cover photo composite - student on laptop distance learning, student in mask in classroom with hand raised, teacher at whiteboard in mask

Forward Together:
Pandemic Lessons for Effective Teaching Practices

Introduction

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread virtual and hybrid learning and required educators to change how they instruct and support students with disabilities. NCLD and Understood conducted research through surveys and focus groups with educators across the country to understand their experience during the pandemic. We identified trends in how they are instructing and supporting students with learning and attention issues and opportunities for continued growth and change in our schools.

Here, you can learn more about our research findings and what educators shared with us. You can also explore new resources to help educators use evidence-based strategies to meet the growing needs of students with learning and attention issues during COVID-19 and as schools prepare for a full return to in-person learning. This work builds upon our previous  Forward Together project and our Distance Learning Toolkit :

Forward Together: Helping Educators Unlock the Power of Students who Learn Differently

NCLD and Understood sought to better understand how to help educators unlock the potential of the 1 in 5 individuals with learning and attention issues. Through an extensive literature review of empirical studies and surveys from educators, we found evidence of 3 specific critical mindsets and 8 key practices that can improve outcomes for students with learning and attention issues — and all students.

Distance learning toolkit: Key practices to support students with learning differences during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread virtual and hybrid learning. As a result, educators, families, and students have been struggling to adapt to distance learning, particularly for students with learning and attention issues. The Distance Learning Toolkit was created to share how educators can apply these evidence-based mindsets and practices in virtual and hybrid settings during the pandemic.

Supporting Students with Learning and Attention Issues During COVID-19 -Insights from General Educators

In January 2021, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) commissioned the CERES Institute for Children & Youth at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development to examine general educators’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a specific focus on their experiences teaching students with learning and attention issues.

Who we are

NCLD logo

NCLD works to improve the lives of the 1 in 5 children and adults nationwide with learning and attention issues — by empowering parents and young adults, transforming schools, and advocating for equal rights and opportunities. We’re working to create a society in which every individual possesses the academic, social, and emotional skills needed to succeed in school, at work, and in life.

Understood logo

Understood is dedicated to growing and shaping a world where everyone who learns and thinks differently feels supported at home, at school, and at work; a world where people with all types of disabilities have the opportunity to enjoy meaningful careers; a world where more communities embrace differences. Because differences make the world worth exploring. Differences define who we are. Differences are our greatest strength.

This publication is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Teacher in mask stands at white erase board, students have hands raised.

School, District, and State-Level Policy Recommendations

Teacher Feedback Shows a Need for Expanded Support Systems

Despite their love for teaching, educators have had a tough time during the pandemic. In January 2021, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) and Understood commissioned the CERES Institute for Children & Youth at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development to examine general educators’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a specific focus on their experiences teaching students with learning and attention issues. The survey pointed to a need for supports and resources to address educator burnout, student disengagement, and unfinished learning.

Our Approach

Two national surveys were administered:

  • A sample of 1,251 general education teachers completed survey 1 in March 2021.
  • A second sample of 1,160 general education teachers completed survey 2 in May 2021.
  • Understood Educator Fellows participated in focus groups to offer suggestions for survey design and provide deeper insights to emerging themes.

A Call to Action

Data suggested that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a misalignment in the resources available to teachers, as well as a huge increase in the number and complexity of tasks teachers are responsible for. This has contributed to and exacerbated teacher stress and burnout. It is imperative that policymakers provide increased funding for educator supports, create robust systems of technical assistance and professional development, and enhance data collection to support educators in serving all students, especially those with disabilities. The influx of federal funds sent to states and districts creates an opportunity to invest in programs and initiatives that will support educators to meet the increasing demands of their profession.

Policy Recommendations for School, District, and State Leaders

Addressing Teacher Stress, Burnout, and Well-being

Survey responses showed:

  • 72% of teachers report that they don’t have enough time to teach everything they’re expected to teach
  • 69% feel there are too many standards they’re expected to meet
  • 58% feel burned out
  • 64% report that it’s difficult to meet all their students’ needs
  1. Focus on the essentials (e.g., power standards). Many teachers feel overwhelmed with the lack of time to meet expected learning standards. States can help districts streamline and focus learning by identifying critical standards needed for academic success. Content experts working with state leaders should review state standards and reduce redundancies in learning, while also emphasizing the integration of prerequisite skills with grade-level content. States should reinforce that all students should be held to these standards, rather than modifying expectations for certain subgroups that were disproportionately impacted by changes and disruptions caused by COVID-19.
  2. Provide wellness resources to educators and focus on workplace culture. To effectively address students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs, educators must first address their own well-being. For example, the District of Columbia has recently created an initiative that includes a toolkit and self-service platform designed to embed school-level capacity building in educator wellness now and beyond the pandemic. States, districts, and school leaders should support teachers in prioritizing their own mental health and well-being in an ongoing and holistic way, such as by creating access to formal support networks and by working to develop supportive workplace cultures.
  3. Consider teachers’ time and capacity when delivering training.While teachers’ confidence and retention are impacted by effective professional development, staff development opportunities often fail to accommodate the realities of teachers’ work and personal lives. At the state, district, and school level, administrators should strive to improve the content and cadence of professional development to better reflect teachers’ time and capacity. Educator input on timing, mode, and content should be elicited to ensure that it is personalized.

Supporting Teachers With Student Re-engagement

Survey responses showed:

  • Almost 50% of teachers indicated that students with learning and attention issues demonstrated lower levels of school engagement than in prior years.
  • 69% feel there are too many standards they’re expected to meet
  • More than one-third of teachers reported similar patterns of low school engagement among students impacted by poverty and among English learners.
  1. Develop and disseminate resources and strategies for engaging students who have learning and attention issues. It is evident that many, if not most, students will need additional attention to overcome the negative impact of lower levels of school engagement experienced during the pandemic. States and districts should allocate resources toward employing evidence-based strategies for both academic and social-emotional re-engagement with school. To disseminate strategies, states and districts should develop and promote communities of practice or web-based clearinghouses for teachers to both share and access information.
  2. Engage with parents and caregivers, paying special attention to students with disabilities who are also impacted by poverty and/or are English learners (ELs). Teachers reported similar patterns of low-level school engagement among students impacted by poverty and among EL students. Parents are critical players in re-engaging students, and efforts must be made to equitably improve communication with them. Consistent, clear resources on remote engagement of family members may assist teachers in reducing barriers to participation and collaboration. At the state or district level, resources should be invested to create culturally relevant family engagement practices, including translation services or translated materials, digital literacy training, or other evidence-based strategies for developing and sustaining productive family-school relationships.

Supporting Teachers With Learning Acceleration and Social-Emotional Learning

When asked to rank the top three strategies they wanted to implement, teachers were most interested in:

  • Positive behavior strategies (52%)
  • Flexible grouping (46%)
  • Collaboration (44%)

When asked to rank the top three strategies for importance, teachers were most interested in:

  • Strategies to catch students up to grade level (42%)
  • Strategies to keep students engaged and motivated (42%)
  • Social and emotional learning support for students (40%)
  1. Invest in resources to build teacher confidence on positive behavior strategies, flexible grouping, and collaboration. In addition to developing materials and conducting professional development sessions, resources should be invested to establish sufficient shared planning time for educators to learn, collaboratively implement, and reflect on these practices. As concerns about learning recovery have dominated national conversations, there is an opportunity to invest in key pedagogical strategies to catch students up to grade level and provide the support for behavioral growth that is critical for all students — and particularly important for students with learning and attention issues.
  2. Invest in social-emotional supports for students, including building data capacity. The majority of teachers surveyed reported having to rely upon their own personal assessment or “gut instincts” when evaluating student engagement. States and districts should engage experts to advise on the creation of tools and procedures necessary for screening and data collection regarding students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs. School districts should invest in district-wide professional development to allow educators to build the relationships and inform supportive contexts for learning. These investments should build on existing, effective multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and/or Response to Intervention (RTI) systems, or seek to create new programs and systems that provide equitable, universal, and targeted supports for students’ social, emotional, and academic learning and development.
Teacher wearing mask helps student wearing face shield read

Positive Behavior Strategies:
An Approach for Engaging and Motivating Students

What Are Positive Behavior Strategies?

