Social-Emotional Learning for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children

Subject: Education
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Early development of social and emotional skills is key to success in life. Socio-emotional competence comprises several major characteristics. First, a socially and emotionally competent person possesses excellent communication and critical thinking skills, which are particularly important in today’s rapidly evolving society (Sancassiani et al., 2015). Other qualities associated with an advanced level of social-emotional development include self-control and self-awareness: the ability to think independently, demonstrate empathy, cope with stress, and understand the feelings of others (McKown, Gumbiner, Russo, & Lipton, 2009; Sancassiani et al., 2015). Unfortunately, these competencies and skills may often be underdeveloped in DHH children; hearing impairment induces profound, adverse changes in the emotional state because of the concomitantly reduced quality of social interactions. As a result, DHH individuals often show decreased learning capacity, behavioral disorders, and overall social maladaptation (Barket et al., 2009; Patel & Feldman, 2011).

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Incorporating a well-planned social-emotional component into educational programs may become an effective solution to the problems associated with seeking to develop social and emotional skills in DHH students. According to Mindess, Min-Hua, and Brenner (2008), all children, including those with the ability to regulate their emotions and those facing difficulties in the development of such skills, can largely benefit from intentional SEL. DHH children studying in mixed mainstream classroom environments are no exception.

SEL Framework

The concept of SEL first emerged when a group of researchers, professors, and healthcare professionals met at the Fetzer Institute to discuss possible ways to improve students’ social and emotional well-being and school performance. As a result of this meeting, the experts developed a student-centered SEL curriculum meant to encourage student involvement in the learning environment. Additionally, they established the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization specializing in promoting and advocating for SEL (Weissberg, Durlak, Domitrovich, & Gullota, 2015). CASEL has defined SEL as the process through which individuals develop skills and competencies needed to succeed in either academic or professional spheres (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning [CASEL], 2013). According to Arslan and Demirtas (2016), SEL addresses five dimensions of social-emotional competence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Self-awareness refers to “knowing one’s own feeling, evaluating one’s own competence realistically and developing self-reliance” (Arslan & Demirtas, 2016, p. 276). Social awareness is “the ability to understand, empathize and feel compassion” for people from different multicultural backgrounds (Weissberg, 2016, para. 5). As Nielsen, Meilstrup, Nelausen, Koushede, and Holstein (2015) noted, social awareness conceptually overlaps with emotional competence, indicating a strong interconnection between the social and emotional aspects of an individual’s life. It is possible to say that together, they define the development of relationship skills, which support the ability to establish and maintain meaningful friendships and relationships with others and to act while taking social norms into account. These skills include the ability to communicate clearly, listen actively, cooperate, resist negative social pressures, negotiate conflicts appropriately, and seek help from others when needed.

Excellent self-management skills manifest in the ability to handle stress, control emotional impulses, and persist through challenges in order to achieve personal and educational goals. Lastly, responsible decision-making implies “learning how to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse settings” (Weissberg, 2016, para. 7). The given competency involves consideration of ethical values and principles, safety concerns, behavioral norms, and health and well-being of self and others. This means that a responsible person will always realistically evaluate intentions and actions as well as their consequences.

As Cristóvão, Candeias, and Verdasca (2017) have stated, social and emotional competencies developed in the described dimensions are “necessary to recognize and manage emotions, develop care, and concern for others, form positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and successfully handle the demands of growing up in today’s complex society” (p. 3). This means that SEL aims to help students understand how to be friendly, make sound decisions, behave ethically, and avoid negative and attention-seeking behaviors. According to CASEL (2013), such essential skills may be cultivated only through an explicit form of instruction.

Role of SEL in Students’ Academic Success

Social and emotional development is core to the acquisition of language and communication skills in all children, including those who are hearing impaired, and it plays a crucial role in the process of learning as such (Antia, Kreimeyer, Metz, & Spolsky, 2011; Spencer & Koester, 2016). According to Weissberg et al. (2015), SEL improves academic success and contributes to higher engagement in pro-social behaviors such as expressing kindness toward others, sharing with others, or understanding and projecting empathy toward others. Additionally, social-emotional competence in children enhances their attitude toward school, reducing the risk of depression and distress (Weissberg et al. 2015; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004).

