Social, Emotional and Behavioral Challenges
When schools fail to provide enough support for students, the social, emotional and behavioral challenges that often come along with learning and attention issues can lead to serious consequences. These include social isolation, disproportionate disciplinary rates and an increased likelihood of skipping school, dropping out and becoming involved with the criminal justice system.
“When the teacher would ask me, ‘Lena, read this,’ or if I saw a word on a paper that I didn’t know, I would make some type of big joke or be rude to the teacher. I got suspended a lot. I would act this way to take the pressure off of myself. No one ever knew that I was really hurting. I dropped out at 15.”—Lena McKnight, college student and youth advocate in New York City
1. Students with learning and attention issues often experience feelings of failure, lack of acceptance among their peers and high levels of bullying, which can increase the risk of misbehavior and absenteeism.
Negative emotions can exacerbate academic struggles, and school climate can also be a significant factor. When students don’t feel a sense of safety or belonging, they are less likely to attend school and are more likely to engage in negative behavior.
Studies show that dyslexia^—which is the most common and most studied learning disability^—increases the risk of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and peer rejection.1 It’s unclear whether social-emotional difficulties are caused by the same deficits that affect information processing or if these difficulties arise as a consequence of the stress of repeated failure.2
New research on bullying underscores the importance of addressing the social and emotional needs of students with disabilities. One study found that when students with disabilities are bullied, they are more likely to respond aggressively—not only to their bullies but to other children as well.4
Another study looked at bullying rates from grade school through high school and found that the bullying rates for students with disabilities remained consistently higher than the rates for students who were not identified with disabilities.5
Students with other health impairments (OHI)—many of whom have ADHD—are 43% more likely than students without disabilities to experience high levels of being bullied.3
—Chad Rose, Ph.D.,
Assistant professor, University of Missouri College of Education
2. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities, and the loss of instructional time increases the risk of repeating a grade and dropping out.
Of the 2.8 million K–12 students who received out-of-school suspensions in 2013–2014, 700,000 had Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)6. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of total disciplinary removals among students with IEPs involved students with SLD or OHI.
The disproportionate rates of out-of-school suspension increase dramatically for students of color who have disabilities. As shown in the chart below, 1 in 4 black males with IEPs received out of school suspensions in 2013-2014 compared to 1 in 10 white males with IEPs.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides protections for students with disabilities by setting specific rules about discipline that schools must follow. For example, if a student is suspended for a total of more than 10 days in one school year, the school must provide special education services to allow the student to make progress on his or her IEP goals.
Schools are also prohibited from suspending students with IEPs for behavior that their IEP team determines is a manifestation of their disability. However, the disproportionate suspension rates suggest that schools may be overlooking disability-connected behaviors.7
Studies indicate that many suspensions are made at the discretion of school administrators. A landmark study in Texas followed more than 900,000 seventh graders over a six-year period and found that the vast majority—97%—of disciplinary actions were made at the discretion of school officials.9 The Texas study also found that students who got suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation were nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year. (The school-to-prison pipeline is discussed in detail later in this chapter.)
Large percentages of discretionary removals have also been reported in places like California and New York City for disruptive but nonviolent behavior.10
Because suspensions don’t just impose short-term punishment but can also carry serious, detrimental and long-term consequences, including increased risk of repeating a grade and dropping out,12 it is essential for educators to understand more about learning and attention issues, correctly identify when behavior is a manifestation of a student’s disability and develop alternative forms of discipline.
3. Over 1 million students with IEPs miss three or more weeks of school a year, which can affect academic achievement—and increase the risk of dropping out.
Nearly 1 in 5 students (19%) with IEPs miss three or more weeks of school each year, compared to about 1 in 8 students (13%) without IEPs. Altogether, chronically absent students missed about 98 million school days in 2013–2014.13
There are many reasons why some children miss several weeks of school each year. These reasons include illness, unstable housing and transportation problems. For students with learning and attention issues, the reasons may also include academic struggles, bullying and disengagement with school.