Positive behavior strategies are evidence-based approaches for promoting behavior that is conducive to learning. We start with the understanding that behavior is a form of communication. In other words, behavior is a message about what a student needs. Our goal as teachers is to receive these messages and set our students up for success.

Effective instructional practices that engage students in academic success are an essential component of any positive behavior support system. A strong relationship exists between effective instruction and students’ social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes. It might seem counterintuitive to focus on instruction over traditional classroom management methods like stop lights or consequence charts. However, positive behavior strategies such as teaching positive behavior, intervening early, and creating a positive classroom climate are most effective when implemented with engaging academic instruction. By integrating behavior supports (e.g., instructional choice, preteaching, opportunity to respond) into our instruction, we strengthen proactive behaviors and reduce the probability that challenging behaviors will occur. That makes it less likely that we’ll need to rely on rewards or consequences to encourage positive behavior.

Positive behavior strategies will be a key classroom practice when you return to in-person learning. We can imagine the excitement of our students to see their peers and re-engage in friendships. We can also predict the varied needs — social-emotional, behavioral, and academic — with which students will return to in-person learning. We need to provide students with a safe and supportive environment and we need to maximize learning time. Positive behavior strategies can help us accomplish these goals.

Positive behavior strategies support all students — including the 1 in 5 with learning and attention issues. Research shows that the 1 in 5 often face emotional, social, and behavioral challenges that can have serious, life-altering consequences.1 Students with disabilities face higher rates of discipline in school, including higher rates of suspension. They also have higher rates of absenteeism.2,3 Practices and situations that remove students from classrooms result in the loss of instructional time, putting the 1 in 5 farther behind their peers. This can start a cycle that is hard to exit. Positive behavior strategies promote engaging, effective instruction, something we want all students to experience, and which especially benefits the 1 in 5. And by maximizing instructional time, positive behavior strategies can ensure that the 1 in 5 have all of their academic needs met. This approach helps put all students on the path to graduation.

Why Positive Behavior Strategies Meet the Needs of the Post-COVID-19 Classroom

This spring, NCLD and Boston University’s CERES Institute surveyed over 2,400 teachers. We asked about their perceptions and feelings on the school year and how their students handled learning during the pandemic, particularly those with learning and attention challenges. We heard feedback on lessons learned throughout the pandemic, including what teachers want to keep for next year and what they hope would change.

One key finding was that nearly half of respondents said that their students with learning and attention challenges demonstrated lower levels of engagement. Related to this, teachers said they would benefit from strategies to keep their students engaged and motivated. Respondents also identified needing strategies to bring students up to grade-level expectations. Since positive behavior strategies support effective and engaging instruction — and have demonstrated success with the 1 in 5 — we’re confident that it addresses teachers’ — and students’ — immediate needs.

How to Implement Positive Behavior Strategies

Try these moves to implement positive behavior strategies in your classroom. Recall that we’re integrating these behavior supports into effective and engaging instruction.

icon - teacherGo-To Teacher Moves in Any Setting icon - hybrid learning, split teacher and computer Additional Considerations for Hybrid Settings
Provide frequent opportunities to respond along with appropriate wait time.4When students are responding frequently, they are engaged and less likely to be off-task. Vary opportunities to respond individually or chorally. Use different methods of response like white boards, gestures, or verbal. Be sure to provide verbal reinforcement for the specific behaviors that the students demonstrate. 

Example:

“On your whiteboards, I want you to solve 72 + 19. You have 30 seconds.”

“Now, hold up your whiteboards.”

“I see that almost everyone found the correct sum. Juan, great job finding the correct sum. Can you share the correct response?” 

Leverage student engagement platforms like Classkick, Nearpod, or Kahoot to build in frequent opportunities to respond.
Use behavior-specific praise5 Provide positive feedback to recognize and affirm specific, desired student behaviors. Clearly tell students what they did correctly. Be authentic in your delivery and use culturally responsive language, as appropriate. 

Example:

“Carlos, I really like how you immediately hung up your coat and backpack and got started on your Do Now.”

Prepare behavior-specific praise for common challenges during hybrid learning, like transitioning to breakout rooms quickly or having all materials ready. 
Actively supervise.6 Circulate in your classroom so students know that you clearly see every student. A key part of active supervision is teaching routines and procedures so you can couple your supervision with feedback. Create multiple breakout room links so you can easily move from room to room to supervise students’ work. 

Use a master document of students’ individual Google Docs to monitor work completion and progress.

Give immediate feedback.7 Students need affirmative and corrective feedback to know if they are on track to meet a learning outcome. Feedback can be verbal or written.

Example:

“Yes, Maria! The product of 6 × 7 is 42.”

Use verbal feedback methods to provide efficient and accessible feedback to students. Provide links to supplemental resources (e.g., a review video) as an additional corrective feedback support.
Implement high-probability request sequences.8 Give simple and short requests just before asking a student to do something they typically avoid.

Example:

“Destiny, take out your notebook.” (High-probability request)

“And now take out your completed outline.” (High-probability request)

“Thank you. Take out your pencil.” (High-probability request)

“Great. Put your name and date at the top of the page.” (High-probability request)

“Excellent, Destiny. Can you read the learning objective for today?” (High-probability request)

“Thank you, Destiny. You can start on your independent writing now.” (Low-probability request)

“Great job getting started immediately on your independent writing, Destiny!”

Create a checklist of steps students need to complete before engaging in individual or group work. Include high-probability steps like opening up relevant browser tabs, creating a duplicate interactive handout, plugging in headphones, and so forth. 
Try pre-correction.9

Use action-oriented language to explicitly teach appropriate responses and behaviors. These prompt students with the behaviors that meet your expectations.

Pre-corrections can be delivered verbally, visually, with a gesture, and with direct modeling.

Example:

“Today is our first fire drill. A fire drill is when our school practices what to do in the event of an actual fire. We’re going to show safe behavior by being quiet, walking quickly in a line, and actively listening.”

Use pre-correction to teach students expectations during online or blended learning. Follow-up with praise when students are successful.

Consider using visuals to prompt students (e.g., use a chat icon on slides that require discussion).

Give students choices.10 Present information in different ways. Give students more than one way to demonstrate their learning. Offer different types of materials or locations for completing work. 

Example:

“Today you’re going to have the option of meeting the learning objective by completing a written passage or recording an oral reflection.”

Incorporate explicit instruction into your routines so that students can effectively use the variety of accessibility options available to digital learners (e.g., text-to-speech, speech-to-text).

Prompt students to take meaningful movement breaks during extended periods of online learning and during transitions. 

Progress Monitoring Is the Key to Effective Positive Behavior Strategies

Progress monitoring is an important component of positive behavior strategies. Positive behavior strategies are inclusive and support all learners, but it’s likely that some of your students will require additional support. To know which students require more support, you’ll need to collect and analyze data. Data such as percentage of directions followed, assignments completed, and responses given will help you determine whether your positive behavior strategies are working. And collecting and sharing data with your students provides opportunities to set mutual goals and give positive feedback about behavior. 

Remember that behavior is a form of communication. If a challenging behavior occurs frequently, you’ll want to determine the reason for it. We can generally categorize behavior functions using the acronym EATS. EATS stands for Escape, Attention, Tangible gains, and Sensory needs. (Learning for Justice, an organization that provides resources to create inclusive school communities, has additional information on EATS.) Knowing the reason, or function, of a particular behavior can help you identify additional strategies to support your students. And if you’re unsuccessful in reducing the frequency or intensity of behavior on your own, this data can be helpful to a collaborative team of school professionals.

Learn More

Positive Behavior Strategies: What You Need to Know (Understood)

Gives information on positive behavior strategies, including additional guidance on implementing this approach in the classroom.

Distance Learning Toolkit: Key Practices to Support Students Who Learn Differently (Understood)

A toolkit to help educators meet the needs of all students during distance learning. It includes additional ideas for implementing positive behavior strategies.

Evidence-Based Behavior Strategy: Nonverbal Signals (Understood)

Gives a detailed explanation of how teachers can foster communication while limiting interruptions during instruction (and allowing students to communicate their needs without drawing attention to themselves) by using nonverbal signals.

