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10 Ways to Support Social and Emotional Learning for Students with LD and ADHD

How can educators regularly support the social and emotional learning (SEL) of students with learning disabilities (LD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Here are some recommendations from educators who have made this a core focus of their instruction and student support.
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1. Look for ways to make students feel comfortable and show them that you care.

This was a piece of advice that Elementary School Teacher Genesis Gonzalez heard early in her education career from a coach. “I learned right away that my students need to feel comfortable in the classroom. They need to feel loved, they need to feel happy, they need to feel safe. No matter what grade I work in, creating this sense of comfort is the first thing we work on in our classroom community. For example, we always have affirmations where we read a class promise that we’re always going to try our best. I also promise them that I’m going to try my best to give them everything that they need.”

Learning Specialist Amber Soutra notices that her high school students need the same kinds of support and encouragement. She says, “They need to feel like your heart is open and your mind is open to who they are and what they’re doing because it matters. They want to impress you. They want to show you what they can do when you take an interest in them.”

2. Patience is key.

The educators we interviewed also highlighted the importance of patience in responding to and working with students with learning disabilities and ADHD, especially if they are demonstrating challenging behaviors in the classroom.

Ms. Gonzalez says, “People wonder how I’m so patient … I will have a poker face and sometimes it takes everything in me not to react, but you need to be as patient as possible. And sometimes, you have to just let it go and remember that this is part of a student’s LD.”

She continues, “I have a student right now who has a circle around him. We make a circle every day with Sharpie markers and he knows that’s his circle. He knows he can work for five minutes, but then he might need to run five laps around a circle. He will run the five laps, and he will sit down and finish his work. He’s engaged and he’s not a behavior problem to anybody or in distress. We figure it out.”

Paraprofessional Kayla Berry echoes this comment as well. “You have to be very patient,” she says. “It can take a while for students to trust you; they might test you a lot before they know you’re not going anywhere.”

3. Keep a consistent routine.

Many of the teachers spoke about the importance of having a consistent routine — not only to help students know what the schedule is but also to give students security in their day-to-day activities. Ms. Berry says, “Sometimes kids need structure and to see what’s coming next.” Having the class schedule up on the board is one step that can help them each day.

In addition, Ms. Gonzalez says that her students have a hard time when their routines differ from day to day. For example, if a student comes on the bus on some days but not others, this irregularity can impact their whole day, so she encourages families to build in consistency when possible.

She also sees the impact of those changes when she is absent. “I was out because of the flu and COVID,” she says. “When I came back, my students said, ‘You are not allowed to be absent again … we just miss you too much!’ Consistency, routine, the fun students have with you definitely make a difference in their day.”

4. Teach students skills for self-regulation.

Ms. Gonzalez also says that when students are struggling, often they shut down. “They’re not the same person. They don’t want to interact with their friends, they don’t want to interact in morning meeting. And then what do we do? At times like this, we have to come in with our self-regulation strategies. A lot of students cannot explain their feelings, so we need to give them sentences like ‘I feel like this because…’ Sometimes you need a picture chart. ‘I feel like this because I’m being ignored or I’m being yelled at.’ ‘Show me a picture, draw me a picture.’ If you look at children’s pictures, they will tell you exactly what is wrong.”

She explains, “I also use mood meters, which are coded in color. Students know how to gauge themselves on these mood meters. You will notice students move the meter if they’re sad; it’s a way they can learn self-regulation. Once we know what is expected as far as emotions, we can feel safe and we can be in an environment where we can work together. So that’s very, very important right off the bat, just to make sure they’re loved and they’re safe.”

5. Expect great things from your students.

Ms. Gonzalez also talks about the importance of having high expectations for her students, one of the most important things she learned from her mentor, Ms. Moscovitz. “Today, I have kindergarteners and first graders. I have kindergarteners who can do first grade work, and I have some first graders who need to go back and do kindergarten work. But the rigor is there — for all students no matter how they learn.”

Ms. Soutra agrees. “Expecting greatness out of your students is number one. Sometimes we focus on what students can or can’t do and not on how we are supporting them through it. Expect greatness from them and they’ll learn to expect it from themselves.” This is an insight that was inspired by her own personal experiences. Ms. Soutra’s brother was born with a physical disability. “I think my brother’s disability really informs my understanding of equity and fairness and expectations that people have for students and for kids,” she says. “My brother had high expectations set for him. I saw my parents really making sure that even though he has different needs, he’s still capable of those sorts of things. And having to go through a lot of meetings where teachers would sometimes equate his physicality with his comprehension abilities or his ability to do well in school was tough to witness as a kid.”

6. Teach students how to embrace a growth mindset.

Special Education Teacher Shira Moskowitz says, “Our goals are to start small for everyone. The goal is not to master everything in one day, even if a lot of kids across the spectrum of ability just want to be done. I say, ‘Oh, you finished this task, but our goal is bigger than that. Here’s our next part.’ And that’s broken up by day, by week, by month, or even by year so that there’s plenty to celebrate and for them to recognize that they are good at whatever it may be. And whether they finished the task in a day, a week, or a month doesn’t take away from the fact that they finished that task. There’s still something to celebrate.”

Ms. Soutra says she has also focused on this skill with her high school students by breaking long-term projects and skills into manageable steps. “I think what I saw in students a lot of the time is an immediate response of ‘It’s too much. I can’t do it,’ and then a shutdown. But sitting with a student and mapping out where they do have time is a different way to look at their work and the process of getting that work done successfully. ‘Where are your free periods? What do you have going on after class? Where are you going to do the work?’ And then filling out, ‘At this particular time, I’m focused on this aspect of this project,’ with the understanding that if it’s too hard to get started, then the first step is too big and you need to make it smaller.