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The relationships between social-emotional development and language development are complex and dynamic. Not only does the advancement of linguistic skills foster better self-regulatory and pro-social behaviors in children (Vallotton & Ayoub, 2011), but positive social experiences also substantially define the process of language mastering (Vygotsky, 1978). Thus, the acquisition of communication skills in DHH children can be widely predicted by the quality of their relationships with caregivers. Along these lines, as Bohlin and Hagekull (2009) demonstrated in their study, secure child-caregiver bonds emerge as a result of sensitive and responsive interactions and positively affect the psychological state of young individuals. The evidence suggests that adults who interact with DHH children, both at home and within an educational setting, should aim to implement the principles of meaningful and sensitive interaction when communicating with these students to facilitate the latter’s acquisition of language skills and promote high self-esteem and trust for others.

SEL for DHH Students

The social context surrounding a DHH child turns out to be an important factor that defines the patterns of his or her social-emotional development and the emergence of certain psychological traits. Every child’s personality is formed during the assimilation of social experience and throughout the process of communication with adults and peers. However, it is worth noting that a child does not passively adapt to the surrounding environment and the world of objects but actively learns to be a part of it. School, home, and community comprise the main places where young individuals learn social and emotional skills. At the same time, however, DHH children primarily develop social-emotional competencies through their interactions with other members of the DHH community. According to national statistics, 90% of DHH children are born to parents without hearing impairment (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2016). These children face major challenges in learning how to communicate and consequently experience delays in social-emotional development. In contrast, Desselle’s (1994) results revealed that in families where all members use both speech and sign language, DHH children usually demonstrate higher self-esteem as well as better control of their behaviors, greater resilience in stressful situations, and independence.

In Trinidad and Tobago, it is common for DHH children to learn to use Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language (TTSL) at school while lacking the opportunity to access and practice its use at home. In families not fluent in TTSL and whose members are reluctant to learn sign language, caregivers often use voice and manual home signs to communicate with a DHH child. In such situations, communication between caregivers and siblings and a hearing-impaired child is often brief, unclear, and scattered. As a result of the given communication difficulty, DHH children are impeded in developing SEL skills at home and only begin to acquire the necessary skills at specialized schools like the Cascade School for the Deaf, Audrey Jeffers School for the Deaf, and Tobago School for the Deaf, where educators are mandated to learn TTSL to facilitate communicating with students.

DHH children are born with the same innate mechanisms of perception needed to interpret reality and with equal emotional tones of sensations as infants without hearing impairment. However, when designing an SEL program for DHH students, it is important to understand developmental differences to address their needs more efficiently. Along with the possibility of limited verbal communication that entirely or partially isolates DHH individuals from others, non-hearing children do not have access to the emotional side of oral speech and music. Additionally, some DHH individuals may become acquainted with fictional literature only later in life. As a consequence, they have fewer emotional experiences and insufficient opportunities to develop empathy toward fictional characters and then apply any understanding to real-life situations than children without hearing impairment.

At the same time, a few factors can favorably affect the emotional development of DHH children. These include exceptional attention to the physical side of emotional expression, for example, facial expressions and gestures used by others during communication. Elliott and Jacobs (2013) observed that visual cues and head movements are used in all sign languages at all levels of linguistic structure. This means that DHH individuals are often more successful in embracing semantic dimensions of gestures compared to their hearing peers because, from an early age, they learn to read nonverbal cues (Saegusa, Namatame, & Watanabe, 2015). Therefore, educators in addition to parents and other caregivers should focus on the visual mediums of emotional implications in various textual messages when communicating with DHH children.

Barriers to Successful Realization of SEL Projects in Trinidad and Tobago

In their study on SEL, Adelman and Taylor (2000) argued whether schools focusing only on academic skills and development could succeed in achieving the long-term goal of raising mature graduates. The researchers revealed that this objective could be attained only if a school addressed barriers to learning, development, and teaching and regularly performed various activities aimed at supporting students during transitions, ensured parental involvement, and reacted appropriately to students’ social and emotional interactions with each other. The findings imply that effective SEL programming requires coordinated efforts on the part of classroom teachers, school administration, families, and the surrounding community.

It is possible to say that the present-day situation in Trinidad and Tobago does not allow schools to integrate SEL effectively. In recent years, professionals in the sphere of education and the country’s public population have started to pay more significant attention to student performance across educational settings as well as the efficiency of educational activities. Today, in addition to mainstream schools, specialized schools that fail to demonstrate an acceptable rate of student achievement are often subjected to budget cuts and even closure. As a result, within several years, some schools serving students with special needs in Trinidad and Tobago have either been downsized or closed.

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Most specialized educational settings remain highly concerned about the social and emotional development of their students and recognize the need for a safe and supportive classroom environment to educate socially and emotionally competent students. Still, due to the situation under discussion, they often hesitate to engage in any instructional and learning activities not characterized by clearly predictable outcomes and discernable benefits to students’ academic progress.

