For students with special needs, social skills are as important as math and reading

Inspired by her ongoing journey to get her son the education she wanted for him, Lia Martin became an advocate for parents of kids with disabilities.

Kim McCann Fultz moved from Brooklyn to a small town in rural Ohio in hopes that the new setting would be beneficial to her son Micah’s learning and social life, and to be closer to family. But Kim and Micah aren’t yet satisfied with his progress.

In their monthly parent’s support group, and beyond, Lia and Kim regularly discuss the joys and challenges of raising kids with disabilities and support each other in their advocacy work. We joined in on one of these conversations to get their take on the importance of holding students to high standards—academically, as well as social-emotionally.

The two moms were interviewed by TNTP staff.

TNTP: As mothers of children with special needs, you’ve both expressed how important it is for you to understand the expectations for your sons in school—as well as how they’re supported to meet those expectations. Can you talk a little bit about why that matters?

Lia: I’ve wanted an excellent education for my son from the moment he was born, but when he entered kindergarten, and I learned he had special needs, it became even more important for me to be able to say, with confidence, that he’s doing well. It’s been tough making sure he’s held to high standards, and I’ve had to go to great lengths—selling my home and quitting my job—to make sure that happens.

Success looks different for different kids. And for Taylor, making sure he’s thriving goes far beyond what’s going on in a single math or English classroom. For example, he tends to connect with two-dimensional art and loves drawing. We’ve used that in the classroom—allowing him to sketch during lessons—because he’s actually more engaged when he’s doing art. This sort of thing—helping our kids learn what they need to do to focus and be productive members of society—is so important. When we gave Taylor the option to draw in class, we weren’t just making it easier for him to do his assignments, we helped him learn a skill that could help him for the rest of his life. Now, he’s better able to focus in any situation, inside or outside of school.

Kim: On the first day of school when most parents are excited for their children to have more structure, I worry. My son is going to be in fifth grade this year at the same small school he’s attended since kindergarten—everyone knows him, which helps. I’ve had a different journey than Lia, but our stories have a lot in common; every year it’s a struggle to make sure he’s learning what he should be, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Academic standards have made it easier for me by giving me a better idea of what a “good education” looks like. But, as Lia said, it’s not just about academic standards—it’s also about thinking creatively and prioritizing emotional learning and life skills, too.

TNTP: So, standards have helped you both measure your kids’ academic progress. How do you know when they’re doing well when it comes to their social-emotional development?

Kim: I think a lot about whether or not Micah is making friends—that part is so important because in my experience if kids don’t feel connected with their peers it’s difficult for them to thrive in any subject. There aren’t the same sorts of assessments testing students’ emotional readiness as there are testing academics, and social-emotional learning doesn’t show up on a report card—so it’s harder for us to be sure our kids are on-track in that area. 

Lia: Taylor is going to middle school soon. Yes, I want him to have the academic knowledge he needs to do well, but it’s just as important to me that he has a prom date—and prom dates aren’t written into any state standards I know of. I’m not saying they should be, but we need to start thinking more about social-emotional standards for all kids, especially those with special needs.  

One year, I put him in a supplemental academic program at the local college, to work on his reading. It did help, but he really wanted to be part of the after-school program at his school where he could hang out with friends. It would be great to have the same type of support with social-emotional learning that we do with academics—it would make the puzzle easier to manage.  

TNTP: Can you tell me about a time when your sons have been supported to grow socially in school?

Kim: The principal at my son’s school, he’s very hands-on; he’s always around the hallways and visits classrooms every day. He gives out these “Caught Being Good by the Principal’ awards to kids he sees doing something nice—all kids, not just those in special education. At the end of the week, the names of kids caught being good are announced over the loud speaker, and the kids go down to the principal’s office to get certificates and prizes.

Last year, during the first week of school, my son got caught being good. It set the perfect tone for the school year; everyone knew his name, and his first trip to the principal’s office was a celebration. He was so proud of what he’d accomplished, and it made the transition into the school year much easier.

Lia: Taylor happens to be motivated by prizes. He was having trouble staying in his language arts classroom, and his teacher came up with a game where the whole class would win a prize if Taylor stayed in his seat. Taylor got to decide the prize—he chose a pizza party—and how long he had to stay in his seat to get points for that day.

I also thought it was really smart and empathetic of the teacher to get the whole class involved. I know some parents don’t want their kids to stand out, but Taylor was already standing out, and he likes standing out, so it worked for him. If he was getting antsy, one of his classmates—because they wanted to win too—would say, “Hey, Taylor. What do you need?” It ended up being a great team building activity for the class. Taylor and everyone else got so excited about it that they won the party. His grades and behavior also improved—and he made some new friends.  

TNTP: You mentioned inclusivity. Can you talk more about that?

Lia: Inclusivity matters so much to me. At the end of the day, what social-emotional learning means to me is that Taylor is able to feel a sense of community; that he feels included. The skills he learns in class with friends will be useful for the rest of his life. He may not acquire these skills as quickly as his peers, but he won’t acquire them at all if he isn’t given the opportunity to make friends—with all types of students. By being around kids who already have certain social-emotional skills, Taylor is able to learn and practice these skills. And by spending time with Taylor, other kids improve their social skills, too.

Kim: I completely agree, Lia. The flip side of that, of course, is when our kids aren’t included, it’s a matter of civil rights—this part is really heartbreaking to me. When Micah’s needs aren’t being met in the classroom, it’s against the law, and I believe it’s my responsibility to hold our leaders accountable.


A longer version of this piece appeared on the TNTP blog.

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TNTP Editorial staff

TNTP Editorial staff

The editorial staff creates a variety of pieces for the TNTP blog, which shares ideas, research and opinion about how to support great teaching and create vibrant classrooms.

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