“It’s not, ‘I have to study for history,’ it’s, ‘I have to pull out four words from the vocabulary and create four note cards. It’s not, ‘I have to write a paper,’ it’s, ‘I have to come up with three topic sentences.’” She explains that this is a big hurdle for students who have struggled in school their whole lives. “Changing that mindset or allowing them a step-by-step pathway to follow makes all the difference.”

She also shares how one of her students described her ADHD: “She said she has all the tabs open in her head but she’s not sure which one is playing the music. She’s so trying to shut off the music but can’t quite figure out which one will do that. If you’ve got that going on while you’re trying to work on a project and the first step is too big and you don’t know where to go from there, you’re going to focus on the music. It’s way more interesting and manageable than doing whatever homework assignment you have.”

Ms. Soutra has also seen the importance of encouraging students’ confidence. “I really love how excited the kids are about learning,” she says. For example, in the all-girls school in which she teaches, she says that girls are empowered to speak up. “Very few students try to mute themselves in a way that I saw girls do in other spaces. They speak up in any space, in math class, science class, or in the full-school assemblies … they are proud to share what they have to say, and they know that what they have to say matters.”

7. Look for clues that students’ basic needs aren’t being met.

When students are struggling, there may be other underlying issues that are impacting them.

For example, Special Education Administrator Loretta Cozza shares the story of a home visit. “We’re in a rural, high-poverty district,” she says. “It was really eye-opening to see the extent of poverty that was impacting this family. They met us on the porch and we asked them, ‘Do you want to put your coats on?’ They explained that their coats were in the dryer and they didn’t have other coats. You have to be really sensitive to what the parents’ needs are … and that means humbling ourselves and really meeting them where they are.”

Note: There are many ways to support students and families who are struggling with housing, food security, clothing, medical care, counseling, and more. Your school, district, or community may have resources that can help. Start by asking an administrator or social worker for ideas if you learn that a student is struggling.

8. Look for ways to support students’ mental health.

The educators have also seen the importance of addressing mental health concerns. “Mental health is absolutely a priority, and we’ve seen a major impact on our kids’ mental health,” Ms. Soutra says. “Their anxiety is through the roof. It’s really hard for them to focus a lot of the time. We’re seeing lots more ADHD diagnoses and more generalized anxiety diagnoses. And there needs to be support for the teachers in addressing these issues because we are all part of our students’ support network.”

She adds, “Our school has stressed communication and collaboration even more since the pandemic with the primary goal being to support students as whole people. We have multiple ‘support teams’: from a mental health team to an accommodations team to grade-level support teams and more, and most of these groups include representation from our counseling department. We really work to ensure that every student is ‘seen’ by adults so that we can do our best to be proactive in our support of them.”

In addition, Ms. Cozza notes that there might be partnerships that can help support students’ mental health. “Many of our students don’t have transportation to access counseling outside of school and that’s been really challenging. So, we brought in two county part-time counselors within the school and we have students meeting with them. Their caseloads are full for whatever they can take for now,” she says.

9. Encourage and celebrate students’ interests.

This is an area that Ms. Soutra came to understand as a college student where she and her future husband, Marcus, ran a summer camp for students with LD. “There were students arriving totally unwilling to be there, but by the end of camp, chanting ‘LD and proud to be.’ Seeing all of these students who didn’t feel good at school, it was great to see what they could accomplish when they felt good about themselves.”

In addition, Ms. Soutra says that a poetry project she did had a big impact on students. “We shared with the kids a poem written by LeDerick Horne called ‘Dare to Dream,’ and it’s focused specifically on learning disabilities. We’d share that with the kids, and then we’d have them write their own poems about their learning. They always took it very seriously. It was really amazing to see the students hunker down. They’d want the lights low, they really wanted to focus in on expressing themselves through this poem. And I think that’s pretty special.”

And over the years, she has seen the importance of supporting students’ interests again and again — the places where they shine. “If you have ever seen a student on the field, on the court, or on the stage, it is incredible,” she says. “This is where they want to be. They’re doing what they can in your class, but that’s where they feel they shine. Kids need to feel good about themselves and they deserve to feel good about themselves. If they don’t, they are not motivated to show you otherwise. And as adults, teaching students how to tap into and leverage those strengths opens other doors for them. It shows them, ‘OK, so maybe this thing is more difficult for me, but I’m pretty good at this other thing. Nobody can do everything.’ In high school, it sometimes feels like everybody’s doing better than you or like nobody else is struggling in the same way that you are, but that’s not true.”

10. Remember that stigma may be impacting how students feel about themselves.

All of the educators we spoke with also shared that that the stigma connected to learning disabilities, ADHD, and special education impacted how students felt about themselves. For example, Ms. Moskovitz shares the story of a boy who came into her class and told her he wasn’t supposed to be there because he was “normal” and that his parents didn’t want him in a class with other students who had special needs. “His parents had a strong cultural perspective that kids with different abilities might impact their son, and I heard them out and I explained that if we’re seeing a decline in their child, we would address it, but that we expected him to thrive here. And by the end of the year, the mom came back and said, ‘I do see what you’re doing here.’ We didn’t change her whole mindset about every single person with a disability, but the fact that she didn’t think that it would somehow ‘rub off’ on her son was a huge leap.”

Ms. Soutra has also noticed the impact of stigma with her students in high school. “We haven’t gotten to that point yet where teachers are seeing learning as part of identity. I think it’s more of seeing a diagnosis or a difficulty that needs ‘fixing,’ which can lead to students’ shame. We also have a lot of affinity groups at school that kids show up for, but no one shows up to the affinity group for students who learn differently, and so that says something about where our kids are at in terms of how they feel about themselves. I hope that eventually students with learning differences will show up to that affinity group … own their differences and, from there, thrive.”

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