Teaching students to engage with history and civics is important in a democratic society. The critical thinking and communication skills taught in social studies classes are all the more essential to students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (EBD) because they equip them to overcome difficulties interacting with and relating to peers. Unfortunately, special education teachers are rarely trained in social studies content, and a large majority of young adults with EBD self-report low or no civic engagement. This led Justin D. Garwood, John W. McKenna, Garret J. Roberts, Stephen Ciullo, and Mikyung Shin to conduct a meta-analysis published in Behavior Modification on the impact of interventions in social studies for students with EBD. Their findings underscore the need for teachers to apply simple, well-known intervention techniques for these children.
The authors looked at peer-reviewed analyses of social studies interventions that included students with EBD and met What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) research standards. This yielded sixteen peer-reviewed articles and one dissertation. In all, the combined research included 656 students, 111 of which had EBD. Most pupils were in grades six through twelve, and a little less than half were minorities.
The authors then determined the effect size, i.e., across multiple studies, the average difference in outcomes between the control groups and groups receiving interventions. The larger the effect size in a study, the greater the improvement in students’ ability to recall social studies facts compared to improvements in the control group. With the measure used by the authors, effect sizes usually fall between 0 (insignificant difference, any improvements likely due to chance) and 1 (significant difference, any improvements likely due to intervention).
The two most common interventions were, one, a form of peer-tutoring that required students to memorize social studies facts and summarize them to peers, and two, giving students computer-made charts—as opposed to teacher- or student-drawn ones—with social studies content to use while studying. The third most common intervention was a method called cover, copy, and compare, where students study facts for a set period on the left side of a paper, then cover the facts, reproduce what they remember on the right side of the paper, and compare it to the originals. This continues until the student succeeds without errors for a few consecutive trials.
The authors found that these social studies interventions were effective—especially in studies that applied them exclusively to students with EBD—but they also stress the need for more engaging ones. For studies that combined EBD and non-EBD students, the effect size was 0.48, indicating a significant difference between control groups and intervention groups, but not a large one. But for studies that had only EBD students, the effect size was 1.05, indicating a large and significant difference between the two groups and a strong, causal relationship between the interventions and improved outcomes in knowledge tests. However, the interventions did not test complex reasoning and textual analysis skills, and were, frankly, unengaging. The authors recommend that future studies design more rigorous interventions that have students debate historical controversies, take uncommon perspectives, or analyze source texts. It is not enough to teach students history or geography facts; social studies demands the excitement of engaging with the past and with institutions we take for granted, and the skills to think and talk through the human experience.
The most interesting findings of this study were how rapidly the EBD students saw improvement in their content knowledge when separated from non-EBD students for the intervention. It is rare to find such improved outcomes resulting from interventions, especially since the studies with one or few EBD students had much smaller improvements in outcomes with the same interventions. Furthermore, it’s interesting that no unique interventions were designed for the studies. Nearly every teacher uses computer-made charts, and teachers who have students with learning disabilities have been training their peers to help them memorize and summarize facts for years. So the techniques have been present all along, but they have yet to be widely applied in the area of social studies.
It comes as no surprise that students with EBD respond well to the social studies interventions. Well-structured peer-tutoring and well-designed charts are a natural way to help these children lower their anxiety levels and build confidence in the classroom. What is surprising is how, for the last decades, schools could have helped these students by applying these simple strategies, but too many didn’t because of their narrow focus on math and reading. Furthermore, future studies should design more engaging strategies or risk making learning a chore for EBD students. With the notable gains we’ve made in improving other achievement gaps, it’s time our schools do more for social studies education and make sure students with EBD don’t get left behind.
SOURCE: Justin D. Garwood, John W. McKenna, Garrett J. Roberts, Stephen Cuillo, and Mikyung Shin, “Social Studies Content Knowledge Interventions for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: A Meta-Analysis,” Behavior Modification (March 2019).