Social-Emotional Learning and Self-Advocacy for Students with Disabilities

Dec 29 2022

This study seeks to understand how teachers’ knowledge of socio-emotional learning translates to students with disabilities’ empowerment and participation in school, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected it.

Using SEL To Build Students Up

A school-wide approach to social-emotional learning (SEL) is beneficial to improve outcomes for all students. Students with learning needs may struggle with confidence and self-awareness, which can impact their efficacy and advocacy. SEL approaches, such as building positive and collaborative relationships with students, can affect academic performance by helping students develop their self-awareness and self-advocacy. SEL needs to be explicitly taught to students instead of expecting them to display these skills.

Positive SEL Strategies To Make Students Feel Safe at School

The researcher used a qualitative research design using a constructivist philosophical worldview. This allowed reflection from the study participants to make meaning of their understanding of socio-emotional practices. The researcher interviewed six participants; parents and educators (teachers and administrators) from different public schools in North Carolina.

Three themes emerged from the study. One was how individuality should be normalized as it fosters intrinsic motivation. Trust and respect are crucial for students to be comfortable being risk-takers. Finally, research participants widely identified how, for students with disabilities, “fitting in” acts as a prerequisite to learning. If students don’t feel a sense of belonging, it directly affects their learning. All the teachers in the study practice aspects of SEL learning to some degree, whether formally through a program or informally through their own strategies. These strategies included conversations, actively connecting with the students, and intentional grouping. Parent interviewees have seen the positive effect of these SEL practices on their children. The author also found the importance of understanding student triggers and aspects of safety.

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation plays a huge role in students doing well in the classroom. Understanding strengths and opportunities for growth and building a community that appreciates this help students feel a sense of belonging and are motivated to participate in their learning. A trusted space allows students to take more risks and share their learning when they know they are respected and have positive, collaborative relationships with their trusted adults. In sum, students’ needs may vary based on their current levels of academics, behavioral challenges, emotional needs, or some other factor, but when they can understand that in the milieu of diversity each person has strengths and important contributions to make to the community, students with disabilities more often find the intrinsic motivation to engage with their learning as opposed to being dependent upon external rewards or punishments. This can be done through informal or formal SEL practices.

Notable Quotes:

“While the existing literature is extensive, a gap emerged around whether there are specific foundational qualities of students with disabilities that lead them to be better self-advocates, and how teachers’ understanding of social-emotional learning influences their teaching practice.”

“This goes beyond creating a positive classroom community – it is within the more individualized and personal relationships; students need to know that their teachers are listening and that they care, which leads them to be more willing to reach out for help, attempt to answer questions, and feel seen as an individual.”

“When they become motivated by the way they feel as a part of their classroom community, they are building the intrinsic motivation that will continue to guide them forward in making an effort to do well in school.”

Personal Takeaway

This research resonates significantly with the heart of special education-catering to the individual needs of the student as a whole. The research cited in this study showcases the importance of socio-emotional learning and how it impacts academics. The reflections of the participants affirm it as well. Little things such as check-in conversations and building self-advocacy skills in class can go a long way in creating a brave space for students to become intrinsically motivated. It is also important to note that these SEL skills should be explicitly taught to help students with disabilities cope with challenging situations. Schools need to consider training for staff so that there is consistency with practice. All students can benefit from SEL, and a school-wide approach will positively impact all students and their learning – Nika Espinosa

Tagawa, C. (n.d.). The Relationship of Social-Emotional Learning and Self-Advocacy for Students with Disabilities.

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