Evidence-Based Behavior Strategy: Pre-correcting and Prompting (Understood)

Gives a detailed explanation of how teachers can use pre-correcting and prompting to tell and remind students of behavior expectations before potential behavior problems occur.

PBIS.org

Website of the Technical Assistance Center on PBIS, funded by the U.S. Department of Education to support schools, districts, and states in building systems capacity for implementing a multi-tiered approach to social, emotional, and behavior support. The website includes detailed information and resources.

A Note to School, District, and State Leaders

Teachers need a supportive school environment to effectively implement positive behavior supports. That means implementing a schoolwide approach to behavior using Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS is an evidence-based tiered framework for improving student social and academic outcomes by integrating data, systems, and day-to-day practices. PBIS lends itself to effectively supporting students’ return to schools post-pandemic, too. 

For more ideas on implementing positive behavior strategies, check out Forward Together: A School Leader’s Guide to Creating Inclusive Schools for a comprehensive guide on implementing this strategy, as well as other strategies that will meet the needs of the 1 in 5, and all students. Additional school, district, and state-level policy recommendations to support educators can be found in this resource.

Acknowledgments

Author: Lindsay DeHartchuck, M.A.
Expert Reviewers: George M. Batsche, Ed.D. and Christina Cipriano, Ph.D.
Teacher Contributor: MaryEllen Noonan, M.A., Ed.S.

Footnotes

  1. Horowitz, S. H., Rawe, J., & Whittaker, M. C. (2017). The state of learning disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  2. U.S. Department of Education (2016, October 27). Chronic absenteeism in the nation’s schools: A hidden educational crisis (interactive website). U.S. Department of Education.
  3. Balfanz, R., Byrnes, V., & Fox, J. (2013). Sent home and put off-track: The antecedents, disproportionalities, and consequences of being suspended in the ninth grade. Prepared for the National Conference on Race and Gender Disparities in Discipline, Dec. 21, 2012; Losen, D., Hodson, C., Keith, M. A. II, Morrison, K., & Belway, S. (2015). Are we closing the school discipline gap? Civil Rights Project.
  4. Lane, K. L., Menzies, H. M., Ennis, R. P., & Oakes, W. P. (2015). Supporting behavior for school success: A step-by-step guide to key strategies (1st ed.). The Guilford Press.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
Teacher is smiling, surrounded by group of students.

Flexible Grouping:
A Responsive Strategy to Meet Student Needs in Real Time

What Is Flexible Grouping?

Flexible grouping is a highly effective strategy for creating an inclusive classroom culture that honors learner variability. Use data to put students into small groups for instruction. Your groups should change frequently in response to the lesson outcome and student needs. Students can be grouped at the same skill level or with varying skill levels.

Flexible grouping will be a key classroom practice when you return to in-person learning. Flexible grouping can support accelerated learning and address foundational skill needs. It also increases your students’ engagement and supports their social-emotional needs. 

Flexible grouping supports students with disabilities — the 1 in 5. It helps students get the right support, in the right way, at the right time. You can deliver individual support and intervention within the general education classroom, rather than removing students. When flexible grouping is an expected routine for all students, it reduces the stigma the 1 in 5 can experience from working more frequently with the teacher. When used for collaborative learning activities, flexible grouping supports the 1 in 5 in using their assets.

Why Flexible Grouping Meets the Needs of the Post-COVID-19 Classroom

This spring, NCLD and Boston University’s CERES Institute surveyed over 2,400 teachers. We asked about their perceptions and feelings on the school year and how their students handled learning during the pandemic, particularly those with learning and attention challenges. We heard feedback on lessons learned throughout the pandemic, including what teachers want to keep for next year and what they hope would change.

One key finding was that smaller student-to-teacher ratios increased teacher confidence and self-efficacy. As the student-to-teacher ratio decreased, teachers felt more confident in their abilities to address the individual needs of their students. Teachers also identified a strong need for strategies to support students’ grade-level learning and for strategies to support the unique learning needs of students with learning and attention issues.

Additionally, to meet the needs of all students next school year, four in ten teachers said they need strategies to keep students engaged and motivated, strategies to catch students up to grade level, and social and emotional learning support for students. In fact, over two in five teachers identified flexible grouping as a strategy they will implement to address these needs! Flexible grouping provides you a structure for delivering targeted, individualized instruction to small groups of students.

How to Implement Flexible Grouping

As you return to in-person learning, use peer collaboration and small group instruction to meet academic and social-emotional needs. Try these moves to implement flexible grouping in your classroom.

icon - teacherGo-To Teacher Moves in Any Setting icon - split teacher and computerAdditional Considerations for Hybrid Settings
Identify your learning outcome. The objective will inform the group size and make-up. Group students according to their location. Keep virtual students together and in-person students together.
Determine student needs using data appropriate for the task. What student skills will be required for the task? Can you group students to complement skill levels and needs? How can the task use student interests to maximize engagement? Consider student personalities. Aim for a balance of introverts and extroverts.
Set group norms with your students. Modify group norms for virtual students. For example, when can students use the chat?
Practice routines and transitions to and from flexible grouping locations. Set expectations for virtual transitions too. For example, how long does a student have to join a breakout room?
Provide the whole group explicit instruction to present key vocabulary and engage background knowledge. Provide the whole group explicit instruction on the use of technology.
Reduce social anxiety. Provide your students the steps needed to complete a task, one step at a time. Assign roles to students like a reader and a recorder. Use sentence stems. Build in extra time for an icebreaker. Give students individual thinking time. Use the chat to share initial ideas to start the conversation.
Check for understanding of the learning activity, at each step. Provide immediate feedback. Create multiple breakout rooms so you can “move” from group to group easily.
Debrief by asking students how the learning experience was and how to improve. Use a Jamboard, Google Doc, or Kudoboard to capture feedback from students.

Progress Monitoring Is the Key to Effective Flexible Grouping

A key element to flexible grouping is collecting, analyzing, and responding to student data. Meaningful progress monitoring is even more important as schools emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Without effective progress monitoring, you run the risk of misunderstanding where challenges lie and potentially inappropriately referring students for special education.

Ongoing progress monitoring helps identify students who need individualized support. Progress monitoring can also ensure that students in an accelerated learning environment are mastering content. If students are not on track, progress monitoring identifies who needs timely intervention. 

When implementing flexible grouping, be aware that groups — or students — might present their learning differently. You should consider multiple ways to determine if students mastered the task. This flexibility in assessment is critical to determining if the 1 in 5 mastered a task or skill. Consider using rubrics to provide a consistent method for assessing students when providing flexibility in the ways they can demonstrate those skills.

Learn More

Flexible Grouping: What You Need to Know (Understood)

A research-backed, expert-vetted, and classroom teacher-reviewed article on flexible grouping, including additional ideas for implementing the strategy and applying the practice to distance learning.

Distance Learning Toolkit: Key Practices to Support Students Who Learn Differently (Understood)

A toolkit to help educators meet the needs of all students during distance learning. It includes additional ideas for implementing flexible grouping.

High-Leverage Practice: Establish a Consistent, Organized, and Respectful Learning Environment (Council for Exceptional Children)

A 20-minute video designed to augment professional learning for establishing a consistent, organized, and respectful learning environment. The video:

  • Describes important steps
  • Shows how a variety of teachers implement the practice with all students, not just students with learning and attention issues

Differentiated Instruction: Maximizing the Learning of All Students (IRIS Center)

Three-hour interactive, multimedia learning module for educators. Topics include:

  • Understanding the key elements of differentiated instruction
  • Differentiating instruction based on students’ readiness level, interests, and learning needs
  • Differentiating instruction for three main instructional components: content, process, and product
  • Evaluating and grading differentiated products
  • Preparing students and classrooms for differentiated instruction

Ability Grouping, Tracking and Grouping Alternatives (Learning for Justice)

Five-minute video in which experts discuss the history, practice, and perils of grouping students for classroom instruction according to their perceived abilities, as well as alternatives.