When struggling students develop an aversion to school, they may seek relief by staying home. These absences can be an early sign to parents and teachers that a child may have unidentified learning and attention issues.
Some parents may allow students to stay home occasionally. A day or two each month may not seem significant to families, but the cumulative effect can have a major impact on academic achievement.
Researchers have studied how school attendance affects NAEP scores.14 For example, fourth graders who missed three or more days in the month prior to the assessment scored an average of 12 points lower in reading than peers with no absences—a difference that translates into more than a full grade level on the NAEP achievement scale. In eighth grade, students with poor attendance scored an average of 18 points lower on the math assessment.
Researchers have also noted that chronic absenteeism tends to spike in kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade. These are years when many students are transitioning to new schools and may be struggling to adjust.
Absenteeism is also strongly linked to dropout rates. A statewide study in Utah found that students who were chronically absent in any year, starting in 8th grade, were 7.4 times more likely to drop out than students who were never chronically absent.15
—Robert Balfanz, Ph.D.,
Research professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Education
4. The dropout rate for students with learning disabilities is nearly three times the rate for all students.
205Average number of students with SLD that year who dropped out each school day nationwide
Nationwide, 18.1% of students with SLD and 17.6% of students with OHI dropped out in 2013–2014, compared to 6.5% of all students.16 Only one other category of students—those with emotional disturbance—experience a higher dropout rate.
In January 2017, dropout data were released for most states for students with disabilities in 2014–2015. (SLD data for eight states and OHI data for ten states were withheld due to questions about the data.) The dropout rate that year was 25% or higher in 12 states for students with SLD and in 13 states for students with OHI. The highest dropout rates were in South Carolina for students with SLD (33%) and in Utah for students with OHI (40%).
Although the dropout rates for students with SLD and OHI have decreased over the last decade, these rates remain unacceptably high.
Over the last decade, nearly half a million students with SLD have left school without a diploma, placing them at high risk for poor outcomes such as unemployment, underemployment, and involvement with the criminal justice system.
There are many factors that can influence a student’s decision to drop out. These include:
- Lack of appropriate instruction or being taught in a way that doesn’t enable a student to learn
- School climate such as bullying or inadequate resources for instruction and support
- Low expectations for student success
- Student behavior such as chronic absenteeism
- Family issues such as lack of parent involvement and limited access to medical and mental health services
- Community stressors such as high crime and lack of support for school activities
In the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2), more than half of students with disabilities reported failing one or more courses before leaving high school.17 The failure rates were highest for students with SLD (61%), OHI (64%) and emotional disturbance (69%).18 But when asked why they dropped out, the most common reason students with SLD gave was that they did not like school.
To reduce the dropout rate for students with learning and attention issues, schools need to focus on improving school climate as well as addressing instructional needs.
More research is also needed on credit recovery programs—including online credit recovery programs—that aim to reduce dropouts. Accelerated credit recovery may appeal to students who are bored by or dislike school or who feel they’re so far behind they can’t catch up. But little is known about how effective these programs are for students with learning and attention issues.
5. Failure to address learning and attention issues too often leads to students being incarcerated, which further disrupts their education and contributes to high dropout and recidivism rates.
Some studies indicate a third or more of incarcerated youth have learning disabilities.19 An even greater proportion may show signs of ADHD^.20 These and other data have led some advocates to estimate as many as half of incarcerated youth may have learning and attention issues.
A large-scale longitudinal study of youth with disabilities found that 55% of young adults with SLD had been involved at some point with the justice system for reasons other than a minor traffic violation.21 This compares to about 30% of all young adults.22
Involvement with the justice system further disrupts the education of struggling students and decreases the likelihood that they will graduate from high school or college.23
There are many compounding factors that can lead struggling students to get involved with the juvenile justice system. For example, ADHD can involve trouble with impulse control or difficulty thinking about consequences before making a decision. Students with learning and attention issues may also be grappling with bullying, lack of appropriate instruction, or other aspects of an unsupportive school climate. And educators might not be prepared to address the social, emotional and behavioral challenges these students face.
