It is widely accepted that there is a teacher shortage in the United States, but when it comes to special education teachers, the situation is even more dire. According to the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages on Special Education and Related Resources, between 82% and 99% of special education teachers are not ideally qualified to serve in this capacity. Not only that, but the attrition rate for these educators is twice that of general education teachers.
And as special education students are increasingly put into general education classes, the preparedness gap of teachers becomes even wider.
“Since most models of special education focus on pairing a special education teacher and a general education teacher in the same classroom to support student learning, the more exposure that special and general educators have to [social emotional learning] tenets, the more effective they are in supporting student needs,” said David Adams, director of social-emotional learning at Urban Assembly.
Sharrone Brawner, a cultural specialist at Sela Public Charter School in Washington, DC, said, “Special education students challenge teachers to modify lessons, and their thinking, when teaching core subjects.”
“Often people think of special education students as always having to be remediated, and lessons having to be broken down into additional steps in order for the child to learn,” she said. “People often forget about the special education student that is higher than all of the other students in the class, and might act out out of boredom rather than frustration.”
In her experience, Brawner said teachers are often equipped with general tool kits to help address the needs of these students, but just like with any student population, the needs of special needs students can vary greatly.
“Special education students are really hard to generalize — they are ‘special’ for a reason,” she said. “While special education teachers usually have a set of interventions that they pull from to work with most students, there is no textbook for every special education student. No one thing works all the time, and no one set of circumstances can determine how a child with special needs will react, learn or be impacted.”
Still, Adams said, “There are many ways to help teachers to develop their skill-set to effectively address the social emotional needs of their students. In my experience at the Urban Assembly, we’ve seen that teacher-student trust, and student-to-student respect increase with effective implementation of [social emotional learning] programming and approaches across the school.”
Adams said “research demonstrates that these students have a profile of social emotional strengths and challenges that mirror that of the general population.” What this means for educators, he said, is “that we can intervene with these students using similar supports as those in general education [but] with greater intensity and duration in order to lift their overall social-emotional competency.”
This could mean supports like “speech therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, differentiated lessons, manipulatives during math, visual supports, mediators, verbal and written directions. counseling, differentiated support during lessons [like] movement breaks in between lessons, an optional cozy corner in the classroom, second step lessons to support social emotional development,” said Brawner.
It could also include “visual supports [like] token boards, visual schedules, visual mediators that students can refer to the expectation — if they should be sitting criss cross on the carpet having a visual on the wall for a sped student to refer to that after you gave the verbal direction as a mediator” — all interventions that would be beneficial to any group of students, but are particularly important for special needs students, Brawner said.
Adams said the best way to help special education students is to integrate a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning school-wide.
“When all students are learning about skills like identifying their emotions, perspective taking, responsibility and their role in the larger community, then students with significant needs in this area are much more likely to internalize these skills, attitudes, and values, compared to a model where these students are pulled out of the classroom and their peers and teachers are not exposed to these ideas,” he said.
“Students with the lowest levels of social-emotional competence make the greatest gains when exposed to a school-wide approach. Effective school-wide social-emotional learning enhances the functioning of typical developing students and provides the context to increase the intensity, duration and generalization of social-emotional skills for students with special needs.”
Brawner suggests specific ways school employees can achieve this: “Teachers and schools can embed [social emotional learning tenets] into their lessons,” she said, “creating core value systems not only for students, but for teachers/parents as well.”
“Books in the classroom in the library can support this,” Brawner continued. “School counselors can implement social emotional lessons in the classroom. Teachers explicitly teach math, science and social studies — why not social emotional skills, [like] teaching students how to articulate their needs to their peer group, their teachers and their parents/guardians?”
Looking past the labels
Both Brawner and Adams agree a student’s special education classification provides little insight into the needs of that student.
“It’s important that we assess each student for their strengths and challenges and not assume that the category they’re classified under to receive special education services defines that student,” Adams said. “For example, the fact that a student is classified under the category of Emotionally Disturbance tells us very little about that individual student’s social emotional strengths and challenges. What a student does is often more important that what their special label says a student ‘is’.”
Moving past the categorical label “means getting to know the family, the child's favorite cartoon character, and what motivates them,” said Brawner.
But it also means understanding their home environment and the potential impact it could have on behavior and academic ability.
“A special education student might have a hard time dealing with transition, [like] moving into a different home,” she said. “Having a sibling is hard for most children, but for a special education student who requires additional social emotional supports, it could take longer for them to adjust.”
“All students are often impacted by these factors, but oftentimes, environmental factors, economic circumstances, and parental involvement impact a special ed students. All students are often impacted [by factors like] poverty, homelessness, missing parents, [but for] special ed students who are already experiencing challenges at school, to be in transition at home at times can be too much for them to handle,” she said.
Brawner said, “In order to help special education students meet their goals, it is important to do interest inventories [and periodically] check in with guardians, and the student.”
“As teachers, educators and parents we need to consider the entire child — not only academic growth, but social emotional as well,” she said.