A Note to School, District, and State Leaders

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act’s $121.9B for K–12 schools,4 20% of each district’s funds must be set aside to address learning loss. Flexible grouping is a strategy worth investing in with these funds. It meets the needs of all learners, but especially those identified as students with disabilities and English learners.5 And it works for accelerating learning and addressing foundational skill needs.

Students will be returning in the fall with varied learning needs. It will be essential to determine where students are performing and what kinds of supports they need. Flexible grouping can support them — and teachers — in meeting those needs while also ensuring that students are learning grade-appropriate content. 

We also know that many school districts are opting to expand tutoring availability. Effective tutoring goes beyond giving students more practice opportunities with the support of an adult. It needs to be implemented using data, high-quality instructional materials, and effective structures. Again, using the principles of flexible grouping can ensure that tutoring services are maximized and meet student needs.

For more ideas on implementing flexible grouping, check out Forward Together: A School Leader’s Guide to Creating Inclusive Schools for a comprehensive guide on implementing this strategy, as well as others that will meet the needs of the 1 in 5 and all students. Additional school, district, and state-level policy recommendations to support educators can be found in this resource.

Acknowledgments

Author: Lindsay DeHartchuck, M.A.
Expert Reviewers: George M. Batsche, Ed.D. and Douglas Fisher, Ph.D.
Teacher Contributor: Julian Saavedra, M.A.

Footnotes

  1. Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. (2014). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. ASCD.
  2. Castle, S., Baker Deniz, C., & Tortora, M. (2005). Flexible grouping and student learning in a high-needs school. Education and Urban Society, 37(2), 139–150.
  3. Ross, D., & Fisher, D. (2009). Talking in class builds English learners’ proficiency. California English, 14(4), 10–12.
  4. Tavalin, K., Brennan, K., Mandlawitz, M., and Walsh, S. (2021, May). American Rescue Plan Act Overview: Understanding the New Law and Its Impact on Education [Webinar]. Council for Exceptional Children. https://exceptionalchildren.org/may2021freeresource?_zs=4rnna1&_zmi=awHr
  5. IRIS Center. Flexible grouping. Teaching English language learners: Effective instruction practices (online learning module). IRIS Center Peabody College Vanderbilt University.
Female teacher is crouched in front of girl's desk, pointing toward board

Collaboration:
Partnering With Colleagues, Families, and Caregivers to Promote Student Success

What Is Collaboration?

Collaboration is an effective tool that allows general educators, special educators, learning specialists, administrators, and other stakeholders to work together to meet the needs of students. Collaboration is particularly important to sustain inclusive settings. No single educator should be responsible for holding the expertise in the infinite presentations of learner variability. Further, students work with multiple adults within a school building. Collaboration creates safe conditions for students and educators to share knowledge and collectively problem-solve. The primary purposes of collaboration include: identifying and sharing effective academic, behavior, and social-emotional instructional practices, ensuring that practices are consistent across all providers, and ensuring that the students benefit from those practices.

Effective collaboration depends on good communication practices. Examples of high-impact collaboration practices include: collaborative lesson planning across providers (particularly in a multi-tiered system of supports), collaboration with parents and caregivers to extend the teaching and learning process “beyond the bell,” and collaboration with student support personnel like related-service providers and paraprofessionals.

Collaboration will be a key classroom practice when you return to in-person learning. We know that students will be returning to school with varying needs, including academic, behavioral, and social-emotional. To effectively meet these needs, collaboration with students’ previous teachers and support staff will help ensure that students begin the school year on the right foot. Consider implementing “hand-off” meetings — even quick ones — with your students’ previous teachers. Ask your students’ former teachers to identify students who did exceedingly well during the pandemic, as well as students for whom the last year was a challenge. Asking last year’s teachers about their successful strategies for instruction and engagement should be a high priority. This practice can inform how you approach relationship-building and differentiation of content.

Collaboration with families and caregivers will also be critical for this school year. Families and caregivers took an active role in their child’s education during the COVID-19 pandemic. They assisted with technology needs, supported their child’s learning of material, and provided social-emotional support.

Make a plan to learn from your students’ families and caregivers with similar “hand-off” meetings or empathy interviews. Seek to understand what did and didn’t work last year. You could even include students in these conversations, as they will have the most insight to share. Early collaboration with families will help establish lines of communication and build positive relationships for the school year.

Collaboration supports all students — including the 1 in 5 with learning and attention issues. Several studies have shown that students with disabilities in schools with collaborative culture outperform similar students in schools without these structures.1 Collaboration can bring together teachers with different perspectives and different knowledge to meet learner variability. For example, a general education teacher collaborating with a literacy specialist can efficiently identify strategies to support students with reading abilities that are above or below grade level. Similarly, collaboration can be a tool for creating consistent learning experiences. All students, and especially students with disabilities, benefit from consistent implementation of differentiation strategies, accommodations, and modifications to meet learners where they are in the classroom. 

Why Collaboration Meets the Needs of the Post-COVID-19 Classroom

This spring, NCLD and Boston University’s CERES Institute surveyed over 2,400 teachers. We asked about their perceptions and feelings on the school year and how their students handled learning during the pandemic, particularly those with learning and attention challenges. We heard feedback on lessons learned throughout the pandemic, including what teachers want to keep for next year and what they hope would change.

One key finding was that collaboration was identified as a key strategy for meeting the needs of students with learning and attention challenges. Indeed, consistent and structured times to meet to analyze data (e.g., exit tickets, summative assessments, behavior logs) and collaborative problem-solving is important for teachers and for students. It can identify student assets, which can be applied across multiple settings. Collaborative times are also an opportunity to identify student needs and ensure that the right interventions are implemented. 

Skills for Effective Collaboration

Effective collaboration goes beyond having the time and space to meet with colleagues. Think about how you’d set your students up for successful peer collaboration. You’d determine what’s needed ahead of time, explicitly teaching those foundational skills with modeling and reinforcement. As professionals, we might not need that level of intensive support, but there are skills that we need to use to maximize collaborative time. Below are suggestions to improve your meeting facilitation and participation.

Skill Go-To Moves
Preparedness
  • Identify a facilitator. This person may be the team leader, or you may opt to rotate facilitation responsibilities.
  • Set an agenda ahead of time and identify meeting goals.
  • Communicate pre-work, ideally no more than 30 minutes’ worth, to maximize collaboration.
Active Listening
  • Be present. Silence cell phones, close laptops, and focus only on the meeting agenda and goals.
  • Allow others to fully finish their thoughts.
  • Follow up with questions.
Summarizing
  • As the meeting goes on, summarize what you’re hearing (or think you’re hearing!) from your colleagues.
  • As the meeting concludes, summarize next steps, ownership, and any deadlines for follow-through. Identify any unresolved topics for the next meeting. Don’t forget to revisit these next steps during future meetings to ensure follow-through.
Questioning
  • Approach colleagues with an inquiry mindset. Ask questions, particularly open-ended and clarifying ones.
  • Check your own understanding of your colleagues’ views by paraphrasing.
Delivering
  • Deliver ideas and solutions with evidence.
Integrating
  • Synthesize colleagues’ ideas to arrive at an actionable solution.
  • Use input and feedback to strengthen initial ideas.
Empathizing
  • Assume positive intent of others.
  • Ensure that everyone’s voice is equally heard and that everyone is contributing.

Keep in mind that these practices also extend to working collaboratively with families and caregivers. Effective collaboration can help you leverage your families’ assets — their background knowledge, interests, and culture. As we saw throughout the pandemic, families play a key role in supporting their children’s education. We must partner with families to help their children and to ensure that all students achieve.

Collaboration and Effective Progress Monitoring

In schools implementing a multi-tiered system of supports, collaboration and progress monitoring go hand-in-hand. As we’ve noted, teachers should not work in isolation. It’s important to distribute problem-solving opportunities among general educators, special educators, learning specialists, administrators, and other stakeholders to improve student outcomes.

As we look toward the new school year, we know students will return with varying needs. They will have had varying degrees of success with learning experiences during the pandemic. You should use the beginning of the school year to build relationships with students and to administer diagnostic assessments, like universal screeners. Having a baseline of student performance is critical for knowing if students are making adequate progress throughout the year — and for quickly identifying the students who have foundational skill gaps.