1. Many schools are incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL), but it needs to be tailored to help students with learning and attention issues.
Grit, resilience and a “growth mindset”—the belief that a child’s ability and intelligence can be improved by working hard and not giving up—are at the forefront of many education policy discussions as new research points to social and emotional skills as a core element of student success.
In recent years, schools across the country have begun experimenting with programs that focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), with promising early findings. For example, in 2011, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) partnered with eight large school districts across the country that together educate about 1 million students a year—and thus far the data indicate that SEL instruction is leading to more positive social behaviors, less emotional distress, fewer suspensions and disciplinary incidents, increases in school attendance and improved test scores and grades.25
In 2012, Kansas became the first state to integrate social, emotional and character development into a single, seamless set of standards for K–12 education.26
In 2015, SEL received a nationwide boost when ESSA’s accountability requirements (which require schools to use at least four academic indicators) included an additional indicator that will be chosen by states and that may focus on school climate or some other measure that addresses the social, emotional or behavioral success of students.
Because ESSA allows states to choose an additional indicator, there is a clear opportunity for states to help develop positive environments that engage all learners. SEL’s emphasis on self-awareness and self-management can work alongside the positive behavioral interventions and supports^ (PBIS) framework, which focuses on managing behavior and is already being used successfully in many schools.
However, because SEL programs require the use of skills that students with learning and attention issues often struggle with, schools need to provide targeted supports to help these students fully participate in SEL curricula. For example, schools should:
- Help students with learning and attention issues understand how they learn and what kinds of assistance or accommodations^ they need to succeed
- Guide students who may struggle with impulsivity or executive functioning issues through the process of self-reflection and help them to build social-emotional skills
- Use Universal Design for Learning^ (UDL) to ensure all students—and especially those with learning and attention issues—have access to and can engage in SEL curricula
- Ensure that educators using SEL curricula understand the signs of learning and attention issues and the associated struggles students with these issues face, including anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and failure, or lack of interest in school
- Understand their strengths and needs
- Manage their emotions and persevere through challenges
- Think about others and empathize
- Work in teams and resolve conflicts
- Make responsible choices
—Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Ed.D.,
Executive director and chief scientist at EdTogether, and adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
2. New IDEA regulations aim to reduce disproportionate disciplinary rates among students of color with disabilities.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) issued “Equity in IDEA” regulations that are designed to help address racial and ethnic disparities in special education, including the disproportionate rates of identification, more restrictive placement, and use of discipline for minority students with disabilities.27
The Equity in IDEA regulations:
- Require states, for the first time, to use a standard approach to comparing racial and ethnic groups
- Require districts to identify and address the root causes of the disproportionality
- Allow districts to use funding—which had been reserved for at-risk general education students—to address significant disproportionalities among special education students
The regulations are a step toward more uniform data collection and identification of districts that might be unfairly disciplining certain groups of students. The funding provision is also key. It gives districts greater flexibility to address the problem, as they may now use some of their 15% set-aside of IDEA, Part B funds—which had previously been reserved for comprehensive coordinated early intervening services (CEIS) for at-risk general education students—to fund services and supports for students with IEPs.
- Classroom management strategies that provide effective behavioral supports
- Schoolwide efforts to create safe, supportive learning environments
- Manifestation determinations, which affect how students with disabilities are disciplined
—Daniel Losen, J.D., M.Ed.,
Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA
3. Early warning systems use data to identify students at risk of dropping out and provide more effective interventions.
Many states and districts are using data to help identify students early in high school or even middle school who are at risk of not graduating on time. These early warning systems commonly involve three dropout indicators:
- Attendance: Chronic absenteeism can be a sign of learning and attention issues or of other issues that are distracting students or making them not want to go to school.
- Behavior incidents: Students who get suspended even once in sixth grade are less likely to graduate on time.28
- Coursework: Low grades could be a sign of unidentified or inadequately supported learning and attention issues, disengagement with school or a combination of these.
