What Is an Emotional Support Teacher?

Sandra Burns
Sandra Burns
Elementary School Principal; M.Ed. in Educational Leadership

What is an Emotional Support Teacher and What Do They Do?

This topic truly takes me back to where my educational career began. My roots are in special education and teaching emotional support. I learned very quickly that it was not my place to judge any of our students, but it had to be my top priority to build relationships with them and truly understand what type of social and emotional support I could provide for them.

What truly defines an emotional support teacher is someone who has the patience of a saint and the firm mindset that no matter how challenging a student’s behavior may become, it is never ok to give up on them.

There is no way around the fact that an emotional support teacher will at times feel defeated and exhaust every strategy in their bag of tricks. It is important to not take students’ behaviors or actions personally. We are there to help our students regardless of how severe or how verbally and physically aggressive their outbursts become.

In addition to having a high tolerance for handling behaviors that impact our students’ learning, an emotional support teacher addresses the individual differences of each student that is placed in their classroom. They take the general education curriculum and adapt it to meet the needs of each diverse learner.

Often social skills lessons, mindfulness activities, and sometimes social emotional learning are taught in the emotional support classroom. This allows students to learn better coping strategies and helps build healthy peer relationships. Emotional support teachers have a strong sense of wanting to be the voice for all of their students, while motivating them to reach their highest possible potential regardless of their disability and challenges they may face.

The students that are included in a self-contained emotional support classroom are instructed by a certified special education teacher. A school psychologist completes an evaluation which includes a battery of tests, and an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting occurs. If the behavior data is significant enough, or the emotional need is evident, the student will be included in an emotional support classroom or require emotional supports services to be in place while still being included in the regular education classrooms.

A key responsibility of an emotional support teacher is communication with the regular education teachers to ensure the students’ success. The strategies and coping skills that are worked on throughout the emotional support program must carry over to all educational settings so that the students may use these tools to help them be successful even when the special education teacher is not with them. Monitoring the progress of the students’ behavior and emotional goals will give a true indication if the strategies and coping skills are being utilized and are effective.

Being able to determine the “why” behind a behavior is essential when putting supports in place.  Without knowing the root cause of the behavior, it is nearly impossible to track the behaviors and effectively put strategies in place.

Education and Training Needed to Be an Emotional Support Teacher

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a special education certification is the bare minimum of what most states require for a special education certified teacher. Ultimately, holding a master’s level degree in special education will only enhance your knowledge when it comes to working with students who are in need of emotional support services by increasing your knowledge and skills in evidenced-based assessments methods, curriculum, and instructional design and implementation. Earning a master’s degree in special education will equip our teachers, new or veteran, with an extensive bag of tools that are needed to be effective in several specific areas, such as learning disabilities, social/emotional disorders, intellectual disabilities, physical handicaps, autism, and more. The more we can broaden our knowledge as educators, the more beneficial we will be as we work extremely hard in providing supports for some of our most challenging students.

Even more so than the state mandated certifications, it is important that we identify the skills needed to work within this field. One must really dig deep into their “toolbox” to truly understand what a student with an emotional disturbance or other health impairment is dealing with. It is imperative that as an emotional support teacher you are ready to bring your “A game” to your classroom and be prepared for the most unpredictable days that will be faced.

When our students step foot into our classroom, it doesn’t matter what is going on with students outside of school – they need to be part of the classroom and learn just like the rest of the students. What teachers have to understand, whether they are children with disabilities or not, is what they are dealing with at home matters.

Often the student will bring their home issues into school, and this is when you see behavior issues. Does this mean we lower our expectations? Absolutely not! Having positive expectations simply means that the teacher believes in the learner and that the learner can learn. We have to break through the barriers that the student comes to us with, remain positive, and find a balance between helping that student through the challenging obstacles in their life and still setting the bar high so that there is no other route to take but to be successful in our classrooms.

The more training an educator has when it comes to understanding behavior and students in need of emotional support programming, the better prepared a teacher will be to meet the needs of a student who is struggling. Understanding issues and designing steps on how we can help change the behavior with supports in place will help decrease the issue and the areas of concern.

Skills Needed to Be an Effective Emotional Support Teacher

Effectively controlling your classroom environment can be a challenge, but this is a skill teachers should continuously work to improve. Time shouldn’t be wasted on interventions (behavioral or otherwise) that haven’t been proven likely to work with a specific behavior. Understanding the “why” behind the exhibited behavior in your classroom can give insights into what immediately occurs before and after a behavior in order to design effective interventions that address the behavior that the student is struggling with.

Being able to connect with your students and truly be able to identify what reinforcements can assist with dealing with behaviors is extremely important. Carefully designed behavior management plans within a classroom or individual behavior contracts for specific students can be a true asset and can help shape desired behaviors.

Educators must never, ever lower expectations of their students. Trial and error are common within the educational setting, and emotional support teachers must use the tools and strategies that are at their fingertips daily to maximize likeliness that students will be successful with each attempt. Never losing site of the goal and the idea that they may have to sometimes take a different path based off of student’s needs will ensure their success to obtain growth emotionally, socially, and academically.

In closing, always remember that effective teachers, emotional support or otherwise, support one another. Collaboration and having someone there to listen and bounce ideas off of is so beneficial. There must be continuous reflection on what is going on in the classroom and steps must be taken to make sure that all students are engaged and learning despite the social, emotional, or academic challenges they may face.

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