With this baseline data, you’ll want to monitor students’ progress in their response to your daily instruction and any interventions you implement. You can do this with exit tickets at the end of lessons or through weekly assessments. What’s important is that you’re collecting data and analyzing it to quickly adjust your instruction. For example, at the end of each lesson, give students a short formative assessment aligned to the objective. With just a few items, you can determine which students mastered the objective and which need additional time or even a different instructional approach. Depending on the responses, you might build in additional review at the top of your next lesson for your whole class, or create a small group lesson for a select group of students. This type of analysis is ripe for collaboration. Check in with your grade-level colleague to share ideas on adjusting instruction, or tap into your paraprofessional to support a small group. Collaboration can be quick conversations and still result in effective next steps.

If students are not making progress with this type of responsive instruction and collaboration, you’ll want to use your school’s collaborative structures, like a student support team, to get additional ideas for how to best support their needs. This step is crucial for intervening effectively and ensuring that students who require specially designed instruction get the right services.

Learn More

High-Level Practices in Special Education: Collaboration (Council for Exceptional Children)

Downloadable 15-page chapter from the CEC’s larger publication. Provides research syntheses for special education teachers on:

  • Collaborating with other professionals
  • Organizing and facilitating effective meetings with professionals and families
  • Collaborating with families

Collaborating With Families (IRIS Center)

Learning module designed to help teachers build positive relationships with families of students with learning issues. Multimedia resources and templates cover such topics as:

  • Recognizing that all families are different
  • Understanding the emotions exhibited by the parents of children with disabilities
  • Showing respect to parents
  • Treating parents as equal partners
  • Providing parents with meaningful information about their child’s and the school’s performance

Distance Learning Toolkit: Key Practices to Support Students Who Learn Differently (Understood)

A toolkit to help educators meet the needs of all students during distance learning. It includes additional ideas for collaborating with colleagues, families, and caregivers.

A Note to School, District, and State Leaders

We heard from our surveys and educator focus groups that teachers want, and value, collaborative planning time. It’s up to school and district leadership to create — and protect — this time. To accelerate the performance of the 1 in 5, we need to create more inclusive environments and promote inclusive instruction. This requires time, space, and support for effective collaboration. A best practice is to identify these collaborative times within your schedule first, and then plan around these times.2

We recommend strategic planning for ensuring that collaborative planning happens. Some districts opt to shorten one school day a week to ensure uninterrupted collaboration times.3 Other districts put more teacher work days into their calendars, including at the beginning and end of the school-year. Some districts use “early release days” for teacher collaboration. One of the positive outcomes of virtual learning during the pandemic is that teachers used collaborative platforms like Zoom to collaborate with teaching teams. As importantly, teachers reported that the use of remote collaboration methods like FaceTime significantly increased home-school collaboration. Teachers reported using these methods to demonstrate with parents effective academic, behavior and social emotional strategies “beyond the bell.”

For more ideas on implementing effective collaboration, check out Forward Together: A School Leader’s Guide to Creating Inclusive Schools for a comprehensive guide on implementing this strategy, as well as others that will meet the needs of the 1 in 5, and all students. Additional school, district, and state-level policy recommendations to support educators can be found in this resource.

Acknowledgments

Author: Lindsay DeHartchuck, M.A.
Expert Reviewers: George M. Batsche, Ed.D. and Christina Cipriano, Ph.D.
Teacher Contributor: MaryEllen Noonan, M.A., Ed.S.

Footnotes

  1. McLeskey, J., Barringer, M-D., Billingsley, B., et al. (2017, January). High-leverage practices in special education instruction. Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center.
  2. Anderson, J. (2019, September 17). The gift of teacher time. Usable Knowledge. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/19/09/gift-teacher-time
  3. Saenz-Armstrong, P. (2021, June 10). A look at districts’ planning and collaboration policies for their teachers. National Council on Teacher Quality. https://www.nctq.org/blog/A-look-at-districts-planning-and-collaboration-policies-for-their-teachers
Teacher with mask explaining concepts to student in mask.

Key Findings

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread virtual and hybrid learning, requiring educators to change how they instruct and support students with disabilities. NCLD and Understood commissioned the CERES Institute for Children & Youth at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development to conduct research through nationwide surveys and focus groups with educators to understand their experience during the pandemic. We identified trends in how they are instructing and supporting students with learning and attention issues, as well as opportunities for continued growth and change in our schools.

Below are some of the key research findings and what educators shared with us:

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students with learning and attention issues in significant ways, with educators revealing lower rates of student engagement and student progress compared to other years.
    • Almost 50% of teachers indicated that students with learning and attention issues demonstrated lower levels of school engagement than in prior years.
    • More than one-third of teachers reported similar patterns of low school engagement among students impacted by poverty and among English learners.
  2. The survey revealed the stress of the pandemic on teachers — but also their resilience and their desire to support all students.
    • 58% of teachers reported feeling burnout from teaching. Those who taught in schools impacted by poverty and those working primarily with students with learning and attention issues were most likely to report feeling burnout.
    • 72% of teachers report that they don’t have enough time to teach everything that they’re expected to teach.
    • 86% of teachers believe all students can learn through effective teaching and hard work.
  3. Teachers want and need the help of their school and district leadership, including strategies to engage students and families and meet their social-emotional and academic needs.
    • 70% of teachers would like to continue implementing strategies used during the pandemic, including having smaller cohorts of students so they can give more individualized attention; working collaboratively with colleagues; using education apps and games to enhance student learning; and creating smaller classrooms.
    • Over 50% of teachers reported wanting to continue using synchronous online learning platforms and also to offer pre-recorded lessons and materials asynchronously.

We know that the pandemic exacerbated inequities across the education system. Yet, there are lessons to be learned that can better equip educators in the upcoming school year to support students with learning and attention issues. Go deeper into the practices identified by educators as the most important strategies to support students by clicking on the tabs.

Parent and Caregiver Guide to Special Education Evaluations

The COVID-related school closures that stretched from 2020 to 2021 have stressed families, caregivers, schools, and children. School disruptions have resulted in instructional loss for the vast majority of children. These disruptions are likely to have a larger impact on some students than others, despite dedicated support from families and caregivers.

Children with disabilities and those who are suspected to have disabilities face unique challenges. For those with previously identified disabilities, it may have been harder to receive specially designed instruction or related services during the pandemic due to the virtual and remote nature of learning. Additionally, reevaluations and updates to students’ IEPs based on their changing and growing needs may have been difficult to manage remotely and with social distancing requirements. For students struggling during the pandemic (in light of instructional loss, stress, and disruptions) and suspected to have a disability, it may be more difficult for educators and caregivers to evaluate whether learning challenges are caused by COVID-related difficulties or a disability.

Families and caregivers have played a critical role in supporting students through blended and virtual instruction. As a result, caregivers have gained valuable information about the strengths, challenges, and needs of their children. Caregivers will be integral in helping schools navigate COVID-related challenges and in providing children with the supports they need to access a challenging, grade-level curriculum.

If your child has already been identified as having a disability and has an IEP, you may be wondering how to make sure the IEP meets current needs. Or you may have questions about the reevaluation process and procedures due to the pandemic. If your child is struggling and you suspect a disability, you may have questions about how the school will evaluate and make their determination. And any caregiver may also be wondering how schools will get students back on track by providing high-quality instruction and evidence-based interventions to make up for lost instruction over the last year.

This guide offers questions that caregivers can ask to work in partnership with schools to implement policy and practices that will support all children, especially those most negatively impacted by COVID.

Core Rights of Families and Caregivers Provided by IDEA

Families and caregivers have extensive rights under IDEA. These include: 

  • Participation. You have the right to participate in meetings about your child’s education. This includes asking for a review of the IEP at any time. 
  • Informed consent. If the district chooses to refer your child, you have the right to be notified and receive information about what the process will include. 
  • Independent educational evaluation (IEE). You have the right to get your child an IEE if you disagree with the district’s evaluation or if the district is not conducting the evaluation as you see fit. The district must consider the IEE but doesn’t have to accept the findings. 
  • Dispute resolution. If you disagree with the district’s decisions regarding the evaluation and supports, you have the right to negotiate with the district and, if needed, file a written complaint to request a hearing. 

