How to lessen the ‘enormity of challenge’ when students return to school

Learn the five key considerations educators should ask when responding to students' academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs when school resumes
By: | June 8, 2020 Hill Street Studios Hill Street Studios

When next school year begins, districts will likely rush to determine if students with disabilities fell behind in their goals, and if so, how they can catch up and make even greater progress.

Schools can use their multi-tiered system of supports, response to intervention frameworks, or any cyclic method of adaptive problem-solving to help guide that process so educators can stay focused on the quality of supports for students instead of the potential enormity of the challenge, advises Heath Peine, executive director of student support services for Wichita (Kan.) Public Schools.

“Any learning losses students have [experienced] during this time are not nearly as important as the impact we have on their learning progress moving forward,” says Peine, who is also the professional development chair for the Council of Administrators of Special Education.

Although Peine said an MTSS framework is valuable in any circumstance, student learning recovery from the COVID-19 outbreak elevates its importance. “It’s going to be more important now that our instruction has a high impact and that our systems are set up efficiently because we are going to struggle potentially with resources,” he says.

Peine suggested five key considerations based on MTSS approaches that can apply to teachers, professional learning communities, and school and district leadership teams as educators respond to students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs and evaluate the effectiveness of those supports when school resumes for school year 2020-21:

  1. Where are students in their learning? Gather evidence to determine students’ academic and emotional needs and strengths, Peine says. Evidence can be collected through diagnostic assessments, standards-based grading, or any system that a district is familiar using. What a school should not do is assume that all students in a tier experienced the same level of regression or have the same needs.
  2. Where do we expect students to be? Set high expectations for students and clearly define criteria for meeting those expectations, Peine says. Additionally, educators should identify high-impact interventions and strategies. They should be thoughtful about interventions that target identified needs, he says.
  3. How do we close the gap? Closing the gap between where student learning regressed and where it needs to be will require increasing the effectiveness of core instruction and choosing evidence-based strategies that target identified needs. It should not involve using every intervention available in rapid succession for quick returns. “We need to be effective and efficient when we return,” he says.
  4. Are we on target to meet our goals? Educators at the classroom, school, and district levels should plan frequent monitoring of student progress toward goals and discuss that progress with students and colleagues. It’s also important that educators don’t work in isolation so they can learn from each other and have a common understanding about the impact the MTSS process is having, Peine said. Teachers learn from each other and recovering from COVID-19 extended school closures is a challenge they’ve never faced before, he says
  5. Did the efforts work and what can we learn from the experience? Reflection about the strategies used for the MTSS framework is an important part of the process, Peine says. Teachers and students should celebrate success and learn from the struggles. MTSS is not just about interventions and it’s not a moment of time, “it’s a way of thinking,” Peine says. “It’s a way of saying, ‘We have a lot of needs and we’re going to support those needs.'”

Kara Arundel covers special education for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.