Educator Practices and Perspectives on Social and Emotional Skills Teaching in UK Autism Education
Objectives: To understand UK educators’ current practices for, and attitudes towards, teaching social and emotional skills to autistic students.
Methods: Fifteen autism education staff (including teachers, teaching assistants, subject specialists, and speech and language therapists) took part in individual semi-structured interviews lasting 40-60 minutes. Five additional staff members took part in a focus group. Participants represented a range of mainstream, special, and independent UK schools. Interviews asked about existing social and emotional skills teaching practices, in the broader context of educator aspirations for their students, how aspirations are communicated to families, and the use of autism-specific programmes and supports in their settings. Interviews and focus groups were transcribed verbatim and analysed thematically.
Results: Five themes and multiple interlinked subthemes were developed from the data (see Figure 1). Across the areas discussed (current practice, aspirations, etc.) educators consistently placed high importance on teaching social and emotional skills. They highlighted that every child is different and therefore each child may need different strategies and supports to develop these skills. A widely shared goal was to help children work towards leading independent lives, through communication and self-regulation of their emotions. With this in mind, educators stressed that such skills need to be generalizable to the community and home, as well as school. Staff were understood to play a huge role in successful teaching; they shared effective ways of working including consistency across contexts and shared ideas within school teams. Despite the perceived importance of children developing these skills, participants felt ill-equipped to teach them due to a lack of training and guidance. Participants disagreed on the ideal balance between social and academic teaching. Overall, participants were either not including social and emotional skills in their teaching, or had developed personal strategies to teach these skills.
Conclusions: There was a notable gap between UK educators’ views and aspirations regarding social and emotional skills, and what they felt equipped to teach their autistic students. Participants reported a lack of training and guidance to address these skills in the classroom at all, let alone with evidence-based strategies. This indicates a clear area in which autism education in the UK may be strengthened better reflect “best practices”, by improving the support and professional development available to teachers.