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

Student Social-Emotional Well-Being:
The Role of Administrators and State Education Agencies


Sandra Berndt is a Special Education Consultant with Sandra Berndt Special Education Consulting, LLC, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

Research has shown that when schools appropriately and effectively attend to the social and emotional needs of K-12 students with disabilities, life outcomes for these students improve in areas such as school completion, successful social relationships and better employment outcomes (OECD 2007; Rea, McLaughlin & Walther-Thomas, 2002). For this reason, it is critical that special and general education teachers, as well as school support personnel, be equipped and encouraged to foster the development of social-emotional skills and understanding on the part of students with disabilities. It is also essential that these professionals help create and sustain educational environments in which students with disabilities have opportunities to practice social skills and be socially included with their peers. However, they cannot carry out this task without the direction and support of school and district administrators, as well as state education departments. This article will address what administrators and state agencies can do to help special and general education teachers, and school support personnel, to knowledgeably and confidently address the social and emotional needs of students with disabilities, and sustain school environments that support social well-being.

Staff Training and Development

While most educators have an intuitive understanding of the social-emotional development of the average student, they often do not receive sufficient training at the pre-service and in-service levels on how to support the social-emotional well-being of students with disabilities. Therefore it is imperative that school and district administrators, and state education departments, help build educator comfort and competence in working with students with many types of disabilities, attending to both the academic and social-emotional areas of life. This is particularly important for general education personnel given that participation by students with disabilities in regular education classrooms and school social activities is a vital part of their social-emotional well-being.

To develop their competence and confidence in addressing the social-emotional needs of students with disabilities, special and general educators require administrative support for needed training and related activities, as well as time for collaboration to plan instruction that attends to student social-emotional skills and understanding. It is essential that this professional development around social skills and emotional development include training on how to effectively set-up cooperative learning opportunities and manage cooperative groups. Training is also needed on how to help students develop and evaluate goal-setting around social skills and opportunities.

To incorporate opportunities for social-emotional development into the school day without short-changing academic instruction, teachers can infuse social-emotional content into academic tasks. For example, students can be asked to interpret the feelings and emotional responses of historical figures; discuss why a character acted the way they did based on the events in a story; or identify parallels between their lives and the lesson subject. Especially for students with disabilities, these activities allow for a greater richness in understanding, as well as increased relevance of the lessons they are learning. Teachers need training and practice in the differentiation of instruction, including how to determine the specific learning and social-emotional needs of their students. Administrators can support their teachers by helping them get the needed training in how to differentiate instruction, as well as helping provide teacher mentors and the opportunity to collaborate and observe the needed skills being modeled. Administrators should also provide supportive and constructive feedback to teachers about the effectiveness of their instruction in the areas of student social-emotional development.

At the state level, State Education Agencies (SEA) can work with teacher pre-service training programs to help incorporate concepts related to social-emotional development of students with disabilities. Pre-service training can include how to differentiate instruction, as well as how to provide inclusive instruction, for both special and general education teachers. Pre-service teachers should also have internships in inclusive classrooms with teachers who have a proven track record providing effective social-emotional instruction for all their students. The instructors for these pre-service training programs can be brought together by the SEA to help provide coordinated planning and program development, sharing effective and research-based strategies that they teach to their pre-service educators. The SEA can also ensure that discretionary grant funding is available to provide in-service training on the topic.

Another role for SEAs is to encourage effective partnerships between community and school groups to promote positive social instruction and activities. By bringing together other groups, such as mental health service providers, coordinators of local after-school programs, and parent information centers, effective social-emotional instruction can continue outside of school in community activities and programs. One example is the Families and Schools Together (FAST) program that brings together parents, community mental health and prevention programs, and other community resources to help parents address issues in their children's lives, including their social-emotional development. SEAs could also provide funding and support for bringing together these groups to form professional learning communities around the issue of social-emotional development and effective practices.

Many states have established guidelines around social-emotional development and instruction. In Wisconsin, for example, the Department of Public Instruction has developed guidelines for successful schools that include Standards of the Heart PDF , which are intended to foster positive character traits in students. This information is provided to school districts through an annual conference, regional training opportunities, a Web resource page, and Webinars.

Lastly, SEAs can work with both universities and other research entities to ensure that best practice and research-based materials are made available to teachers and districts, and to ensure they have the most up-to-date resources.

Attention to School Climate

In addition to providing support for teachers and other school personnel to develop their skills and competency in addressing social-emotional needs of students with disabilities, administrators should examine the expectations that the school as a whole communicates for students with disabilities, making sure that their schools and districts have consistent and positive expectations for all their students. These expectations should be built on the clear and unequivocal message that all students are valued and valuable, and deserving of a positive educational experience. Administrators can be the leaders in promoting a climate of respect, tolerance, and celebration of differences. One way to act on these expectations is to implement effective and research-based Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) programs that include high behavioral and social expectations for all students. As mentioned previously, Wisconsin has developedStandards of the Heart, which provide a framework for developing a supportive, positive, and inclusive environment. School administrators can use these or similar standards to examine board policies, district practices, and their own procedures to ensure that students feel safe, welcomed, and accepted in their schools. Administrators can also include activities such as:

  • Lunch with the principal – once a month the principal could pick a group of students with whom to have lunch and solicit the students' ideas on how to improve the school climate.
  • Support the development of diversity clubs at the high school level.
  • Model accepting and healthy social-emotional behavior in how they deal with problems and conflict in the school setting.

State Education Agencies can also play an important role in the promotion of positive and supportive school climates in all their state's public schools. In addition to the dissemination of effective research-based practices, they have opportunities in their supervision and monitoring responsibilities to include questions around school climates. For example, since school climate is a factor in student engagement, which impacts the likelihood of students staying in school and successfully obtaining a regular diploma, any monitoring around graduation and dropout problems can include the examination of how a school's climate is impacting students' school completion.


As students with disabilities continue to be included in greater numbers in general education settings, and as the emphasis is increased on providing them meaningful access to academic content, it is essential not to omit opportunities to enhance and improve their social and emotional development. With effective instruction and guidance, teachers will see:

  • Improved classroom behavior.
  • Greater student engagement with school and schoolwork.
  • Greater acceptance of students with disabilities by peers.
  • Interpersonal skills that transfer from school to world of work.

Academic instruction is important for all students. However, we cannot leave students with disabilities to venture into the world without providing them with essential social and emotional skills, and the essential experience of being socially included and valued with their peers during their school years.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors. The content does not necessarily represent the policy of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and endorsement by the department should not be assumed.

  • OECD. (2007). Understanding the social outcomes of learning. Retrieved from,3746,en_2649_35845581_38905029_1_1_1_1,00.html

  • Rea, P. J., McLaughlin, V. L., & Walther-Thomas, C. (2002). Outcomes for students with learning disabilities in inclusive and pullout programs. Exceptional Children, 68(2), 203–223.

  • Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2009). Characteristics of successful schools. Retrieved from