As a special education teacher, you would think the bulk of my job would be to pre-teach and re-teach academic content, provide educational supports, assess student growth, monitor academic goals, and provide direction instruction in a number of areas. While it’s true that special educators do all of those things (and way more), we need to spend a great deal of time supporting kids and young adults with their social and emotional needs. That helped me to realize that all educators are truly critical in supporting counseling needs to the students we work with every single day. Educators are often the first adults to develop a strong relationship with kids, mentor them, listen to their dreams and fears, and help them through challenging social, emotional, personal, and academic challenges. It’s clear that all of these added responsibilities make us not only teachers, but part emotional support teachers, too.
Over my years in the classroom, the school counselors and social workers have always been some of my best allies in helping kids with social-emotional needs. Working with them and following their guidance is critical. Still, we need to be prepared to provide social-emotional supports, too.
Often teachers feel that they are not trained enough to “act as a counselor”. I hear this come up when teachers have to teach advisory periods or morning meetings. While it’s true that all educators could use lots more training in this area, we must face the facts that we are going to be around these kids much more than a counselor or social worker will be. So, even when students are receiving counseling or social work support once or twice a week, we still need to be prepared to help these students throughout their day.
Whether you are a tenured teacher with years of experience or a new educator ready to start your career, here are some strategies for helping kids through social, emotional, personal, or academic challenges in the classroom:
1. Share about your own life. My students always love hearing about the silly things my dog did, the details of my latest vacation, what foods gross me out, and the challenges I’ve overcome to get where I am. Sharing bits about your life can help kids learn to trust you and build a lasting relationship. Bring in pictures, share experiences, and just really open up about yourself. This really is the foundation to being able to open up and make positive life changes. Of course, it’s critical to keep boundaries, but kids will understand you as a mentor and teacher more when they know about you as a human being.
2. Just listen. When a student talks to you about a challenge they are dealing with, it’s important not to give advice right away or act judgemental. Just listen, nod, and validate their thoughts. You can ask things like, “What do you think you should do?” and “What are some strategies you use to deal with that?”. At the right times, it is important to give support and advice, too. But listening always comes first.
3. Get to know kids. That seems obvious, but getting to really know and understand each student as a whole child can go a long way. That means taking the time to understand their background, where they have come from, their interests outside of school, fears, dreams, strengths, and struggles. Since time in the classroom can be filled with academics, it can be helpful to start the morning with a social or getting to know you routine, sitting with kids at lunch time, and even just being visible before and after class. If you sincerely make an effort, kids will notice.
4. Help kids see their growth over time. It’s important to remind kids that you can’t reach your goals over night. I love to use student reflection binders to help show students their own progress and growth. Whether the student is working on increasing grades in an academic subject, reducing times they get in trouble, or just getting to school on time more, students love to be able to track their growth over time. This also can lead to developing specific goals that the student work on throughout the course of the semester or year. It leads to lots of deep conversation about making positive changes and how goals can be accomplished.
5. Hide your frustrations. We all get frustrated with students sometimes! When that happens, take a breath and walk away. Kids really need more positivity in their lives. By showing our frustrations, we are just making kids feel poorly about themselves instead of helping them reach their individual potentials.
6. Collaborate with specialists. If you’re having continued issues in your class with a specific student or set of behaviors, reach out to the school counselor, social worker, psychologist, behaviorist, or anyone else who might have ideas. Chances are that a colleague will have specific strategies that you can implement in your classroom right away to work on whatever you are dealing with. Also, if a counselor or social worker needs to work with your student during your time, try to be understanding of this. You are both working on the same goals together.
7. Avoid power struggles. Growing kids and young adults often use power struggles as a way to test their limits. Some kids will use them more than others, though. For example, it’s the time when you tell a student to sit down and they cross their arms and look at you. So how can you avoid these power struggles? The first way is just to give directions politely! For students with behavioral or emotional challenges, a simple, “Let’s get ready to sit down in a minute,” goes a long way. Similarly, explaining your reasoning can help, too. You might say, “Can you sit down in a minute? I’m going to teach the rest of the lesson and it helps me if everyone is seated”. If you do happen to get in a power struggle, here is a winning phrase that can stop the battle right away: “Let’s talk about that later”. If you’re needing more ideas, get a list of over 50 free de-escalation strategies you can use today.
8. Provide structure and consistency. Many kids and young adults who struggle with social emotional challenges truly thrive on a great deal of structure. That structure might look different in every classroom or setting. It’s important to be fair and maintain high expectations for everyone. Most critically, just be there in the child’s life every day. Never give up on even your most difficult student, no matter how challenging any given day, week, or year might be. Your constant belief in them is what they need to survive and thrive.
9. Research topics. If you’re feeling uncomfortable or unsure about how to approach or discuss certain topics, feel free to research and learn from experts in the area. Don’t be ashamed that you don’t understand a diagnosis or challenge a child is dealing with. Instead, use that question to help you learn and grow! As educators, we are always learning. In an ever-changing world, it’s more important now than ever to have the best research in front of us.
For more strategies and ready-to-use ideas, check out my social-emotional learning materials. Remember that as educators, we must support not only academic, but social and emotional needs, too. Most of all, know that educators have such an important role in helping to shape the lives of kids and young adults. The words we say and the actions we take impact students in such powerful ways.