For more information, see here.

Topic #1: High-quality instruction and grade-level standards

Given the widespread instructional loss over the last year, it is important for all schools to focus on providing high-quality instruction to every child. Children are more likely to make up for lost time and meet grade-level standards more quickly when exposed to grade-level standards, rather than receiving remediation in the areas they may have missed. (For more information on the research around accelerated learning, see NCLD’s report.) To better understand how your district is making decisions about curriculum and how they will address instructional loss for all children, consider asking the following questions:

  • How does this year’s curriculum align to grade-level standards?
  • How are you evaluating my child’s instructional needs and current performance?
  • How is my child performing based on grade-level standards? 
  • How do those assessments drive instruction and additional supports for the whole class and for individual students?

Topic #2: Whole-class and individual academic interventions and progress monitoring

Given widespread instructional loss, the vast majority of children will benefit from whole-class interventions to address academic standards that children did not master in the previous school year. Some children will need more intensive interventions, and those supports should be provided as soon as the need is identified to prevent children from falling further behind. Schools should also have a plan in place to provide progress monitoring so they can regularly assess where students are struggling and need additional support. To better understand the additional academic supports and interventions available to children, consider asking the following questions:

  • How are you adapting curriculum and instruction to address any missed instruction and to accelerate learning for all children?
  • If my child needs more, what additional supports and interventions are available?
  • How does my child qualify for those additional interventions?

Topic #3: Behavioral supports to meet the needs of the whole child

COVID-related school disruptions impacted children’s social and emotional well-being as well as their academic performance. As schools fully reopen and communities resume many activities paused by COVID, educators should support children as they readjust to school routines and expectations, encouraging positive behavior and allowing room and support for children to work through trauma. To better understand your district’s approach to supporting children’s behavior, consider asking the following questions:

  • How are you adapting curriculum and instruction to address any missed instruction and to accelerate learning for all children?
  • If my child needs more, what additional supports and interventions are available?
  • How does my child qualify for those additional interventions?

Topic #4: Evaluation of children suspected to have a disability

IDEA requires that all children referred for special education be evaluated in 60 days. This ensures that children, if eligible, receive specially designed instruction quickly to maximize learning. However, school closures and social distancing requirements may have delayed these evaluations for some children or made evaluations more difficult. To better understand how districts are providing timely evaluations, consider asking the following questions:

  • How will the process and timeline for an evaluation look different, if at all, due to COVID? 
  • How can I participate and what information can I provide to inform the evaluation process?
  • How are you adapting interventions and supports available to my child now to maximize learning before the evaluation is complete?

Topic #5: Reevaluations for students previously identified as having a disability

IDEA requires that all children found eligible for special education be reevaluated at least once every three years (unless caregivers and the school agree it is not necessary) and no more than once per year. However, school closures and social distancing requirements may have delayed these evaluations for some children or made evaluations more difficult. To better understand how districts are providing timely reevaluations, consider asking the following questions:

  • When can I expect the reevaluation for my child to be complete?
  • Which areas of my child’s development and functioning will you consider as part of this reevaluation and in light of the impact the pandemic has had?
  • How can I participate and what information can I provide to inform the reevaluation process?
  • How are you adapting interventions and supports available to my child now to maximize learning before the evaluation is complete?

Topic #6: Data collection for evaluations and determining eligibility for special education

Evaluations for special education should be comprehensive and tailored to the child’s learning and behavioral needs. IDEA requires that teams of education professionals review multiple data points and look for a preponderance of evidence that a child has a disability rather than use just one datapoint. COVID-19 related school disruptions have made data collection and observations of student performance more difficult, but the widespread learning loss makes such data collection incredibly important. To better understand how districts are adapting evaluation procedures as a result of COVID-19, consider asking the following questions:

  • What data are you collecting to determine my child’s eligibility for special education?
  • How can I share my insights on my child’s learning? 
  • How, if at all, does the administration of the assessments as part of the evaluation differ from what would be expected before the pandemic? How does that influence the way you are using the data?

Topic #7: The rights of children and caregivers under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

For children suspected to have a disability or those with a disability, IDEA guarantees children and their caregivers rights. The U.S. Department of Education did not waive any of those rights during COVID-19. To better understand how the district is adhering to IDEA to provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, consider asking the following questions:

  • How is my child receiving the services and supports outlined in their IEP regardless of learning environment changes caused by COVID-19? 
  • If my child has missed out on certain specially designed instruction or related services during the pandemic, how will we measure that loss and ensure that my child receives what they are entitled to?
  • What adaptations do you suggest to the IEP to account for last year’s school disruptions, the widespread instructional loss, and new challenges that may exist for my child?

Evaluating Children for Special Education

Introduction

Obligations to locate, evaluate, and serve students with disabilities.

Brief #1

Creating inclusive environments.

Brief #2

Effectively managing special education evaluations.

Brief #3

This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

BRIEF #3: Effectively Managing Special Education Evaluations

The Challenge

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires districts to complete special education evaluations within 60 days of the date of the request (unless states choose a shorter timeline). The law also sets out various components that should be included in a comprehensive evaluation. After a child is referred for special education, a comprehensive evaluation collects multiple points of data — including standardized assessment, response to intervention data, teacher and caregiver feedback, and academic performance — about a child to determine if they have a disability and if they would benefit from specially designed instruction.

COVID-related school closures significantly complicated the usual process and timeline that districts use to evaluate whether or not a child requires special education. Districts have struggled to keep pace with evaluations for special education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because there was inconclusive guidance on how to administer assessments and conduct observations in blended or virtual settings, many districts were unable to complete the evaluations they had begun before the pandemic and struggled to begin new evaluations requested after the onset of the pandemic. In addition, many students have experienced instructional loss and new stress, trauma, and behavioral challenges over the course of the pandemic. As a result, it is likely that requests for new referrals will increase in the coming year as schools try to meet the needs of students.

In addition to the backlog of evaluations and a potential rise in referrals, instructional loss and COVID-related stressors make it more difficult to determine which children require special education. Specifically, for a student to qualify for special education due to a specific learning disability, the team (including school professionals and the caregiver) must determine that the disability is the primary cause of the student’s academic challenges, rather than poor instruction or lack of English proficiency. States and districts may struggle to rule out poor instruction as a causal factor in student difficulties, or find meaningful academic proficiency baselines with which to compare students. As a result, they may find it difficult to accurately assess student performance. 

Practice and Policy Considerations

The following school-level practice and policy considerations can help states and districts effectively manage special education evaluation in light of the complexities from COVID-19. 

Practices to effectively manage special education evaluations.

As teams of education professionals and district leaders strive to effectively evaluate students for special education, they must focus on four key areas: (1) data collection; (2) accurate determination of special education eligibility; (3) family and caregiver empowerment and collaboration; and (4) managing the backlog of evaluations. 

Collecting data for an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education:

Closely examine background and history before conducting an assessment. Teams of education professionals should review a child’s background and history — including past proficiency and response to intervention (RTI) data and teacher and caregiver input — to determine what data are necessary to compile a comprehensive perspective of the child’s strengths and challenges, and the causes of both. 

Ask caregivers to share feedback and observation. Caregivers know more about their child than ever before through supporting them in blended and virtual environments, and have a deep understanding of how COVID impacted their child. Caregiver input is a key piece of every evaluation. But now, more than ever, those data are critically important. The team of education professionals should provide more time and support to caregivers to gather data without adding undue burden on caregivers or creating barriers for caregivers who may speak a language other than English.

Determine the need for data from cognitive assessments on a case-by-case basis. Teams of education professionals should examine a child’s history and other data to determine which cognitive assessments are a necessary part of the comprehensive evaluation to adequately address the reason for the referral. Cognitive assessments may not be necessary if academic performance data, notes from observation, and anecdotal data from caregivers and teachers are sufficient to answer questions related to the referral. Differences in current experiences and those from the norm group could also raise questions about the validity of conclusions from cognitive assessment data, and interpretations should be cautiously conducted with only the most robust scores (e.g., full-scale IQ).

