverse the secondary damage caused by COVID-19. 

Thanks to previous SEL curriculum studies, educators and physicians can see a direct correlation between SEL and improved academic and social results. Strong SEL curriculum and community efforts will completely change how we teach our students. 

Autistic and neurotypical children will receive a more well-rounded education creating a strong foundation for their adult lives.

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