December 2nd is National Special Education Day, and in its honor, we wanted to explore and share the importance and interconnectedness of special education and Social Emotional Learning. This connection has never been more critical or noticeable than at this moment in history. More than 7 million students receive special education services in the United States.

Why Focus on Special Education?

With services ranging from speech and language therapy, modified instruction, and adapted curriculums to classroom accommodations, including instructional aides, the range of special education services varies greatly. Even with focused and effective traditional special education strategies, there is still a genuine need for special education students to receive an even broader scope and services and support.

More than 2/3rds of administrators said they expected their special education students to perform somewhat or much lower academically than they had before the pandemic. With estimates like that, it’s vital to use all avenues of service. Utilizing Social Emotional Learning with special education students accelerates progress toward meeting Individual Education Plan (IEP) goals while helping students in a meaningful way.

Image of student in the classroom

Social Emotional Learning for Special Education: Self-Management

Social Emotional Learning is important for all students, but it’s even more important for special education students. Let’s focus on one CASEL competency for SEL, Self-Management, with the benefits for special education students in mind.

CASEL defines Self-Management as the ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and achieve goals and aspirations. This includes the capacity to delay gratification, manage stress, and feel motivation and agency to accomplish personal and collective goals.

CASEL’s Self-Management competency includes skills such as:

  • Managing one’s emotions
  • Identifying and using stress management strategies
  • Exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation
  • Setting personal and collective goals
  • Using planning and organizational skills
  • Showing the courage to take initiative
  • Demonstrating individual and collective agency


By utilizing SEL with special education students it allows for greater progress toward meeting Individual Education Plan goals and supports the student in a meaningful way.

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According to Courtney Aseltine, owner of Advocacy of the Carolinas, Education Consultant, and Special Education Advocate, “All kids need those functional skills, but especially special education students. With disabilities and struggles come a whole range of emotions, and if kids don’t learn how to manage them properly, that’s when they can manifest as behavioral issues.”

Courtney goes on to give a specific example. “Let’s say you have a child in your classroom with a specific learning disability in reading. This child is also lacking in self-management skills. The class is working on an assignment, and the student is struggling to get through the reading. Because they haven’t been properly taught how to appropriately manage the emotions of frustration that arises when they are struggling, students do one of two things: they either shut down completely, or they lash out.” If that student had been exposed to and taught skills to appropriately manage their emotions while advocating for what they need, the student has a greater chance of success in the classroom.

Social Emotional Learning for IEP Goals

In addition to supporting the overall child, Social Emotional Learning also assists special education students in meeting their IEP goals. All special education students have IEPs that explicitly state goals related to their disabilities. IEPs are legal documents public schools must follow according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

IEP goals are directly tied to the student’s progress across the academic areas impacted by disability. Within these goals, there is space for and a need for SEL. Sometimes there are specific goals that directly tie to SEL, like social skills goals or goals that include explicit counseling services. 

However, all goals can include an element of SEL. For example, a student might have an IEP goal that states: “After reading a fictional passage, the student will use implied meaning in comprehension questions, 4/5 times with 80% accuracy.” Within that specific academic goal, there are many opportunities for SEL to be utilized. The student needs to first understand what implied meaning is. Implied meaning involves reading context. This skill can be practiced using scenarios, picture cards, or storyboards, all tools for SEL skills involving Social Awareness (another CASEL competency). 

Summing Up

On National Special Education Day, it’s essential to acknowledge and honor special education students. We can also use this day to recommit to supporting these students and their K-12 journeys in any way we can. One of the most important ways we can do this is by utilizing Social Emotional Learning to help students grow and achieve their goals in and out of school. 


Author: Scarlett Tannetta

Posted: 13 Dec 2021

Estimated time to read: 4 mins

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