Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2009

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Encouraging Social and Emotional Intelligence

By Ellen Notbohm

Would that there were a better way, but before a child receives services related to his learning difference through the public school system or other social service agencies, he or she is subjected to a barrage of evaluations that will include an intelligence quotient (IQ) test. This test of cognitive and verbal IQ is not standardized to any type of learning disability. Many parents, caregivers, and service providers will find the results to be a wildly inaccurate reflection of the actual abilities the child demonstrates in "real life."

This is only the beginning; throughout a child's education, he will be tested to gnat's eye on reading, writing, math, and other supposedly measurable gauges of his learning and growth. But it's likely that much less emphasis will be placed on his social and emotional intelligence. And social and emotional intelligence is very possibly a bigger determinant in a child's long-term success in life than cognitive intelligence. Many children with learning differences experience significant deficits in the skills embodied in what is called Theory of Mind: executive function (time management, planning, ability to focus and attend, memory management); critical thinking (sorting, comparing/contrasting, applying concepts, information, and ideas); and social pragmatics (ability to take the perspective of another person, initiate and sustain interactions, problem-solve interpersonal disagreements). Lack of these skills is more likely to get us fired from a job or evicted from an apartment than is an average IQ.

We've come a long way from just a few decades ago, when it was thought that many children with learning differences were "retarded." Now it is time to take the position that teaching social and emotional skills is as much a priority as is cognitive learning. We begin by defining the components of social-emotional intelligence:

Perspective-taking means being able to identify feelings in both himself and others, understanding and managing the link between his feelings and his words and actions, and experiencing empathy as both the ability to care about another and being able to demonstrate that caring in an appropriate manner.

Forming and sustaining relationships requires understanding the context of different relationships and recognizing that all relationships are matters of degree. It includes the skills needed to be able to learn and work as part of a group.

Managing feelings and moods, especially negative ones, means being able to deal with anger, jealousy, grief, hatred, embarrassment, resentment, boredom, or fear proactively, and learning to recognize and control impulsivity.

Opportunities to teach children to develop social and emotional intelligence are all around, all the time. They come from our own personal experiences and from the events that unfold in our community and the world at large. They can be gleaned from stories and books we read and from movies, TV shows, and commercials. It is never too soon to start; in fact, teaching social competence from as early an age as possible is imperative. There are many ways to weave social-emotional awareness into everyday life in a manner that is natural and doesn't come off as "instruction." It starts with our own commitment to being a positive role model. Modeling empathy, friendship, and anger management through your own behavior gives the child something concrete to emulate.

Talk about feelings in your daily life by telling him how you feel and asking how he feels. Ask him how he thinks others might feel in given situations. Talk about how facial expressions and body language convey feelings, and call attention to these kinds of communications when they occur, both in his daily routine and in television or movies.

Help him build a vocabulary of words describing emotions and feelings so he can not only recognize those feelings in others, but also advocate for himself. When your child tells you he is feeling bad, probe deeper. He's taken a great first step in self-advocacy, but it is even more helpful if he can tell you that "bad" means confused, angry, hungry, frustrated, physically unwell, sad, or anxious.

Acknowledge and reward progress and effort, however small the increment. Tell him, "I like how you let Evan go first," even if he did it under duress and complained for a full 10 minutes without taking a breath.

Offer more than just discussion by looking for graphic materials that promote social competence. These might include computer games, board games, DVDs, books, or children's museum exhibits. Being able to come back to the material again and again, having it be the same each time, and being able to keep it in front of him for as long as he needs to study it can enhance learning.

Encourage your child or student to keep a feelings journal, even if he isn't writing yet. He can dictate to you, talk into a recording device, or even just paste facial expression stickers on a blank calendar. One sentence or drawing a day, or even a few times a week, is enough to start. Part of the journal might be a running list of people, places, and activities that inspire positive emotions in him. He might also include a list of people, places, and activities that provoke negative emotions in him. This list can be a good starting point for a discussion of how to avoid or cope with troubling people or situations.

Incorporate a focus on giving compliments into everyday life at home or in the classroom. Provide a bulletin board or large jar where classmates or family members can offer compliments. Set time aside each classroom day to read and applaud the comments. Many educators and psychologists today advocate an 8-to-1 praise-to-criticize ratio as necessary for encouraging children to change a behavior. Impose an informal praise quota on yourself, and if you find yourself criticizing more than you compliment, try to shift your focus. Actively looking for things about the child to compliment will only increase your awareness of all that is admirable in him, despite his struggles.

And finally, remember that the most important tool you can give a child in the long process of learning empathy and self-regulation is strong, stable relationships with the key adults in his life. His needs can seem like a vice of minute-by-minute management: engineering the strict structure he needs, visiting professionals whose expertise we need, and monitoring our own need to feel that we are doing enough. Structure, professional help, and self-evaluation are necessary, but not to a slavish degree. Do you live by the clock? If so, it's important to take a step back and reflect upon how this child learns and grows. Yes, he learns by doing--but long before he can do that, he learns and responds to his environment in the context of how it feels to him. We all know from personal experience that emotions can and do sometimes overtake logical thought or action. All the education and therapy we layer on a child will not make a difference if the key adults in his life are not there emotionally. The five most important words you can say to him: "I am here for you." In the midst of all that doing for him, make time for just being with him.

© 2009 Ellen Notbohm

This article was adapted from the book
Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew (2006, Future Horizons, Inc.) by Ellen Notbohm. Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of four award-winning books on autism, including the acclaimed Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. For book excerpts, to learn more, or to contact Ellen, visit www.ellennotbohm.com.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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