Impact Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities

Social and Emotional Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities:
A Brief Overview


Jo Montie is Founder/Consultant, Doors to Useful Learning, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Simply put, "social and emotional well-being" is a balanced, healthy way of interacting with others and the ability to appropriately respond to our own emotions. It is a core aspect of a person's development. Our capacities and needs to connect with others (social), and to know and manage our inner feelings and experiences (emotional), are central features of our quality of life.

All children, youth, and adults require care and attention to these areas of development. However, children and youth with disabilities are at higher risk for experiencing lower levels of social-emotional well-being than their peers without disabilities. They are more likely to be bullied and harassed, have a limited number of friends, and engage in fewer extracurricular activities than their peers. Combine these tendencies with a school environment in which the child's "failures" rather than gifts and capacities are often the focus, and where all too often help doesn't get to children until there is a crisis, and one has the potential for high levels of social and emotional distress. While children with disabilities are at "higher risk" socially and emotionally, we do not suggest that this always occurs. Many children and youth with disabilities experience very positive outcomes in this area. Families and the larger community, however, need to be proactive in attending to the social-emotional needs and experiences of this group and in considering ways to expand advocacy and support on their behalf.

There are a growing number of communities taking action to insure the social and emotional well-being of children and youth with special needs. Three positive trends in this area are highlighted below:

  • Greater Access to Inclusive Experiences. Today, children and youth with disabilities, overall, have greater access to the same educational, recreational, and other environments as their peers without disabilities compared to even 5 years ago (Institute of Education Sciences, 2010; Law et al., 2006). The more they are included, the greater their options for social relationships and expanded circles of friends. And increased inclusion is also associated with higher expectations for learning and social interaction. When supported to successfully respond to these higher expectations, children and youth with disabilities have the potential to experience increased social-emotional well-being.
  • Positive Outlook Related to People with Disabilities. As a result of increased opportunities for inclusion, community attitudes toward disability are changing in a positive way. People with disabilities are seen more often in our daily lives in the media, and more often depicted in a genuine, positive manner. Individuals with disabilities are now more likely to be valued for their abilities and contributions, not just noticed for their needs. When all members of society are exposed to positive images of persons with disabilities, and start to view the experience of having a disability as an important part of the diversity among humans, the social relationships of children and youth with disabilities and their presence in the community are supported.
  • Expanded Self-Advocacy. The growth of youth-led self-advocacy efforts (youth taking control of their lives and creating change) both reflects and impacts social-emotional well-being. At a school level, students are becoming stronger self-advocates, and there is growing support for students becoming a stronger presence in their IEP planning (Hawbaker, 2007). In addition, around the country young people with disabilities are joining together for self-advocacy activities in communities. Supporting opportunities for children and youth to identify and name their own feelings, likes and dislikes; to communicate their personal stories and experiences; and to make real choices in their daily lives from an early age sets the stage for greater quality of life, self-esteem, and self-determination, which can lead to greater personal empowerment in the social area of life (Abery, Mithaus, Wehmeyer, & Stancliffe, 2003).

These trends are in the right direction. However, there's an ongoing need for widespread implementation of strategies that create the systems change needed to expand and support them, and reach all young people with disabilities.

Future Prevention Efforts

The old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" applies well to addressing the social-emotional needs of children and youth with disabilities. A more coordinated, sustained focus on prevention practices in schools, youth organizations, homes, and other community settings is needed to build on the progress that's already been attained. Four of those practices are as follows:

  • Teach Social and Emotional Competencies. Becoming more prevention-oriented in our schools and youth organizations includes supporting the development of social-emotional competencies that contribute to learning (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011), as well as creating systems that encourage student engagement, safety, and a positive climate. There are many organizations and materials available to help educators and program leaders teach social-emotional competencies and create positive social climates for youth with disabilities. They include the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL); the Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children; the OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports; Operation Respect; and Educators for Social Responsibility. These and other organizations are contributing to a growing body of strategies that can be useful to educators, youth organization staff, and families to proactively support social-emotional well-being.
  • Create Multidisciplinary Supports. The unmet social-emotional needs of many children and youth go unnoticed for years. The student who sits quietly in the classroom, youth group, or at home often is not viewed as in need of support even when experiencing emotional distress. Additional support, training, and resources directed toward helping young people and families get help sooner are necessary. This is not an effort that can be successfully carried out by schools or youth organizations alone, but must be a joint undertaking with health care systems, social services, and community supports. Attention must be paid not only to building connections across these organizations, but between children and youth, their families, and support networks.
  • Advocate for Necessary Resources. We need more resources and training in schools and youth organizations directed toward social-emotional well-being. There is a need to train "frontline providers," those who first see and connect with children and youth (U.S. Public Health Service, 2000). In most school districts, social workers, counselors, and psychologists provide services to multiple schools, spending no more than one day a week within any physical setting. As a result, they rarely have the opportunity to develop relationships with students or spend time in classrooms until after a child has begun to display signs of distress. Instead, resources need to target ways to effectively create a sense of belonging and valuing relationships in schools, youth organizations, and community settings, and be available for teaching and prevention, not only in crisis. The Institute of Medicine's 2009 report on mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people indicates that a focus on social and emotional skills is foundational for both preventing and treating such disorders.
  • Link People and Environments. Because children and youth with disabilities typically do not have the opportunity for as many, or as varied, social relationships as their peers without disabilities, they often lack the resources or "social capital" to protect themselves from poor social-emotional outcomes. Such experiences should not be viewed in isolation or attempts made to address them individually; rather, they need to be viewed as interconnected and addressed holistically. The unavailability of inclusive extracurricular activities in a community, for example, can mean youth with disabilities have fewer opportunities to meet individuals with common interests. A lack of contexts within which to develop friendships, in turn, increases the likelihood that a student will experience the negative outcomes that come with social isolation. Conversely, by widening social networks, linking environments, and actively nurturing a sense of belonging and stable relationships, we create conditions that support positive social-emotional well-being. By increasing the variety of inclusive school and community activities, we also expand role models for constructive coping, increase access to social support outside of the family, and enhance meaning in our lives.


To insure the social-emotional well-being of children and youth with disabilities, and reduce their risk of negative outcomes, we must continue to develop initiatives that link people, environments, and prevention practices. Efforts must be based on respect for others and an appreciation of diversity, engage high-risk youth, create social networks and capacities, and bring together those with and without disabilities in a way that gives each individual an opportunity to use his or her gifts and capacities. Working together, families, professionals, and children and youth themselves can create the context for healthy social-emotional development.

  • Abery, B. H., Mithaus, D. E., Wehmeyer, M. L., & Stancliffe, R. J. (2003). Theory in self-determination. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishing.

  • Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. R. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

  • Hawbaker, B. W. (2007). Student-led IEP meetings: Planning and implementation strategies. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 3(5).

  • Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. (2010). The condition of education 2010: Children and youth with disabilities. Author: Washington D.C.

  • Institute of Medicine. (2009). Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.

  • Law, M., King, G., King, S., Kertoy, M., & Hurley, P. (2006). Patterns of participation in recreation and leisure activities among children with complex physical disabilities. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 48, 337–342.

  • U.S. Public Health Service. (2000). Report of the Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health. Washington D.C.: Department of Health and Human Services.