Students with Learning Differences

While teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) is important for all students, it is especially important for students with learning, attention, and social differences who may show lagging SEL skills.

Accessing SEL and mindfulness in traditional ways may be challenging for students with special needs. Hence, the need for educators to take steps to ensure that all students are benefiting from these lessons.  Here are some general guidelines for adapting practices with students with learning challenges.


Make the Abstract More Concrete

SEL and mindfulness often require abstract thinking, such as inferring what another person is feeling or understanding the nuances of what it means to “listen” or “pay attention.” This can be challenging for students with learning disabilities who are more concrete or literal thinkers and have trouble with abstract reasoning. Students with intellectual disabilities are also likely to struggle with understanding the purpose of a mindfulness or SEL lesson without instructional supports.

Therefore, before starting any lesson on a social-emotional concept (e.g., respect, kindness, empathy, trustworthiness), educators need to break down the concept in ways that make it less abstract.

An educator wants to teach her class about respect, but knows that students struggling with verbal reasoning may have trouble grasping the meaning of “respect” in a definitive way. To help her students, she brings in stories, visual aids, and role-playing scenarios that provide examples of what respect and disrespect look like in action.

A teacher wants to infuse mindfulness as a habit of mind in his classroom and prompts students to “pay attention” during activities. Knowing that the direction “pay attention” is abstract, he thinks through what paying attention actually entails. He breaks down the concept into a whole-body listening mode where students can see that “paying attention” is not just about listening with ears, but also involves not talking, trying to keep the body still, and thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about. He creates a visual aid and models what “paying attention” does and does not look like before beginning a mindfulness practice.

Before teaching a lesson on “filling up each other’s buckets with kindness,” an educator makes an adaptation to the lesson to help one of her mainstreamed students with an intellectual disability understand the lesson better. Before the lesson, she asks another student to be a buddy to the student with a disability. She teaches the buddy student to help her peer sort pictures of children doing kind or not-kind behaviors into buckets marked “kind” and “not kind.” This makes the task more concrete and visual for the mainstreamed peer—and also gives the buddy peer a chance to practice kindness by helping teach the lesson.


Check the Mode of Instruction

Many SEL practices involve reading, writing, and sharing verbally. For a student with a language-based learning disability (e.g., Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, or Receptive/Expressive Language Disorder), these practices can pose a challenge.

A student with a verbal or written expression disability may struggle with practices that involve reflection and expression. A teacher with a student who has a writing disability notices that journaling is difficult for this student, so he provides sentence starters as scaffolds. For instance, instead of “write down three things you are grateful for and why,” the teacher gives the student a pre-printed prompt that reads, “I am grateful for ________ because _________.” The teacher also lets the student sometimes draw what they’re grateful for—or tell a peer.

A teacher leads a morning circle activity where students discuss a prompt. A student with verbal expression challenges needs “priming” for the prompt (i.e., extra “think time” before sharing his thoughts). With this in mind, the teacher provides a written prompt on the board before the morning circle and then has a quick chat with the student to spark his thinking. The student also has a “cue card” ready with his written answer before beginning the activity, so he doesn’t feel pressured or put “on the spot.”

A high school teacher assigns a novel for the whole class to read, asking students to respond to the text using a prosocial lens; she plans to use character analysis to teach a deeper social-emotional concept of compassion. The text chosen is beyond the reading level of one of her students. The teacher conferences with the student before the assignment and collaboratively problem solves by giving the student a few options, including: 1) allowing the student to listen to the book on audio before the class discussions, 2) assigning the text early so the student can read it with the Resource Specialist or tutor—in advance, or 3) selecting an alternative text.

Students with Attention Challenges

Because many mindfulness practices require focused concentration and often stillness, mindfulness can be difficult for students with attention challenges such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Some students need to move or fiddle to learn and listen.

Adapt the Modality to Involve More Movement

A teacher introducing mindfulness to her class substitutes sitting-based mindfulness practices with mindful movement practices. For example, she has students go on a sensory walk during which they focus on only one sense (e.g., walk to the playground while using your sense of smell). During morning circle time or a mindful breathing activity, she allows a student with attention challenges to have a pre-approved fidget so they can focus on the sense of touch—but she makes sure to review expected behavior before the use of the fidget (e.g., the student can touch, but not throw the fidget, or allow the fidget to touch another student).


Provide a Visual Aid of Expected Behavior

Some students with attention challenges have difficulty with impulse control. They may be prone to blurting out or interrupting practices that involve quiet mindful breathing, visualization, or stillness. A teacher prepares his students for expected behaviors during the activity, taking photos of students showing what mindfulness looks like (e.g., seated with eyes closed, open, or gazing downward, mouths quiet, hands still). Once his class has identified what is expected, he shows these pictures before the activity to remind students to “match the picture.” This visual helps cue his students with attention and impulsivity to meet the expected behavior.

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Many social-emotional learning and mindfulness practices involve perspective-taking or empathy, which can be difficult for students on the Autism Spectrum or for students with other social-emotional challenges.

Perspective taking and empathy are foundational to a larger set of competencies involved in thinking socially. We experience the “social thinking” process as we try to make sense of our own and others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions in a given moment—a process that does not come naturally to all students. Here are a few adaptations and supports for students with challenges specific to “social thinking”:

Teach the “Hidden Curriculum”

Many social rules are implicit, unclear, and involve the interpretation of facial expressions and behavioral cues. Some students struggle with “reading between the lines” or “reading the room” as well as matching what they say, do, or feel to the situation. Practices involving group work and peer discussion may be challenging without some instructional support.

A teacher does several things to prepare for a small group discussion activity so that he can support a student on the Autism spectrum who struggles with turn-taking. First, he displays a visual aid on a specific turn-taking method (e.g., a “talking stick” or “talking ball”). He also assigns group roles, including a time monitor or “focus monitor” who can indicate when someone’s turn is up and/or whether the conversation has shifted off topic. Further, he assigns other group members to be note-takers who model active listening by repeating back what each student says before writing down the idea. Finally, the teacher clearly explains and reinforces group discussion rules on a regular basis, rather than letting them remain “hidden” or implicit.


Make the Abstract More Concrete

Perspective-taking is a complex skill that is the foundation for empathy. Some students do not intuitively read social cues that help them pick up on how others may be feeling. Or, they may experience empathetic feelings, but aren’t able to identify those emotions in themselves or others. Concepts like empathy, deception, sarcasm, and idioms may be especially challenging for students on the Autism Spectrum. Additionally, reading nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures may be difficult.

Literature can help students understand the connection between verbal and nonverbal communication.

During a read-a-loud, a teacher has students put a sticky note on the pictures above a character’s head, describing what they think the character might be thinking in that moment.

In language and literacy classes, educators can break down idioms and provide additional language and examples to bring these concepts to life. (It’s easy to forget that common idioms aren’t accessible to some of our students with social or language challenges.)

During a read-a-loud, a teacher comes across the phrase “she was crushed by his teasing,” and takes the time to ask students what they think this means. He is explicit that “crushed” is another way to say “she feels sad and hurt because her friend said something mean, and she did not like that.”

Source: Rebecca Branstetter, PhD


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“If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.””
–Ignacio Estrada