What are the challenges as a teacher of using social media in a special education department?
Teenagers with special educational needs live in a complex social world that they often struggle to understand. It is fraught with social and emotional highs and lows.
Social media can be a dangerous place for students that struggle with understanding and communication skills. Some of the challenges that teachers face:
- Students often have more knowledge than teachers. It can be a challenge for educators to have this same level of knowledge.
- Cyber bullying is a concern that all teachers have for the welfare of their students. Misunderstandings can escalate quickly and can unravel into extensive, real-life conflicts.
- What social media sites are my students accessing? How can I ensure that my students are safe?
These are some of the issues that can arise within the boundaries of a special education department though social media can be a powerful tool for enriching student’s lives.
We as teachers want to teach our students how to have rich and fulfilling lives. The ability to use social media is part of the life skills special education students need to help form new friendships and enlarged social circles.
In what ways could Special Education teachers address these challenges and harness the potential benefits of social media to improve the lives of our students?
Melhuish (2013) in a Ph.D. thesis argues that there is value in professional development that includes social media. There are numerous positive outcomes from engaging in social media as a teacher including:
- Resource development
- Increase in subject knowledge
- Teacher reflection.
An equally important, potentially unintended, outcome is that teachers develop technical skills and digital literacy. These are important elements for teachers who are struggling to teach social media skills and monitor students online presence.
American psychologist Peagram (2016), an expert in bullying and its effect on special education students, suggests that teachers and parents should have a three-pronged approach when educating students
- discuss social media issues,
- monitor students’ online presence,
- educate students on the right way to use social media (Peagram, 2016).
Using this strategy in the classroom would support and re-enforce parental efforts in the home.
It is important as teachers that we understand how to use social media both for our own professional development and to educate our students in the classroom. Evidence suggests that special education teachers can use social media for students with autism. There is a growing amount of research that shows social media is an effective method for improving the socialization skills of teenage students from all ranges of the autism spectrum (Mazurek & Wenstrup, 2013).
Students with learning difficulties may need a lot of support around the use of social media both technically and in respect of appropriate language and communication skills. There are social media sites that have been designed to provide a heavily monitored and filtered social interactive environment. Such an example is www.edmodo.com.
This may be an appropriate site although it is more child-oriented and possibly not suited for teenagers. Importantly, the filters on the site can also limit self-moderation by teenage students. Students may not learn what they can and cannot talk about online.
This may lead to problems in the future (Pinkerton, 2016). Also, special education teenagers may have friends, siblings and parents that use the more common sites such as Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.
Millions of people access sites such as Facebook and Twitter to converse with friends and to exchange information (Sharples et al., 2016). Our students want to be like everyone else and use the same sites.
In fact, this may make it easier to monitor their interactions online and allow role-modelling of appropriate behaviour. There are a lot of issues around social media and special education students.
It is important that teachers get online and form online communities that can discuss these issues and share what works and what pitfalls to avoid.
Peagram, K. (2016, April 4). What Happens When the Online Bully Is a Child with Special Needs [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Mazurek, M. O., & Wenstrup, C. (2013). Television, video game and social media use among children with ASD and typically developing siblings. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 43(6), 1258-1271.
Pinkerton, B. (2016, April 7). What Special Ed Teachers and Parents Need to Know About Social Media [Web log post]. Retrieved from
(2017). Is There a Role for Social Media in Special Education? [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Sharples, M., de Roock, R., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Koh, E., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Looi, C-K, McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller, M., Wong, L. H. (2016). Innovating Pedagogy 2016: Open University Innovation Report 5. Milton Keynes: The Open University. Retrieved from http://proxima.iet.open.ac.uk/public/innovating_pedagogy_2016.pdf
Melhuish, K. A. V. (2013). Online social networking and its impact on New Zealand educators’ professional learning (Doctoral dissertation, University of Waikato).