Getting Past Learning Differences with Social-Emotional Learning

By Michele Israel

Making SEL Accessible for Students with Learning Differences edWebinar recording link


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Students with learning differences (LD) often struggle in school. Not because they aren’t capable intellectually, but because learning disabilities like dyslexia, ADHD, and dysgraphia make it difficult to navigate tasks.

Peggy Stern, Founder and CEO of the research-based company, SuperDville, said in a recent edWebinar, sponsored by Learning Ally, that LD students can make academic strides with a strong sense of self. It’s why she believes that social-emotional learning (SEL) is the most necessary support for children who learn differently.

Social-Emotional Learning: The LD Elixir?

Even with school-based support and resources, LD students often do not see themselves as their peers, explained Stern. They feel stupid, slow, alone and isolated (a feeling COVID-19 has exacerbated). Or worse, they believe they are not “normal.” While other students seem to move ahead, LD students struggle with reading, writing, mathematics and executive functions that are obstacles to academic achievement.

Imagine a 3rd or 4th grader about to do an assignment. The student has a lot to say but the mechanical aspects of the work—writing down ideas or reading a passage with the words “dancing” on the page—means everything will take longer. That doesn’t usually make a student feel good, and it causes stress!

Stern knows what it’s like to be outside of the learning mainstream. As a person with dyslexia, she was embarrassed in school where she had no targeted support. She felt isolated, believing she was the only dyslexic student in the world.

It was a tutor that changed Stern’s trajectory, a “personal Mary Poppins,” who helped her discover her storytelling strengths. Through her stories, Stern learned to decode. (She also learned how to tell stories through pictures, sparking her career as a documentarian.)

More significant than academic support was the tutor’s understanding and recognizing where Stern could excel. This support moved her forward and was what propelled her to focus on SEL for LD students, emphasizing individual strengths as crucial for tackling concepts and problems differently.

Stern wants learners and educators to know that every brain is a little bit different; every child should know that they have other ways of approaching things, but they work hard to try their best. They should feel good about the things they do well.

Stern believes SEL is critical to educational success, pointing to studies showing an 11% gain in academic achievement for SEL-supported LD students. The earlier SEL is provided, she contends, the more positive outcomes learners will likely experience throughout their educational journeys.

Stern’s Intent: Self-Acceptance Every Step of the Way

Drawing on her personal experience and the work of SEL experts Dr. Mary Ann Wolf, President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, and Dr. Melissa Orkin, Director of Crafting Minds, Stern developed SuperDville, designed for 3rd-5th graders with learning differences.

The program’s curriculum and videos align with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) SEL framework. They promote self-awareness, self-management and relationship skills, focusing on belonging and resilience, the capacity to “keep at it” to acquire and master academic skills.

There are 12 videos, four for each of SuperDville’s three seasons. The titles alone can boost self-esteem: Never Give Up, a story that encourages learners to focus on their success as they strive to improve; and Stress Mess, which helps students reduce homework anxiety. Some episodes feature the character “Professor Boom,” who helps students understand the scientific side of LD, like how the brain works and neurodiversity.

The videos all have LD. They partnered with her to create authentic stories introducing students to people with learning and attentional differences, just like them. Despite their challenges, the characters persevere, learn how to accept their achievements, do not compare themselves to others, and work from their strengths.

Accompanying each video are a student activity video, three hands-on student activities, and a scripted lesson plan, now in six languages (a Spanish version in the making). There is also SuperD! Friends, virtual discussion groups for learners feeling isolated during COVID-19. The tools are useful in LD and general education virtual and face-to-face learning environments, resource rooms, after-school activities, and one-on-one support.

Stern emphasized that we need to eliminate the LD stigma. LD students can succeed, transition to and finish college, and get jobs. They need to be able to say they have LD without shame and demonstrate to themselves and the adults who guide them that they can achieve with appropriate support.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Learning Ally

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About the Presenter

Peggy Stern is the founder and CEO of SuperDville, a video-based social and emotional learning curriculum for 7-12-year-olds who learn differently. As such, Peggy engages with children, parents, and teachers and speaks at conferences across the country. She shares her experiences growing up with dyslexia and her vision to change the future for children with learning differences through helping them become their own storytellers. SuperDville was created with advisors such as Dr. Maryanne Wolf and Dr. Melissa Orkin; her daughter Emma has dyslexia and acts as a key advisor. Peggy’s own dyslexia led her to filmmaking at a young age. She is now an Academy Award- and Oscar Award-winning director and producer, and has produced for PBS, HBO, Teachers College at Columbia University, The National PTA, and National YWCA, among others. Peggy received her BA from Harvard University.

About the Moderator

Listen. Learn. Teach. It’s that simple. Terrie Noland uses this philosophy as an innovator and a motivator, and it’s evident as she leads, coaches and mentors thousands of K-12 educators about the science of reading each year. She has a unique perspective on the need to unify all stakeholders around a vision for education to smash the reading divide for the millions of struggling readers. Her daily mission is to add value to educators to help influence transformational changes in school districts across the country by addressing the needs of marginalized students. Terrie seeks to share her expertise and passion, to encourage, and to illuminate a path towards success and measurable outcomes.

If you looked at Terrie’s resume, you would be confused. Her undergraduate and graduate degree work placed her in the field of criminal justice. However, it was through continuous listening and learning that led her on a journey in education starting out in preschool teaching and administration, then becoming a Certified Academic Language Practitioner (CALP), and currently working towards a Ph.D. in literacy and educational leadership from St. John’s University. Terrie is also a John Maxwell certified speaker and coach.

As Vice President of Educator Initiatives at Learning Ally, Terrie works to ignite enthusiasm and excitement by building champion educators and administrators on creating cultures of literacy and learning.

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Empowering Struggling Readers is a free professional learning community on that provides educators, administrators, special educators, curriculum leaders, and librarians a place to collaborate on how to turn struggling readers into thriving students.

Learning AllyLearning Ally is a leading education solutions organization committed to transforming the lives of struggling learners. The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven reading accommodation comprised of human-read audiobooks, student centric features and a suite of teacher resources. Used in more than 17,000 schools, this solution successfully helps students with reading deficits become engaged learners and reach their academic potential.


Michele Israel writes about the ideas and best practices that are shared in edWeb’s edWebinars so they can spread innovative and best practices to the education community. Michele owns Michele Israel Consulting, LLC, which serves large and small educational, nonprofit, media, corporate, eLearning, and blended-learning organizations to bolster products and programs. Her rich career spans over 25 years of successfully developing educational materials and resources, designing and facilitating training, generating communication materials and grant proposals, and assisting in organizational and program development. In addition to lesson plans and other teacher resources, Michele’s portfolio includes published articles covering a range of educational and business topics.