A division of USED recently issued a practitioner’s guide on implementing early warning systems. The guide includes details, noted in the table below, on how to use the response to intervention^ (RTI) framework to help design and assess interventions to reduce the number of students who drop out.29
Using Early Warning Systems and RTI to Keep Students on the Path to Graduation
(15–20% of students)
Source: Mac Iver & Mac Iver, 2009, p. 23
Improving school attendance can help students make academic gains. When Chicago and New York City focused on reducing chronic absenteeism, both districts experienced increases in graduation rates. Several studies on the early grades of school suggest that children who arrived with the weakest skills and attended regularly saw outsized gains in achievement.30
These findings also reinforce the importance of recognizing early signs of struggle and providing students with learning and attention issues the targeted instruction and support they need to keep from falling behind.
4. Continued efforts are under way to end the school-to-prison pipeline.
To help prevent children and young adults with disabilities from becoming involved with the criminal justice system, collaboration among schools, medical and mental health professionals, and judges is critical to identifying and addressing the factors that may lead to delinquency.
Educating judges about learning disabilities, ADHD and related disorders is particularly important in states where young offenders can be placed in programs instead of in custody. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has identified practices for juvenile courts to follow when working with youth with learning disabilities.31 These include:
- Understanding the laws (like IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act) and procedures that protect individuals with disabilities
- Recognizing the signs that a student may need an evaluation or reevaluation for special education
- Finding out if the school has been implementing the student’s IEP and providing appropriate services
- For minor offenses, diverting students away from confinement and toward community-based services and supports
- Collaborating with the school district to ensure that IEP services continue during and after justice involvement
Diversion programs may be especially helpful for students with learning and attention issues who are already struggling academically, socially and emotionally. By maintaining a connection to family, friends and other caring adults, and by avoiding the “label” that comes with incarceration, diversion programs can help youth receive the supports and services they need to prevent future delinquency.32
Research shows that the trends toward incarceration are reversible. Many promising programs have been implemented, but not at scale. In Washington’s King County, for example, one judge became aware of the prevalence of learning disabilities and ADHD among incarcerated youth. The judge worked with the Learning Disabilities Association of Washington to design a program to educate offenders about their disability and help them develop coping strategies. Over a 15-year period, the program helped reduce recidivism by 43%.33
The Department of Justice (DOJ) also has begun initiatives to improve education for incarcerated youth, including those with disabilities. In 2014, DOJ and USED issued a four-part guidance package that included a guidance letter making it clear that, with very few exceptions, all protections under IDEA apply to students in correctional facilities.34
In November 2016, DOJ announced plans to build a semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system. Among other offerings, it will include programs for literacy and expanded opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities.35
For a full discussion of how to address the challenges and opportunities discussed in this chapter, see NCLD’s Recommended Policy Changes.
Eye to Eye Mentors Focus on Social and Emotional Learning for the 1 in 5
Eye to Eye runs a unique program that offers mentoring for and by students with learning and attention issues. The nonprofit, which has trained high school and college students to mentor middle-schoolers in more than 120 schools across the country, promotes social and emotional learning (SEL) by developing students’ self-esteem, self-advocacy and metacognition—helping them understand how they think and learn.
The brainLENS laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco recently partnered with Eye to Eye to study the effect that one-on-one mentoring, with a focus on SEL, has on children with learning disabilities. During the study’s pilot year, researchers assessed social and emotional skills before and after Eye to Eye’s mentoring program and found positive, statistically significant increases in several areas including self-esteem and grit.
Trained Eye to Eye mentors deliver a weekly art-based curriculum to promote SEL, and of the many hands-on projects, a sixth grader said: “My favorite was ‘The Ball of Awesome.’ On one side, we wrote what we struggle with. On the other side, we wrote what we’re great at. There are so many things I am great at. The things I struggle with ended up being only a tiny sliver.”
1. Haft, S. L., Myers, C. A., & Hoeft, F., (2016). Preventing bullying through science, policy, and practice. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23482.
4. Rose, C. A., Simpson, C. G., & Preast, J. L. (2016). Exploring psychosocial predictors of bullying involvement for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 37(5), 308-317. doi: 10.1177/0741932516629219.
