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Evidence-Based Practices for Teaching Learners with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders  

Jessica Whitley

Students identified with emotional and behavioral disorders (E/BD) comprise a diverse group in terms of academic, social, emotional, and behavioral strengths and needs. Identification and diagnostic criteria and terminologies vary widely across and within many countries and school systems, resulting in a complex research base. Estimates of prevalence range from 4 to 15% of students meeting criteria for an emotional and/or behavioral disorder or difficulty. Approaches to teaching learners with E/BD have shifted since the turn of the 21st century from an individual, deficit-focused perspective to a more ecological framework where the environments interacting dynamically with the learner are considered. Research increasingly demonstrates the benefits of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) where the needs of most students can be met through universal preventative and whole-class approaches. Students who do not find success at the first level of supports receive increasingly specialized services including intensive, wraparound services that involve partners beyond school walls. MTSS are common across North America and beyond and are typically focused on externalizing behaviors; positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) is the most prevalent multi-tiered system currently being implemented. Since the mid-2000s, efforts have been made to focus on academic as well as behavioral goals for students, often through the inclusion of response-to-intervention approaches. Comprehensive strategies that combine academic and behavioral support while drawing on learner strengths and relationship-building are successfully being adopted in elementary and secondary settings. Approaches include social and emotional learning, mindfulness, peer-assisted learning, and a range of classroom-based instructional and assessment practices that support the academic, social, and emotional development of students with E/BD.


Exceptional Learners  

Daniel P. Hallahan, Paige C. Pullen, James M. Kauffman, and Jeanmarie Badar

Exceptional learners is the term used in the United States to refer to students with disabilities (as well as those who are gifted and talented). The majority of students with disabilities have cognitive and/or behavioral disabilities, that is, specific learning disability (SLD), intellectual disability (ID), emotional disturbance, (ED), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The remaining have primarily sensory and/or physical disabilities (e.g., blindness, deafness, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy). Many of the key research and policy issues pertaining to exceptional learners involve their definitions and identification. For example, prior to SLD being formally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education in the 1970s, its prevalence was estimated at approximately 2% to 3% of the school-age population. However, the prevalence of students identified for special education as SLD grew rapidly until by 1999 it reached 5.68% for ages 6 to 17 years. Since then, the numbers identified as SLD has declined slowly but steadily. One probable explanation for the decrease is that response to intervention has largely replaced IQ-achievement as the method of choice for identifying SLD. The term intellectual disability has largely replaced the classification of mental retardation. This change originated in the early 2000s because of the unfortunate growing popularity of using retard as a pejorative. Although ID used to be determined by a low IQ-test score, one must also have low adaptive behavior (such as daily living skills) to be diagnosed as ID. That is the likely reason why the prevalence of students with ID at under 1% is well below the estimated prevalence of 2.27% based solely on IQ scores two standard deviations (i.e., 70) below the norm of 100. There are two behavioral dimensions of ED: externalizing (including conduct disorder) and internalizing (anxiety and withdrawal) behaviors. Research evidence indicates that students with ED are underserved in public schools. Researchers have now confirmed ADHD as a bona fide neurologically based disability. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes three types of ADHD: (a) ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type; (b) ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type; and (c) ADHD, Combined Type. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes two types of ASD: social communication impairment and repetitive/restricted behaviors. The prevalence of ASD diagnosis has increased dramatically. Researchers point to three probable reasons for this increase: a greater awareness of ASD by the public and professionals; a more liberal set of criteria for diagnosing ASD, especially as it pertains to those who are higher functioning; and “diagnostic substitution”—persons being identified as having ASD who previously would have been diagnosed as mentally retarded or intellectually disabled. Instruction for exceptional children, referred to as “special education,” differs from what most (typical or average) children require. Research indicates that effective instruction for students with disabilities is individualized, explicit, systematic, and intensive. It differs with respect to size of group taught and amount of corrective feedback and reinforcement used. Also, from the student’s viewpoint, it is more predictable. In addition, each of these elements is on a continuum.


Social Emotional Learning and Inclusion in Schools  

Laura Sokal and Jennifer Katz

Inclusive classrooms provide new opportunities for group membership and creation of effective learning environments. In order to facilitate the success of inclusion as an approach and philosophy, it is important that all class members as well as their teachers develop the skills to understand one another, and to communicate and work together effectively. Social emotional learning (SEL) is aimed at developing these skills and is generally defined to involve processes by which individuals learn to understand and moderate their own feelings, understand the feelings of others, communicate, resolve conflicts effectively, respect others, and develop healthy relationships. These skills are important to both children with disabilities and to those without, in terms of overall social development, perceptions of belonging, and promotion of overall mental wellness, as well as mitigation of the development of mental illness. Research suggests that SEL programming has the potential to effectively enhance children’s academic, social, and relational outcomes. Moreover, teachers who teach SEL in their classrooms have also demonstrated positive outcomes. Despite these encouraging findings, implementation of SEL has been hampered by some limitations, including the lack of a consistent definition—a limitation that in turn affects research findings; lack of teacher education in SEL, which erodes confidence in the fidelity of implementation; and concerns that current SEL programs are not sensitive to cultural differences in communities. Together, the strengths and limitations of SEL illuminate several policy implications regarding the most advantageous ways for SEL to contribute to the success of inclusion in classrooms and schools.


