Effects of Emotional Impairment on Social & Emotional Development

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are a teacher who works with students with emotional impairment, you are probably interested in their overall trajectory for social and emotional development. This lesson discusses some common trends across a life span.

Emotional Impairment and Development

For the last three years, Marcia has been teaching in a self-contained middle school classroom, working as a special education teacher for students with emotional impairments. This means that Marcia's students have specific disabilities that impact their capacity to regulate and express their emotions.

Some of Marcia's students have mental illnesses, while others are severely autistic or have had intensely traumatic experiences. Marcia works hard to meet her students' academic and behavioral needs each day.

She also knows that it is important for her to understand her students' overall social and emotional development. Marcia knows she can better meet her students' needs if she knows their developmental history and some of the struggles they might face in the future. She sets out to learn more about the overall effects of emotional impairment on social and emotional development.

Early Childhood

Marcia learns that in early childhood, or the ages from infancy to age 6, many children do not yet show signs of emotional impairment. Instead, some of them appear to develop typically. Others, however, might be especially slow to develop language and motor skills, and this means they might struggle to communicate with others about their feelings or within play situations.

Some students with emotional impairment are extremely unregulated in early childhood. For instance, they might be prone to frequent, even aggressive, tantrums. This might make it harder for them to express their feelings in ways that can be understood by others. The lack of regulation can also make transitions, like changes in routines or the move between home and school, especially challenging. It can make meal times and bedtimes fraught as well; many young children with emotional impairments are very fussy about eating and sleeping. They might be prone to violence, aggression, and extreme impulsivity, all of which can make it hard for them to form meaningful relationships with adults or peers.

Middle Childhood

Middle childhood, from about age 6 to age 11, is often a time when emotional impairments are more likely to receive a formal diagnosis. In Marcia's experience, most of her students were diagnosed in the early years of compulsory school, because the demands of school became more rigorous and the differences between them and their typically developing peers thus became more evident.

In middle childhood, Marcia learns, many children with emotional impairments experience depression or anxiety. They may struggle with sleeping and eating to a greater extent than their typical peers.

Middle childhood is a very social time for typically developing children. Though many students with emotional impairments are capable of making friends, many are unable to get close to others, to participate in ordinary play activity, or to stay calm under the pressure of social situations. They may move in and out of friendships very rapidly, or they may be socially isolated. Middle childhood can therefore become a lonely and isolating time for these children.

At the same time, middle childhood is often a time when these students begin to get support and interventions that result in a positive upswing in their development. For instance, Marcia has seen that work in small groups with the school guidance counselor over time enables her students with emotional impairments to have more meaningful relationships with others. She has also seen that using social stories and scripts offers her students language for describing their feelings, which in turn allows them to communicate their needs more effectively.

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