Reading Support for Students Who Struggle with Social/Emotional Skills

Often I work with students who struggle with regulating their emotions and with being socially appropriate. Students who have weak social/emotional skills will sometimes start to lag behind their peers academically because their behavior impedes their ability to learn. It is vital that these students receive support to help them develop appropriate behavioral skills.  Although we are the child’s reading teacher our job won’t only be to teach the child how to read.  Without careful attention and sensitivity to the child’s emotional well-being, we will find it difficult to accelerate their progress.

Along the way, I have worked with students who:

  • hid under tables when I came to pick them up
  • threw their materials when they came to an unknown word in reading/writing
  • cried and/or refused to write
  • yelled that they don’t want to read/write

Do these behaviors sound familiar to you?  I have grown through the years in my ability to work through these behaviors with students.  I have found some strategies that not only help with these tricky behaviors but also help students to feel intrinsically motivated to read and write.

Make Things EASY

When starting out with these students make everything easy, so that they can feel successful and confident. Easy doesn’t mean that they don’t have to do any work. It means that we are sure that whatever we are asking them to do they can do it.  When a student is feeling frustrated or angry they are not going to be able to learn.  As we increase text levels or expectations we want to make sure that we’re staying within the zone of proximal development and not making things too hard.


Give Specific Praise

We should provide specific praise not just for desired reading and writing behaviors, but also for desired behavioral progress. You might say,

  • “Wow! You tried that word all on your own without even getting upset!”
  • “I’m so excited that you came right with me for reading today! Give me 5!!”
  • “Fantastic! You stayed calm during writing today even though you felt like it might be hard.”

All of these types of reinforcement can lead the child to a feeling of pride over his accomplishment which in turn creates intrinsic motivation.  This child now thinks, “I can do it!”

Take a Deep Breath and Stay Calm

When a student’s behavior is starting to escalate it helps to become aware of your current state of mind.

  • Is your heart rate accelerating?
  • Are you shaking?
  • Are you breathing more rapidly?

Think about how you feel in that moment. Are you feeling scared, angry, frustrated? Once you have cataloged how you are feeling physically and mentally try your hardest not to be reactive. Instead, take a deep breath and try your best to stay calm. Let the student know you care about them by reflecting their feelings. “You look like you’re upset.” Listen carefully and openly to what the child has to say.  You may choose to stay quiet and give the child space.  This does take time out of your lesson but think about the alternative. What will happen if we get angry and demand that the student complies? Most likely the behavior will escalate, the learning will still not happen, and the lesson might end on a bad note damaging your relationship with the child. If you would like to read more about focusing on empathy and positive reframing read The Danish Way of Parenting:  Not Just for Parents.

Don’t Take it Personally

When you go through all of this work to build a relationship, show the child you care, spend lots of time creating engaging lessons it can be hard not to take the child’s behavior personally. You might wonder why the student is not showing you that they care about you and your feelings. The problem is that they have not developed the skills they need to handle upsets appropriately. They are handling their feelings the only way they know how to.   So, it really has nothing to do with them not caring about us.  The best things we can do is model back for the student the appropriate responses to a stressful situation. If we get upset and speak rudely or yell at a student then we are sending the child the message that it is okay to behave like that when we get upset.

Build a Strong Rapport

Relationship building is key with these students. They need to know that you genuinely care about their feelings, interests, and their overall well-being. I spend the first few lessons getting to know my students and I also let them get to know me.   My students love to see pictures of my dog and will often ask me questions about my own children.

If you would like to read more about this topic one of my favorite resources is Carol Lyon’s book Teaching Struggling Readers:  How to Use Brain-Based Research to Maximize Learning.  Turn right to chapter 5:  Teaching Reluctant Unmotivated Students.   This is an area that I’m frequently reading about and trying to grow in my understanding.  It is the most rewarding feeling to change a student’s perceptions about reading, writing and learning in general. Your heart will warm when the student that initially hid under the desk when they saw you now gives you a big smile when you come to get them for their reading time.


One thought on “Reading Support for Students Who Struggle with Social/Emotional Skills

  1. Pingback: Optimizing Literacy Instruction for our Special Education Students: Part 2 – Literacy Pages

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