Personal & Social Behavior Expectations for Students with Emotional Disabilities

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

If you teach students who have emotional disabilities, then you know it can be challenging to set appropriate social and personal expectations. This lesson discusses common challenges and approaches to teaching these students.

Teaching Students with Emotional Disabilities

For the last two years, Emma has been teaching a self-contained elementary school class of students with emotional disabilities, those who have extreme challenges with self-regulation, behavior and emotional expression, as well as diagnosed mental illnesses. Some of her students' challenges include panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder.

Sometimes, Emma struggles with knowing what is reasonable to expect of her students on a personal and social level, and she is learning more about the struggles involved in her students' behaviors and how best to address them. Emma decides to think through the common challenges her students face, and to learn more about the different approaches to teaching that will help her students learn, grow and succeed.

Common Challenges

Emma knows that no two students with emotional disabilities are exactly alike, and her students are diverse in how they present and what they need. At the same time, in general, many of her students share some common challenges.

Understanding Social Cues

A basic issue for many of Emma's students is they struggle to understand social cues, or subtle signals about how an interpersonal interaction is unfolding. A social cue might be something as simple as a smile that holds an implicit expectation that one smiles back.

Some social cues are more complex; for instance, when a playmate at your house complains, 'I'm bored,' it might be a cue that you should switch activities or offer some different options.

Social cues vary tremendously between cultures and age groups, and Emma's students' challenges make it very hard for them to read the subtleties of social cues without explicit help.

Appropriate Responses

In addition, some of Emma's students struggle to respond appropriately to others in social situations. This means that they might not make eye contact, might overreact or underreact, or might really not know what to say to another person. Their inappropriate responses can sometimes be off-putting to others.

Initiation of Interactions

Many of Emma's students are extremely anxious, shy or avoidant when it comes to social situations. They especially avoid initiating, or beginning, interactions with others, and this can make it challenging for them to join a group.

Teaching Approaches and Strategies

Now that Emma knows more about the struggles her students tend to face, she sets out to learn more about the teaching strategies that are likely to help them.

Skill Instruction and Modeling

Emma learns that her students will benefit from explicit instruction in social skills. That means she actually teaches them outright what to say in different situations, what body language to use, and how to join in a group.

Emma also devotes extensive time to modeling, or providing an example, of the behavior she expects her students to use.

Peer Involvement and Role Playing

Explicit instruction and modeling can go a long way, but Emma also knows it is important for her to get peers, or similar aged students without disabilities, involved. She has her students practice new skills with peer buddies.

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