Since March 2020, the pandemic and extended periods of distance learning have shined a spotlight on the critical role that schools play in providing for the social, emotional, and health needs of each child, in addition to their academic development. This is especially true for our students with disabilities who experienced challenges accessing critical services and supports in a distance environment. This fall, most students will return to in-person learning. Supporting students to succeed means supporting districts and schools that promote their physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and academic development — all at the same time. It has never been more important to attend to students’ holistic development in equitable and effective ways.
With close to $200 billion in federal aid authorized for recovery, state and local education agencies have an unprecedented opportunity to support schools in improving education for all students. This is especially true for students with disabilities who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In An Urgent Imperative for States: Developing Whole Child Policies to Support an Equitable Education for Students with Disabilities, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), with guidance from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), highlights several states leading the way to support whole-child learning and development inclusive of young people with disabilities and their families. These states provide examples for other states looking to strengthen equity-focused whole child education.
For example, the brief highlights Ohio’s vision for education inclusive of all students. In the state’s strategic plan “Each Child, Our Future,” the Ohio Department of Education goes beyond simply mentioning the importance of better meeting the needs of students with disabilities as part of their vision. Ohio State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria directed the Office of Exceptional Children (OEC) to develop a complementary plan focused on realizing this vision for students with disabilities. This plan “offers robust recommendations, tactics and action steps to ensure students with disabilities benefit from the vision and core principles heralded in Ohio’s strategic plan.” Since 2018, as part of the state’s strategic plan, Ohio has been involved in CCSSO’s Advancing Inclusive Principal Leadership State Initiative to support school leaders in cultivating inclusive and equitable learning environments that promote the academic and social success of each learner, with an emphasis on those with disabilities. A team comprising state, district, and school leaders across Ohio will provide district and school leaders with training on inclusive practices in preparation for the return to school this fall.
Another example is from Massachusetts, where the state education agency developed the Educator Effectiveness Guidebook for Inclusive Practices, which aims to “enable educators to create a place for all students to thrive in general education settings.” The Guidebook highlights strategies that improve academic and social-emotional outcomes for all students and emphasizes educators’ roles in establishing an inclusive learning environment. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) disseminates the guidebook on its website to support educators in implementing evidence-based best practices for inclusion (such as Universal Design for Learning, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and Social and Emotional Learning). DESE also provides an aligned virtual course for general and special education teachers to guide their work implementing the practices along with a companion guide for principals and school leaders.
New York has established teacher preparation program requirements in an effort to ensure all educators are prepared to serve students with disabilities. The Empire State requires all general education teacher candidates to complete coursework and practice requirements aligned to specific professional standards that address students’ learning differences and needs before entering the classroom. Teachers are required to complete coursework focused on “understanding the needs of students with disabilities, including at least three semester hours of study for teachers to develop the skills necessary to provide instruction that will promote the participation and progress of students with disabilities in the general education curriculum.” And registered teacher preparation programs must include at least 100 hours of field experience prior to student teaching, at least 15 of which includes “a focus on understanding the needs of students with disabilities.” All of this is done in an effort to ensure that the educators who are serving students in general education settings are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets to do so effectively.
While still in the early stages of implementation, the New York State Education Department is also advancing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports-Integrated (MTSS-I) initiative by leveraging the funds from a federal grant to develop a statewide MTSS-I framework, establish a MTSS-I Technical Assistance Center, and provide direct supports to districts in the delivery of tiered interventions focusing on the whole child.
A long-standing leader in whole child education, the Michigan Department of Education has implemented a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework to promote the academic and behavioral success of each child since 2000. The state established the MiMTSS Technical Assistance Center to support inclusive practices using the MTSS framework in districts across the state. Over the past year, MDE has also been involved in a nine-state network to integrate equity-focused social emotional learning into their MTSS model in partnership with CCSSO and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). American Institutes for Research (AIR), CCSSO, and CASEL developed a toolkit with best practices and lessons learned from leading states to support state and district leaders in advancing an integrated MTSS framework that supports the whole child.
There are bright spots across the country where states have implemented whole child policies inclusive of students with disabilities. Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan are just a few of the states highlighted in the NCLD brief as leading on this work. With recovery and school reopening underway, states have an incredible opportunity to support whole-child learning and development for all students — especially young people with disabilities.
Kaylan Connally serves as Program Manager, Student Expectations at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) where she supports states’ efforts to develop and implement policies and practices that promote equitable outcomes for all learners, with a focus on students with disabilities.
Lindsay Kubatzky is the Policy Manager at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Lindsay conducts research and produces various written products related to the many current federal and state policy challenges and opportunities facing the 1 in 5 children who have learning and attention issues.
This blog post also appears on CCSSO’s State’s Leading Blog.