The world is faced with a growing public health crisis among young people—an epidemic of loneliness where the quest to belong and feel connected to their school communities seems elusive. Young people with intellectual disabilities (ID), one of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations globally, have been hit particularly hard.
Despite progress over recent years, too many of the world’s estimated 250 million people with intellectual disabilities continue to face unimaginable stigma and isolation, where they are shut away and hidden. In many parts of the world, young people with Down syndrome or autism are unlikely to ever set foot in a school, a foundational gateway to forming healthy relationships and developing a sense of belonging, confidence, and self-worth. Without intervention, this group is at risk of being left behind and further isolated from society.
As educators attempt to triage the many challenges faced by young people in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, they should consider prioritizing the principles and promise of social inclusion—improving the terms on which students can develop a sense of belonging and connectedness to their school community. For students with disabilities, this isn’t just about creating physical infrastructure, like wheelchair ramps or special signage. It’s about creating social infrastructure—social activities, clubs, and competitions—that bring people together and create truly inclusive attitudes and mindsets.
Social and emotional learning (SEL)—the process through which young people learn to manage feelings, set goals, make decisions, and feel empathy for others—is arguably the best pathway to achieve social inclusion in school settings. The science behind the benefits of SEL is clear. Drawing from psychology, economics, medicine, and brain and learning science, the research shows social and emotional skills predict academic and career success and improve cognitive skills, including creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Developing certain social and emotional skills in children can help counteract the negative effects of poverty and close opportunity and achievement gaps. Beyond cognitive development and academic outcomes, the OECD’s Survey of Social and Emotional Skills found SEL benefits are important drivers of mental health and labor market prospects. Building SEL competency is especially crucial for students with ID who learn to manage their emotions, increase self-efficiency, and build stable relationships.
SEL and social inclusion are a natural pairing. When SEL is prioritized, students feel a greater sense of belonging and connectedness to their school communities. Research shows when SEL programs include students with ID, all students benefit. Schools see decreased bullying, more trusting relationships with teachers and staff, improved peer-to-peer relationships, and students who are more helpful and empathetic toward students with ID. Ultimately, utilizing SEL to promote social inclusion supports the educational outcomes that governments have set out to achieve. Critically, graduation rates and grades also increase. Inclusive learning environments help all students.
These findings are affirmed by what Special Olympics sees in its own programs incorporating SEL, Unified Champion Schools, with consistent results across diverse cultural contexts and geographies spanning China, Greece, India, Kenya, and the US, among other countries.
The theory of change behind our Unified Champion Schools program is that shared experiences between youth with and without intellectual disabilities foster inclusive mindsets and behaviors—creating school climates where students with disabilities feel welcome and are routinely included in all activities, opportunities, and functions. What we see is that when we foster inclusion and nurture the social and emotional learning of all students, we equip students with minds and hearts that choose to include and embrace despite differences, creating a ripple effect in the school climate for learning.
Solving the mental health crisis among our youth is not a simple fix. But having our schools prioritize social inclusion—true inclusion for all—and social and emotional learning is an essential part of the solution.
Dr. Jacqueline Jodl is the chief education officer of Special Olympics.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.