One of the problems associated with current efforts to promote SEL is that they are often fragmented. For example, professionals and researchers can point to numerous separate programs intended to promote health, prevent violence and delinquency, encourage school bonding and attachment, prevent dropping out, decrease teen pregnancy, etc. The major limitation of these programs is that they carry out too many different activities and address each problem in isolation. Additionally, the programs already in place often fail to address critical issues that DHH children face, such as language access at home.

It is common for teachers to play the role of mediators and translators between DHH children and their caregivers in addition to educating parents about the specific needs and problems their child may have. Misunderstandings between a DHH child and parents can cause significant disturbance to a developing young individual and can adversely affect the learning process. For example, a 10-year-old boy arrived at the school feeling angry and acting out in violent behavior. He had seen his father packing bags and putting them into the family car. The child assumed his dad was leaving without saying goodbye, never to return. This interpretation of the event extremely upset the boy. To manage the situation, the classroom teacher called the student’s parents, and it turned out that his father was just preparing some of his used clothes to donate to charity. The given example is simple, yet it highlights the critical issue that schools specializing in teaching DHH people face. Parents who are unable to communicate with their DHH children make it almost impossible to provide SEL at home.

Another problem that schools in Trinidad and Tobago face is linked to the availability of the skilled human resources needed to implement a comprehensive SEL program. Teachers should take a leading role in stimulating SEL in students, promoting use across educational settings and within the community (Schonert-Reichl, 2017). Therefore, educators must be trained to deliver explicitly SEL-oriented lessons, providing opportunities for students to reinforce the use of relevant competencies throughout the day.

Furthermore, Conrad, Paul, Bruce, Charles, and Felix (2010) have noted that teachers in specialized schools for children with disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago currently face difficulties in maintaining inclusive environments and providing multiculturally sensitive instruction due to a lack of appropriate scaffolding technology and organizational standards. Moreover, the evidence indicates the need for professional development in the spheres of service arrangement and pedagogy. Thus, it is evident that schools can largely benefit from teaching educators to better understand DHH children’s needs and multicultural features.

Implementing SEL in Schools for the Deaf in Trinidad and Tobago

“Maco” is a word from the Trinbagonian dialect that means “inquisitive.” The acronym MACO could be used to develop SEL programs for schools for the deaf in Trinidad and Tobago: M stands for mastering social-emotional skills, A is for active forms of learning to assist students in developing these skills, C implies connected and coordinated efforts to foster the skills under consideration, and finally, O refers to objectives targeting specific emotional and behavioral skills. The given framework promises to provide a comprehensive and multidimensional approach to SEL.

Policies and Organizational Activities

On a school-wide level, SEL strategies may take the form of policies and other organizational practices aimed at establishing structures related to student support and maintenance of an appropriate educational climate (Weissberg et al., 2015). The SEL implementation project requires the involvement of multiple professional roles. For example, although school counselors are typically responsible for students’ mental health outcomes, they may also actively participate in building an SEL-oriented culture within educational settings, formulating clear norms, values, and expectations for students and staff members. School leaders—including the principal, assistant principal, lead teacher, and others—shall play a critical role in adopting administrative activities and policies that promote positive school climates (CASEL, 2013). Leaders can organize activities that encourage positive relationships and provide a sense of community among students through various collective activities such as morning assemblies, awards day, career shadowing day, and more. Multi-tiered systems of program support can be considered the most effective; thus, organizational and administrative practices should be aligned with teachers’ efforts in the classrooms.

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Staff Training

To be able to stimulate social-emotional development in students, educators should have sufficient knowledge and understanding of SEL concepts along with students’ multicultural characteristics, learning styles, and other peculiarities. For this reason, teacher training and continual professional development should be integral parts of any SEL program. As noted by Schonert-Reichl, Kitil, and Hanson-Peterson (2017), most teacher training degree courses across educational settings as well as teacher certification exams only partially or even completely fail to address pre-service educators’ understanding of SEL dimensions. Thus, it is possible to say that a lack of focus on promoting students’ SEL represents an unfortunate norm among teachers.

It is essential to raise educators’ awareness of SEL dimensions and activities and provide help in aligning this information with theoretical knowledge about instruction, including the unit and lesson plans they currently have. Designing an integrated community-based or organization-based course for teachers and referring teachers to this resource would be preferable. However, in the face of financial constraints, school leaders may simply encourage educators to engage in research regarding credible evidence and expert opinions on the subject, providing a list of well-published authors and articles (Waajid, Garner, & Owen, 2013).