Document alterations in how cognitive assessments are administered or interpreted. If cognitive assessments are needed as part of the evaluation, ongoing health and safety concerns will continue to influence the way some assessments can be administered. Whenever possible, evaluators should follow publishers’ guidelines to maximize the validity of the data. But if modifications or alterations are necessary — including conducting assessments virtually, wearing masks, or social distancing — evaluators should document those changes in the assessment report and explain how that may impact the results and meaning of the data. 

Prioritize response to intervention (RTI) data. Because of school disruptions, the academic proficiency benchmarks normally used to evaluate a child against others are limited. Without this, RTI data can play a critical role. Rather than relying on benchmarks, an RTI approach monitors if children are making adequate progress in real time when compared to their peers. 

Determining eligibility for special education:

Clearly define the questions an evaluation should answer. While special education evaluations are designed to consider whether a child has a disability and needs special education services, there are other considerations to keep in mind. For example, while teams of education professionals are required to consider whether the student’s learning challenges persist in spite of being provided appropriate instruction, they should now also consider the impact of COVID. A team may want to ask, “Is there evidence of other factors that are likely to be impacting learning?” For some students, the stress of COVID and disruptions to their routine might be leading to behavioral or social-emotional challenges that are impeding learning, as opposed to the student needing special education instruction. 

Consider social-emotional and behavior factors. School disruptions, disruptions in caregiving environments, loss of adult supervision, and the stress from COVID have had a significant impact on many children’s behavior, and behavior can have a dramatic impact on academic performance. Teams of education professionals should observe and evaluate how a child’s context may have influenced a child’s behavior and collect data on a child’s response to behavioral or social-emotional supports. 

Use multiple sources of data and consider the context of a child’s present circumstances. The past year has resulted in a lack of reliable academic proficiency benchmarks due to instructional loss, difficulty administering assessments, and challenges collecting other types of data in virtual or blended instruction. Therefore, it is more important than ever to consider multiple sources of data when making special education eligibility decisions. Data should include RTI, educator and caregiver observation, current and previous academic performance, and cognitive assessment results, if necessary. It may also include input from other school support or outside providers, such as therapists, speech and language pathologists, and occupational therapists. A team of education professionals should look for a preponderance of evidence that a child has a disability and would benefit from special education services. 

Empowering families and caregivers:

Make IEP meetings either virtual or in-person, based on the caregiver preference. During school disruptions, many districts offered IEP meetings virtually. For many caregivers, this made it easier to join meetings, increased their confidence to engage, and allowed caregivers to invite other advocates. At the same time, some caregivers still prefer in-person meetings and feel more engaged in that setting. Therefore, districts should allow caregivers to choose the format of IEP meetings when health and safety procedures allow. 

Communicate regularly and clearly with caregivers of children who are engaged in the evaluation process. Teams of education professionals should communicate the timeline, process, and expectations to caregivers. Caregivers should understand any change to normal processes due to COVID-related factors and how the school will provide additional supports in the interim to make sure the child does not fall further behind. 

Managing a backlog of evaluations:

Honor existing IEPs while districts make progress on students’ reevaluations. Children have a right to a reevaluation every three years unless caregivers waive the reevaluation. In light of COVID, as districts work through the backlog of evaluations, they should continue to implement existing IEPs and serve students even where a reevaluation might be overdue. If reevaluations are delayed, teams of education professionals should meet informally with caregivers to discuss how best to support the child in the interim while a plan is put in place to complete the reevaluation as soon as possible.

Prioritize initial evaluations. Teams of education professionals should work to ensure that all evaluations and reevaluations are completed in a timely manner. But if there is a backlog, education professionals can consider prioritizing initial evaluations in order for eligible students to begin receiving specialized services. It is important that children in need begin receiving services as quickly as possible.

Increase capacity to manage evaluations. To manage a backlog of evaluations and a potential wave of new referrals, districts can hire additional professionals, specifically evaluators, on a contract or temporary basis, to manage the workload. 

Policies to effectively manage special education evaluations:

States and school districts play important and differentiated roles in helping teams of education professionals implement school-level practices to respond to COVID-related challenges.

We recommend that states and school districts take the following actions to encourage education professionals to effectively manage evaluations for special education. 

Invest in building capacity in areas such as the intersection of disability and other factors. Ruling out exclusionary factors is always challenging, but COVID-related instructional loss and trauma make this particularly difficult. States and districts can help teams of education professionals better evaluate and identify the primary cause of a learning challenge by leaning on school psychologists and educators who are experts in the area. Experts can either provide additional capacity to conduct evaluations or provide coaching or guidance materials to increase expertise among education professionals. See more on ruling out exclusionary factors here and here

Invest resources to improve caregivers’ collaboration and empowerment. Consistent and clear communication with caregivers engaged in the special education evaluation process will take careful thought, planning, and time. States and districts can work with community partners or caregiver-focused organizations to build resources or structures that allow for actionable, meaningful, and clear communication for caregivers. There should be multiple ways that caregivers can engage and share information with schools — some virtual and some in person — as various caregivers more easily grasp information in different formats.

Update guidance to rule out exclusionary practices. Policies and guidance designed to help teams of education professionals rule out exclusionary factors vary across states and districts. Given the complexity of factors that can impact learning challenges during and after COVID-related school disruptions, states should update guidance that helps education professionals determine the degree of impact of school disruptions, trauma, a lack of English proficiency, and other factors. The guidance should help education professionals identify or manage a lack of proficiency baselines. See more on ruling out exclusionary factors here and here

Issue guidance on how to address the backlog of evaluations. To maximize equity and consistency, states and districts should issue guidance on how to prioritize the backlog of assessments. For instance, guidance should instruct teams of education professionals to prioritize initial evaluations over reevaluations. Teams of education professionals must not prioritize certain children based on their suspected disability as that would cause education professionals to predetermine the disability category prior to completing sufficient evaluations, which is forbidden by IDEA. 

Invest in additional capacity to manage the backlog of evaluations. As part of the guidance, states and districts should also encourage districts to use IDEA and Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund money to increase capacity to manage a backlog of evaluations. Additional funds may be used to hire outside evaluators to conduct assessments, hire additional school psychologists — although in many regions there is a shortage — or hire additional part-time staff to manage evaluation paperwork to free up education professionals to manage other parts of the evaluation. 

Clarify IDEA requirements around assessments within triennial reevaluations. States and districts should clarify for education professionals that assessments within triennial reevaluations should be administered on a case-by-case basis, depending on a child’s needs. Districts must reevaluate a child with an IEP at least every three years to determine if the child continues to have a disability, “whether the child continues to need special education and related services,” and “whether any additions or modification to the special education and related services are needed to engage the child to meet measurable annual goals set out in the IEP of the child and to participate, as appropriate, in the general education curriculum.” Districts must only administer assessments if instructional data and observation indicate that the results of any assessment may have changed or if additional data are needed to supplement other forms of data. To ensure that evaluations are effective and to administer assessments appropriately, education professionals should consider child data and input from caregivers before determining which assessments are necessary. 

Invest resources to implement response to intervention (RTI) approaches with fidelity. Effective implementation of RTI is a team effort and requires coordinated administration of effective interventions and continuous monitoring. States and districts can invest in resources, including hiring coaches and procuring high-quality interventions, to improve the quality and impact of RTI data. For more information, see here

Invest resources to improve caregivers’ collaboration and empowerment. Consistent and clear communication with caregivers engaged in the special education evaluation process will take careful thought, planning, and time. States and districts can work with community partners or caregiver-focused organizations to build resources or structures that allow for actionable, meaningful, and clear communication for caregivers. There should be multiple ways that caregivers can engage and share information with schools — some virtual and some in person — as various caregivers more easily grasp information in different formats.

Evaluating Children for Special Education

Introduction

Brief 1:

Obligations to locate, evaluate, and serve students with disabilities.

Brief 2:

Creating inclusive environments.

Parent & Caregiver Guide:

Special education evaluations.

This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

BRIEF #2: Creating an Inclusive Environment to Provide Adequate Instruction, Behavioral Supports, and Emotional Supports for All Children

The Challenge

School disruptions have had a pronounced impact on children’s learning. Most — but, importantly, not all — children fell behind. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic caused most children to experience school disruptions, stress, and isolation that will have an impact on overall well-being and academic performance. Generally, marginalized populations were most negatively affected. Research estimates that average, cumulative instructional loss was five to nine months by the end of the 2020–2021 school year. For students of color, that figure could be as high as 12 months.

