Supporting Social and Emotional Learning for Students with Disabilities: Are Universal Interventions Effective?

April 27, 2022

Key Takeaway:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) continues to grow in popularity in school curriculums as a means to promote academic success and healthy development. However, students with disabilities may require specific interventions that address particular needs, thus calling on general educators to consider the effectiveness of their SEL interventions in order to best support all learners. — Taryn McBrayne 

Do Universal SEL Interventions Help All Students?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is becoming increasingly prominent in mainstream classroom curricula. According to Dusenbury et al., (2018), “all states [in the US] have integrated SEL into preschool academic standards and 14 have done so through high school.”1 However, given that many students with special education needs are in general education classroom settings, the authors of this article, Daley & McCarthy (2021), suggest that we must also question “whether and how students with disabilities are considered” in universal SEL interventions in order to determine the effectiveness of such curricula. 

Daley & McCarty and CASEL (2015)2 emphasize that SEL interventions for students with disabilities “tend to focus on supporting the skills, knowledge, and strategies of individual students, whereas universal SEL interventions may address individual students’ development, focus broadly on classroom or school climate, or may combine these strands.” The need to accommodate for various learning differences and stages of development, in combination with an overall lack of educator knowledge in this domain,3 means that further attention should be placed on investigating how to improve SEL interventions for all learners, including those with disabilities.

A Systematic Review of Middle and High School Interventions

The authors completed a systematic review of numerous peer-reviewed studies published prior to 2019 in addition to CASEL and RAND reports in an attempt to further understand the effectiveness of universal SEL interventions. The review targeted interventions amongst middle and high school students, given that SEL can be particularly challenging for students with disabilities in this age group, and addressed 3 key research questions: 

  1. To what degree are students with disabilities included as participants in studies of universal SEL interventions for middle and high school students?
  2. What evidence suggests attention to students with disabilities in the design of universal SEL interventions for middle and high school students?
  3. What evidence suggests effectiveness of universal SEL interventions specifically for middle and high school students with disabilities? 

Key Findings

In response to the first research question: 

  • The authors found that “students with disabilities receive minimal attention in reports of middle and high-school SEL interventions,” meaning that it was unknown whether or not these students were present during SEL interventions or not. 

In response to the second research question: 

  • The study found inconclusive results on how much training staff had on providing SEL interventions for students with disabilities. 
  • “Similarly, accommodations, modifications, and differentiation as part of intervention materials were described in only 10 studies,” suggesting that training materials may not be accessible in most schools. 
  • However, most literature mentioned various differentiation models, including school-wide positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS), multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), or a comprehensive, integrated, three-tiered model of prevention, showing promise for supporting all learners. 

In response to the third research question: 

  • Four studies involving a bullying prevention intervention showed that “students with disabilities tended to exhibit different intervention effects than peers without disabilities,” yet the long-term success of these effects remained unclear. 

Based on the analysis provided by Daley & McCarthy, several implications can be drawn. To begin, the literature review demonstrates the need for increased reporting on the percentage of students with disabilities and the documentation of the type of disability in SEL interventions in order to better evaluate the effectiveness of universal interventions. As well, it is evident that educators require additional training on best practices for differentiation, such as Universal Design for Learning. A third implication is the “potential role of approaches used in special education practice to more directly inform the design of universal SEL interventions.” 

In conclusion, Daley & McCarthy acknowledge that “because the majority of studies do not specify whether students with disabilities were included . . . these findings merely reflect what has been reported.” Thus, more robust data is required in order to provide a more nuanced investigation into the topic. Regardless, it is apparent that additional support is needed to improve the inclusivity of universal SEL interventions. 

Summarized Article:

Daley, S. G., & McCarthy, M. F. (2021). Students With Disabilities in Social and Emotional Learning Interventions: A Systematic Review. Remedial and Special Education, 42(6), 384–397.

Summary by: Taryn McBrayne — Taryn believes in the power of student voice and, through the MARIO Framework, strives to create more opportunities for both educators and students to regularly make use of this power.

Additional References:

  1. Dusenbury, L. A., Dermody, C., & Weissberg, R. P. (2018). Statescorecardscan.
  2. CASEL. (2015). 2015 CASEL guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs—Middle and high school edition. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (n.d.).
  3. Pavri, S., & Hegwer-DiVita, M. (2006). Meeting the social and emotional needs of students with disabilities: The special educators’ perspective. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 22(2), 139–153. International Pty Ltd. (2018). NVivo for Mac [Computer software].

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