Parental Involvement

As Weissberg and Cascarino (2013) observed, successful SEL implementation requires a profound commitment from teachers and school leaders. However, lack of community and family support can cause efforts to be less productive. Because families can be regarded as one of the most important sources of support for children’s learning and development, creating school–family partnerships may significantly accelerate academic progress in students from diverse backgrounds (Chistensen & Reschly, 2010). Decades of research demonstrate that family involvement is a critical contributor to student success; thus, parental involvement in SEL programs in Trinidad and Tobago may become a significant step forward in the promotion of social-emotional development in DHH children. Calderon and Calderon (2000) stated that “direct parental involvement in their hearing children’s school program can have a positive influence on the child’s academic and social-emotional development” (pp. 152–153). Nevertheless, the effectiveness of parental involvement in deaf children’s educational process may be challenged due to caregivers’ lack of necessary communication skills. To address the given problem, Calderon and Calderon (2000) recommended that schools establish a new professional role, parent educator, an individual who would guide the process of the family-school involvement in SEL and facilitate caregiver-child communication. Additionally, educators and school leaders should encourage the parents of DHH students to observe teachers’ communication models and strategies and provide their children with sufficient opportunities to practice these models and strategies. In this way, launching school-sponsored sign classes for family members and establishing open-door policies are essential to family-school coordination in SEL.

Instructional Practices

To be consistent with CASEL’s (2013) guidelines, the suggested MACO program must be evidence-based. It is possible to incorporate SEL components across multiple content areas (e.g., social studies, math, and English) or to help students understand their emotions throughout the time spent in specialized SEL classes. No matter what form SEL may take, interpersonal and student-centered instructional practices will constitute its basis. Specific methods of SEL instruction in DHH populations can include role-playing; games with some element of physical activity; training in gestures and facial expressions; and multiple expressive and creative activities such as dancing, music, pantomime, drama, drawing, and so on (Alwell & Cobb, 2009; Mellon, Ouellette, Greer, & Gates-Ulanet, 2009; Rochette, Moussard, & Bigand, 2014). Implementing different graphic, auditory, gestural, textural, and tactile symbols can help DHH students develop augmentative and alternative communication skills, and according to Alwell and Cobb (2009), they foster appropriate pro-social behaviors and communicative competence in students with disabilities. When initiating a learning activity, teachers should direct students’ attention to the feelings they experience, as well as to muscular sensations involved in the production of expressive movements in both self and others, making the students compare and contrast psychological states and identify their nature.

Program Evaluation

An SEL curriculum should be based on the specific individual needs of every setting. The preliminary environmental assessment is core to creating a targeted program that may lead to much better outcomes in comparison to broadly focused interventions (Merrell & Gueldner, 2010). The accumulation of initial data on student performance and other behavioral indicators will also allow understanding of whether the implemented SEL methods contribute to desired outcomes. Evaluating a program’s impact is an essential part of the evidence-based approach to teaching. According to the National Deaf Children’s Society (2015), reviewing the effectiveness of instruction helps break down any barriers to academic success in students. The following evaluation criteria should be considered by educators: academic performance, social behavior, conduct-related problems, and emotional distress (CASEL, 2013). It is suggested that an effective SEL program will show positive results in at least one of these areas.


The present article has aimed to define the concept of SEL and explore its significance in relation to DHH students. The reviewed literature evidence reveals that social-emotional development in children with hearing disorders in Trinidad and Tobago is primarily challenged by obstacles to meaningful and wholesome communication with hearing family members and peers who do not use sign language on a regular basis and, therefore, lack the communication skills necessary to support social-emotional learning in DHH children. At the same time, SEL programs for DHH students can address and intervene in the event of such core learning issues as limited access to information about emotions, difficulties in using emotionally expressive means for language, and the inability to verbalize various emotional states and establish cause-and-effect relationships between feelings and their manifestations in others. However, the present-day educational system of Trinidad and Tobago offers a significant number of administrative, financial, and organizational barriers to implementing SEL in specialized educational settings for the deaf. Along with recent budget cuts, the lack of a well-developed, comprehensive, and targeted evidence-based program is probably among the major issues. The suggested MACO approach to program development, focusing on organizational policymaking, staff training, family-school partnerships, and diversified student-centered instructional practices can help school leaders and educators tailor an SEL program according to their current organizational vision and values, as well as students’ vital needs and preferences.


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