In the last few years, social-emotional learning (SEL) interventions have been implemented with increasing frequency in schools to develop non-academic competencies for neurotypical and typically-developing students alike. An intentional SEL education is particularly important for children with special needs, as they often struggle with some of the related skills by comparison to their peers. Accordingly, research suggests that SEL interventions have positive effects for many students with special needs, although scientists are still looking at the best ways to maximize these successful outcomes.
Special needs students need a highly inclusive education, especially in a world full of different backgrounds, beliefs, and capabilities. Therefore, they are likely to benefit from SEL activities and lessons derived from liberal studies training. Liberal studies comprise a multidisciplinary study of rational, social, and spiritual topics that aim to teach us how to approach problems and tasks, nurture interpersonal relationships, and provide creative leadership. SEL methodology can easily be woven into liberal studies subjects; history, social science, and literature classes offer plenty of opportunities for students to immerse themselves in stories, do role-playing exercises, and/or work on collaborative activities. These processes can in turn help them to understand their thoughts and emotions, develop more empathy, grow in self-awareness, and build positive relationships.
Even beyond broader fields of study though, it is important to approach SEL development in children with special needs through specific, regular activities, too. And to that end, we want to highlight three specific activities that will complement SEL development and teach them related skills:
1. Practice emotional recognition through technology
Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are often characterized by deficits in socio-emotional reciprocity. They struggle to share their own emotions, and have difficulty interpreting how others feel. Still, it is possible to help people with ASD improve at recognizing emotions –– especially when they’re still children. Studies have found that emotional recognition technologies in particular are effective tools for teaching children with ASD. Kids accept educational mobile applications easily, becoming fluent on mobile devices, and learning skills from apps through practice.
Some apps are designed to help special needs children build their vocabulary on actions and feelings. Flashcard games and apps like KAHOOT are also great for building emotional recognition. As long as the “serious” games are engaging — easy enough to avoid frustration, but challenging enough to keep them from getting bored — children can learn a lot.
2. Hold daily check-ins with partners
Students with special needs are often vulnerable to emotional discomfort, so it’s critical to integrate a strong emphasis on SEL school-wide, as this makes them less likely to feel alone. One of the best ways to do this is to start every day with personal, peer-to-peer connection; check-in conversations with a partner are among the best device-free activities for students. This sort of activity helps special needs children connect with their mood and headspace, which they express to their peers. They learn more about themselves and each other in the process.
For that matter, check-ins are inclusive and beneficial for typically developing children as well. Studies found that children with siblings who have intellectual disabilities scored higher on empathy and closeness compared to those with typically developing siblings. They also scored lower on conflict and rivalry, as a result of having learned to adapt and teach their special needs siblings.
For this exercise, you can alternate between assigning partners and letting students choose from among their own peers.
3. Engage in fun, easy, casual, and inclusive group activities
It’s often easier to practice social and emotional skills through group games, and especially those in which students might apply target skills like communication, listening, and impulse control. A group setting also offers students the chance to negotiate with others, develop leadership, and figure out their strengths to contribute. Group puzzles, in particular, are cooperative-learning games where they can socialize and collaborate with other kids; they're fun, easy, and not stressful activities that everyone can join in.
One activity that meets all of the above criteria is StickTogether’s paint-by-number, or rather, sticker-by-number game, which gives special needs kids the chance to create a poster as a group. In fact, StickTogether’s collaborative sticker mosaic poster helps build emotional regulation, self-management, and self-awareness. Plus, students can develop their interpersonal skills through the activity; we’ve heard that StickTogether even helps kids with special needs to talk more with family members while doing the puzzle.
All things considered, developing SEL in children with special needs is a complex process, and one that will need to play out over time. Beyond the proper educational approach however activities like these will go a long way toward helping these children build up related skills.