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Social and Emotional Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities: A Brief Overview

by Jo Montie and Brian Abery

Simply put, "social and emotional well-being" is a balanced, healthy way of interacting with others and the ability to appropriately respond to our own emotions. It is a core aspect of a person's development. Our capacities and needs to connect with others (social), and to know and manage our inner feelings and experiences (emotional), are central features of our quality of life.

All children, youth, and adults require care and attention to these areas of development. However, children and youth with disabilities are at higher risk for experiencing lower levels of social-emotional well-being than their peers without disabilities. They are more likely to be bullied and harassed, have a limited number of friends, and engage in fewer extracurricular activities than their peers. Combine these tendencies with a school environment in which the child's "failures" rather than gifts and capacities are often the focus, and where all too often help doesn't get to children until there is a crisis, and one has the potential for high levels of social and emotional distress. While children with disabilities are at "higher risk" socially and emotionally, we do not suggest that this always occurs. Many children and youth with disabilities experience very positive outcomes in this area. Families and the larger community, however, need to be proactive in attending to the social-emotional needs and experiences of this group and in considering ways to expand advocacy and support on their behalf.


Current Positive Trends

There are a growing number of communities taking action to insure the social and emotional well-being of children and youth with special needs. Three positive trends in this area are highlighted below:

These trends are in the right direction. However, there's an ongoing need for widespread implementation of strategies that create the systems change needed to expand and support them, and reach all young people with disabilities.


Future Prevention Efforts

The old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" applies well to addressing the social-emotional needs of children and youth with disabilities. A more coordinated, sustained focus on prevention practices in schools, youth organizations, homes, and other community settings is needed to build on the progress that's already been attained. Four of those practices are as follows:



To insure the social-emotional well-being of children and youth with disabilities, and reduce their risk of negative outcomes, we must continue to develop initiatives that link people, environments, and prevention practices. Efforts must be based on respect for others and an appreciation of diversity, engage high-risk youth, create social networks and capacities, and bring together those with and without disabilities in a way that gives each individual an opportunity to use his or her gifts and capacities. Working together, families, professionals, and children and youth themselves can create the context for healthy social-emotional development.



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Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. R. (January/February 2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

Hawbaker, B. W. (2007). Student-led IEP meetings: Planning and implementation strategies. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 3(5).

Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (2010). The condition of education 2010: Children and youth with disabilities. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Institute of Medicine. (2009). Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 19, 517–534.

Law, M., King, G., King, S., Kertoy, M., Hurley, P., et al. (2006). Patterns of participation in recreation and leisure activities among children with complex physical disabilities. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 48, 337–342.

U.S. Public Health Service. (2000). Report of the Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services.

Jo Montie is Founder/Consultant, Doors to Useful Learning, Minneapolis, Minnesota. She may be reached at 612/481-2714 or Brian Abery is Research Associate, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. He may be reached at 612/625-5592 or



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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Palmer, S., Heyne, L., Montie, J., Abery, B., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2011). Impact: Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities, 24(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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