Trauma-Informed Practice for Pre-service Teachers  

Carmel Hobbs, Dane Paulsen, and Jeff Thomas

Complex trauma experienced in childhood has detrimental impacts on the brain, learning and socio-moral development, the effects of which can last long into adulthood. A growing body of research emphasizes how all school teachers, regardless of the educational context, should expect to have students in their classroom who are affected by complex trauma. Teachers therefore require an understanding of how trauma affects their students, and a skillset that allows them to support and respond effectively to these students. However, multiple studies have found that teachers feel that they have not received sufficient training, and subsequently feel inadequately equipped to meet the needs of trauma-affected students in their classrooms. Although many Initial Teacher Education programs incorporate some curriculum on child maltreatment, this is typically focused on identifying and reporting child abuse, as opposed to how sustained and severe maltreatment can lead to complex trauma, which affects learning, and social development in students. Increasing understanding of how trauma affects the brain, and the implications this has for young people in school has continued to grow since the 1990s. This has contributed to a growing trend of multidisciplinary teams combining education and wellbeing models in schools to cater to the most vulnerable students in their respective communities. Students who have experienced trauma may appear to be deliberately misbehaving in the classroom, disengaged or disinterested in learning, and can struggle to develop skills that strengthen positive relationships with school staff and other students. Unsurprisingly, exposure to trauma impacts a young person’s academic performance, attendance, and likelihood of completion. It is clear that schools are important settings where the effects of trauma have a substantial impact on the lives of students, particularly when the effects of trauma are misunderstood. Nevertheless, schools have the potential to be one of the most powerful places for buffering the negative impacts of complex childhood trauma through their capacity to provide opportunities for all students to experience positive, trusting relationships, be cared for, and experience predictability, consistency and safety. A trauma-informed approach in school settings involves understanding how trauma affects students and provides a framework for responding to students rather than blaming them for their behavior. Trauma-informed practice is not an intervention, and it does not have an end point. It is a process, and a holistic way of working that involves understanding and attending to the specific needs of individuals with trauma-affected childhoods. Central to all trauma-informed approaches is the importance of strong, trusting, consistent and predictable relationships between an adult and a trauma-affected child. It is within this space that opportunities to repair dysregulated stress responses, and disruptive attachment styles can take place.


Well-Being and the Preparation of Teachers  

Josep Gustems-Carnicer and Caterina Calderon

Modern society has achieved levels of well-being linked to economic prosperity, better and more extended education, and greater life expectancy. For individuals, improvements in well-being impact positively on friendships and other social relationships, marriage, and work satisfaction. There is no doubt that the future of society depends in great measure on the teachers who work with future citizens. Unfortunately, too many teachers in developed countries suffer from chronic, work-related stress, which negatively affects their health, life satisfaction, vocation, and professional stability in the education system. Ensuring the well-being of teachers is essential to ensure that future generations of citizens receive the best help in their intellectual, emotional, and interpersonal growth. For teachers, certain personality traits can mitigate the effects of stress. Mindfulness and coping strategies can also help to minimize the negative effects of stress, but the most effective way to help student teachers deal with stress is to include specific programs throughout teacher education courses in universities. Starting university is traditionally considered to be a period characterized by many changes that can cause stress among students, such as separation from one’s family, entering the job market, negotiating the student workload, changing address, and attempting to make new friendships. In teacher education, universities are in a position both to improve their students’ lives and to give them information about how to negotiate future professional difficulties. Teacher education programs must maintain constant interest in enhancing the academic performance of the students, and their affective conditions must enrich the exercise and development of students’ virtues and strengths, at the same time as students are offered tools for their working future. The actions promoted to help students develop these virtues and strengths should be accompanied by an effective tutorial action plan, a psychological health service for students, activities to help students acquire self-awareness of character strengths, a mentoring plan, tutoring among students, teamwork, programs to develop coping strategies, the organization of educational material, discipline, full class control, programs to optimize students’ time management, guidance on negotiating the increasing levels of bureaucracy in education, creative exercises to compensate for the lack of resources, collective exercise (sports), artistic activities, programs of mindfulness, religious practice, and volunteer work. Education students need to have a university experience that provides them with numerous opportunities to develop values, competences, attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, an identity, and coping strategies that will help them to be better professionals, more conscientious citizens, and happier individuals.