High-Leverage Social, Emotional and Behavioural Practices in Special Education

Social, emotional, and behavioural skills must be explicitly taught, just like academic skills, to create effective learning environments where all students can thrive both academically and socially.

Key Takeaway: For students with disabilities to be successful in inclusive classroom settings, teachers must implement evidence-based, high-leverage practices to help students meet the required social, emotional, and behavioural demands in the general education classroom. Social, emotional, and behavioural skills must be explicitly taught, just like academic skills, to create effective learning environments where all students can thrive both academically and socially. —Bernadette Gorczyca

In 2017, The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and the Collaboration for Effective Educator, Development, Accountability and Reform Center (CEEDAR) at the University of Florida published a list of 22 evidence-based, high-leverage practices (HLPs) to help teachers reach and improve the outcomes for students with disabilities in the general education classroom.1

In their article, Mabel O. Rivera (University of North Carolina, Department of Educational Specialties) and Glennda K. McKeithan (University of Kansas, Special Education Department) focus on the practical application of four social/emotional/behavioural high-leverage practices (HLPs 7-10) identified by the CEC and CEEDAR that teachers can use to help students with special needs improve academic achievement and social skills. Research findings show that “the use of evidence-based practices can produce a moderate-strong effect on academics and behaviour.”2,3 To reach students with diverse needs in less restrictive environments, teachers must be prepared to teach “foundational skills in order [for students] to master content objectives and develop the social, emotional, behavioural skills needed to work collaboratively with others, problem solve, consider different perspectives, accept constructive feedback and appropriately resolve conflicts in school and in life.”4

HLP7: Establish a consistent, organised, and respectful learning environment Teachers can create effective, safe learning environments through direct instruction of culturally responsive rules, procedures, and expectations. When teaching and reviewing rules and procedures, teachers should explain why a rule is needed and provide examples and non-examples alongside what students can gain from learning the skills being taught.5 “Teachers can integrate instructional routines that reinforce active listening, cognitive engagement, working memory, self-advocacy and respectful interactions as they plan and deliver instruction across settings.”6,7

Examples of practical application of HLP7:

  • Explicitly teach organisational and time management skills.
  • Assign notebook buddies so students can share responsibilities and collaborate to improve note taking and organisation skills.
  • Employ non-confrontational methods when redirecting students.
  • Use intentionally assigned seats.

HLP8: Provide positive and constructive feedback to guide learning and behaviour “Consistent, ongoing assessment and evaluation of student needs linked with purposeful, ‘teacher talk’ during instruction is a key component of a quality learning experience which is directly linked to academic and social/behavioural success.”8,9 Feedback should be aimed to, “minimise embarrassment and maximise the potential.”

Examples of practical application of HLP8:

  • Feedback should be goal-oriented and allow students to recognise their strengths and reflect on their needs.
  • Explicitly teach students the difference between negative and constructive feedback and how to respond to critical feedback.
  • Celebrate students’ abilities.

HLP9: Teach social behaviour Social behaviour should be taught explicitly by teachers and students should be provided with opportunities to develop age-appropriate social and communication skills “to reinforce the awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of others.”10

Examples of practical application of HLP9:

  • Teacher talk/think-aloud.
  • Include direct instruction for interpersonal, communication and self-management skills, as well as culturally responsive classroom and school-wide behaviour expectations.
  • Model respectful relationships with your students and between students.
  • “Be aware of the ‘psychosocial aspect of adolescence’ as many students at this age are easily embarrassed and may lack academic and/or social confidence.”11

HLP10: Conduct functional behavioural assessments to develop individual student behaviour support plans When students with disabilities do not respond to typical instructional strategies, McLeskey et al. (2017)3 recommend conducting a Functional Behavioural Assessment (FBA) to develop a Behavior Support Plan (BSP). An FBA will provide a formal assessment of behavioural data for an IEP team to understand the reasoning behind an interfering student behaviour. A subsequent BSP will identify evidence-based practices to target the function of the behaviour. For this process to be successful, general and special educators must collaborate effectively to collect accurate data on the interfering behaviour, meaning that “documentation of what happens right before (antecedent), during (behaviour), and directly after the behaviour occurs (consequence) is essential.” Only then can the IEP team work together to create, “a hypothesis statement…to identify the function of the behaviour…”12 If the function is not accurate, then the BSP will not be effective.

Summarized Article: Rivera, M. O., & McKeithan, G. K. (2021). High-leverage social, emotional and behavioural practices for students with disabilities in inclusive settings. Educational Review, 73(4), 436-450.

Summary by: Bernadette Gorczyca—Bernadette loves the MARIO Framework because it centers student voice and choice, empowering students to take ownership over their personalized learning journey to become confident, self-directed learners.

Additional References:

1. Ball, D. L., & Forzani, F. M. (2011). Building a common core for learning to teach: And connecting professional learning to practice. American Educator, 35, 17.

2. Cheryan, S., Ziegler, S. A., Plaut, V. C., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2014). Designing classrooms to maximize student achievement. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 4–12.

3. McLeskey, J., Barringer, M.-D., Billingsley, B., Brownell, M., Jackson, D., Kennedy, M., . . . Ziegler, D. (2017, January). High-leverage practices in special education. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center.

4. Bryant, D. P., Bryant, B. R., & Smith, D. D. (2019). Teaching students with special needs in inclusive classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

5. Suskie, L. (2018). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley & Sons.

6. Holzberg, D. G., Test, D. W., & Rusher, D. E. (2018). Self-advocacy instruction to teach high school seniors with mild disabilities to access accommodations in college. Remedial and Special Education, 40, 166–176.

7. Hueske, A. K., Endrikat, J., & Guenther, E. (2015). External environment, the innovating organization, and its individuals: A multilevel model for identifying innovation barriers accounting for social uncertainties. Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, 35, 45–70.

8. Andersson, C., & Palm, T. (2017). The impact of formative assessment on student achievement: A study of the effects of changes to classroom practice after a comprehensive professional development program. Learning and Instruction, 49, 92–102.

9. Riley, N., Riddell, S., Kidd, E., & Gavin, R. (2018). Feedback in a future-focused classroom. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 26, 31. ISSN: 1320-5692.

10. Johns, B. H., Crowley, E. P., & Guetzloe, E. (2017). The central role of teaching social skills. Focus on Exceptional Children, 37. doi:10.17161/fec.v37i8.6813.

11. Domitrovich, C. E., Durlak, J. A., Staley, K. C., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Social-emotional competence: An essential factor for promoting positive adjustment and reducing risk in school children. Child Development, 88, 408–416.

12. Sam, A., & Team, A. F. I. R. M. (2015). Functional behavior assessment. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina.

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We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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