5. Rose, C. & Gage, N., (2016). Exploring the involvement of bullying among students with disabilities over time. Exceptional Children.
6. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (2016, October 28). 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look.
7. Losen, D. J., Hodson, C., Ee, J., & Martinez, T. E. (2014). Disturbing inequities: Exploring the relationship between racial disparities in special education identification and discipline. Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk, 5(2), Article 15.
8. Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P., & Booth, E. A. (2011). Breaking school rules: Statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.
10. Nelson, L. & Lind, D. (2015, February 24). The school to prison pipeline, explained. Justice Policy Institute.
11. Swenson, S. & Ryder, R. (2016, August 1). Dear Colleague Letter: Ensuring Equity and Providing Behavioral Supports to Students with Disabilities. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
12. Marchbanks, M. P., Blake, J. J., Smith, D., Seibert, A. L., & Carmichael, D. (2014). More than a drop in the bucket: The social and economic costs of dropouts and grade retentions associated with exclusionary discipline. Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk, 5(2), Article 17.
13. U.S. Department of Education (2016, October 27). Chronic absenteeism in the nation’s schools: An unprecedented look at a hidden educational crisis.
14. Ginsburg, A., Jordan, P., & Chang, H. (2014). Absences add up: How school attendance influences student success. Attendance Works.
15. Utah Education Policy Center (2012). Research brief: Chronic absenteeism. The University of Utah.
16. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (2016, October). 38th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC.; National Center for Education Statistics, Institute for Education Sciences. (2015). Percentage of high school dropouts among persons 16 to 24 years old (status dropout rate), by sex and race/ethnicity: Selected years, 1960 through 2014.
17. National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (2009). Percentage failing one or more courses, by academic subject. Raw data.
19. Mizrahi, J. L., Jeffers, J., Ellis, E. B., & Pauli, P. (2016). Disability and criminal justice reform: Keys to Success. Rockville, MD: RespectAbility.
20. Sedlak, A.J. & McPherson, K. (2010). Survey of youth in residential placement: Youth’s needs and services. SYRP Report. Rockville, MD: Westat.
21. Newman, L., Wagner, M., Knokey, A., Marder, C., Nagle, K. Shaver, D., & Wei, X. (2011). The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities up to 8 Years After High School: A Report From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3005). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
22. Brame, R., Turner, M. G., Paternoster, R., & Bushway, S. D. (2011). Cumulative prevalence of arrest from ages 8 to 23 in a national sample. Pediatrics, December 2011.
23. Aizer, A., & Doyle, J. J. (2013). Juvenile incarceration, human capital and future crime: Evidence from randomly-assigned judges. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 19102.
24. King, J. B. (2016, December 2). Dear Colleague Letter: Juvenile Justice Transition Guidance. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
25. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicky, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.
26. Kansas State Department of Education (2017). Social, Emotional and Character Development..
27. U.S. Department of Education (2016, December 12). Fact sheet: Equity in IDEA.
28. Balfanz, R., Herzog, L., Mac Iver, D. J. (2007). Preventing student disengagement and keeping students on the graduation path in urban middle-grades schools: Early identification and effective interventions. Educational Psychologist, 42(4), 223-235.
29. Frazelle, S. & Nagel, A. (2015). A practitioner’s guide to implementing early warning systems. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest.
30. Ginsburg, A., Jordan, P., & Chang, H. (2014). Absences add up: How school attendance influences student success. Attendance Works.
31. Mallett, C. A. (2011). Seven things juvenile courts should know about learning disabilities. Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
32.Youth.gov (no date). Diversion programs.
33. Admire, D. S. (2006). Learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder: A new approach for the criminal justice system. Forum on Public Policy.
34. U.S. Department of Education (2015, January 07). Correctional education in juvenile justice facilities.
35. U.S. Department of Justice (2016, November 30). Justice Department announces reforms at Bureau of Prisons to reduce recidivism and promote inmate rehabilitation.
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