Greater instructional loss for historically marginalized student populations occurred, in part, because of situational factors that limited their access to needed instruction and interventions. Many children with disabilities currently in special education were unable to receive the same interventions described in their IEPs when attending school virtually. And virtual learning created additional challenges for some children who struggle with executive function, a key weakness for many children with learning and attention issues. Other populations had compounding issues. For instance, more Black and Latinx children were learning remotely in the fall and winter 2020 when compared to White children. In addition, children of color had less access to broadband, were less likely to have devices to access remote instruction, and had less support available at home than did White students.

The instructional, emotional, and behavioral impact of COVID-19 complicates the context around referrals for evaluations and determining eligibility for special education. As a part of all special education evaluations, a team of education professionals must rule out other situational factors, including lack of appropriate instruction in literacy and math, as the primary cause of a learning challenge. It is more difficult for a team of education professionals to evaluate the extent of a learning challenge without reliable benchmarks for proficiency and achievement. Due to sweeping instructional loss, using a comparison to grade-level expectations as a means to refer students for an evaluation may result in unnecessary referrals or, worse, overidentification. 

IDEA Special Education Eligibility Requirement

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that a team of education professionals must determine that the “determinant factor” — the primary cause of a learning challenge — is not a lack of appropriate instruction in literacy or math, or limited English proficiency. In instances where a child is suspected to have a specific learning disability (one of 13 disability categories identified in IDEA) there are additional exclusionary factors that must be considered and ruled out. For more information, see here.

Additionally, as part of evaluations for specific learning disabilities, teams must also consider whether a student’s learning problems are due to environmental, economic, or cultural factors. Research shows that “even though no race or ethnicity is more likely to have a learning disability, certain subgroups of students, specifically African American and Hispanic students, are overrepresented among students receiving special education services within the SLD category.” Thus, these same students who have experienced greater negative impacts from the pandemic might be at higher risk for misidentification of disability upon their return to in-person learning.

Therefore, evidence-based practices to support social, emotional, behavioral, and academic development are essential and will benefit all children as they return to a new school environment. Only once this inclusive environment is established can schools provide effective interventions and identify students who may be struggling — key pieces of an effective special education evaluation process. 

Practice and Policy Considerations

The following school level practice and policy considerations can help states and districts provide appropriate interventions and instruction to struggling learners to mitigate instructional loss from the past year and a half. 

Practices to provide appropriate interventions and instruction to struggling learners.

As districts work to move forward from the pandemic and fully reopen schools, there is a need to implement universal practices that will facilitate inclusive instructional environments for all children. This step is essential to reestablishing core instruction and supports as decisions are made about special education eligibility. In addition, for those students who have already been determined eligible for special education or who are suspected to have a disability, there are key practices that are critical to supporting their success and meeting their needs.

Instruction and academic interventions:

Administer regular formative assessment. Educators should administer class-wide formative assessments to gauge unfinished learnings and track class-wide and individual progress. Assessments that can drive instruction and services should be prioritized, as they will help identify children who may fall further behind.

Align curriculum to grade-level standards. Schools should tailor instruction to meet children’s needs and address the impact of instructional loss on each child, but curriculum for all students must be aligned to grade-level expectations. Remediation only exacerbates instructional loss, and when instruction is tracked, can perpetuate achievement gaps. Instead, the overall curriculum should reflect critical grade-level standards — or “power standards” — and schools should weave in opportunities for children to focus on unfinished learnings. See more about power standards and acceleration in Promising Practices to Accelerate Learning for Students With Disabilities During COVID-19.

Adopt evidence-based, class-wide interventions. Schools should implement evidence- based, class-wide interventions to address instructional loss experienced by the majority of students. Interventions and corresponding curriculum should reflect research on effective acceleration models, including streamlining grade-level standards and building in additional instructional time to integrate necessary instruction on unmastered instructional skills that are prerequisites for grade-level instruction.

Implement individual interventions for those with the greatest need. Formative assessments will shed light on children’s varied proficiency levels and unfinished learnings. Schools should focus on each child’s unique needs and supplement class-wide supports with more intensive interventions for children who experienced the most significant instructional loss or who are not making adequate progress. Given that school disruptions stifled data collection over the past school year, schools should default to a higher intensity of support and intervention earlier than may have been required before COVID. This will ensure that children do not fall further behind even while they are awaiting an evaluation for special education, if that is deemed appropriate.

Embrace Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework to improve instruction and learning for all children based on tailoring practice to how individuals learn best. As children return from different experiences and with varying needs, it is ever more important to create multiple ways to represent, express, and engage children in learning. For instance, for the small group of children who thrived in virtual instruction, educators may find ways to integrate more independent learning.

Behavioral and social-emotional supports:

Increase social-emotional supports and interventions. Schools must be prepared to support all children and educators as they navigate the trauma and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 lockdown and school disruptions. Schools may hire additional school mental health professionals to help individual children repair social and emotional health. Schools may also provide professional development and coaching to all educators.

Set clear, positive, and appropriate behavioral expectations. Systems that use positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) provide an effective foundation to support all students. PBIS is a school-wide system designed to promote safety and positive behavior. It teaches students appropriate behavior by clarifying and encouraging positive choices rather than by punishing poor decisions. Given that children were out of routine and without exposure to traditional group environments, PBIS can help all children relearn behavioral expectations for school. Even if a school implemented PBIS prior to the pandemic, schools should relaunch the program for all children since so much time has elapsed.

Leave time and space for social-emotional and behavioral learning. COVID had a pronounced impact on children’s well-being overall. Just as most children will struggle with instructional loss, many children also are navigating experience with trauma and loss. Educators should leave time and space to support children in building effective strategies to acknowledge and work through anxiety, transition, and feelings of isolation.

Provide professional development and resources to increase capacity and guidance to education professionals and school support staff as they navigate the new landscape. Education professionals need support managing the ongoing impact of COVID on child well-being and instruction. Adapting curriculum, engaging with caregivers, implementing PBIS, and other essential strategies will require expertise and time separate from the hours educators spend working alongside children. Schools should provide additional capacity and coaching to help education professionals refine these new skills and use effective strategies to support children.

Normalize and maintain frequent, concise touch points with caregivers. In many instances, engagement between educators and caregivers increased dramatically during school closures. Even as most children return to school five days a week, schools should continue to provide frequent updates to caregivers that focus on the transition back to school and progress toward grade-level standards. Schools should also continue to provide caregivers with strategies to complement in-school supports at home. Communication should be concise, clear, targeted, and accessible. 

Policies to provide appropriate interventions and instruction to struggling learners.

States and school districts play important roles in setting the stage for school teams to effectively serve students, including students with disabilities. Now, states and districts must take action to ensure that schools provide appropriate interventions and instruction to struggling children.

Prohibit the use of exclusionary discipline. States and districts should prohibit the use of exclusionary discipline, or any action that removes a child from their appropriate instructional setting. This includes formal or informal removal for any type of behavior. Removing children from core instruction will cause further instructional loss and does not help children develop positive strategies to manage their behavior. Moreover, exclusionary discipline is more common among children of color who have also experienced greater instructional loss than their White peers. 

Develop a comprehensive plan to accelerate learning for all students. Given widespread instructional loss, states and districts should adopt and implement policies and approaches to accelerate learning for all students. Research shows that successful acceleration efforts include key components: focusing on grade-level standards; allowing additional time to integrate necessary prerequisite skills; customizing instruction based on strengths and areas of growth for each student; leveraging student interest to encourage deep, engaging learning; and using Universal Design for Learning, multiple modalities, and small group instruction. For specific policies to advance these ideas, see Promising Practices to Accelerate Learning for Students With Disabilities During COVID-19 and Beyond

Build capacity for all educators to use evidence-based instructional strategies. Federal, state, and local decision makers should allocate funding and resources, including coaches and curriculum, to help all educators develop the mindsets and key practices to support all children’s academic performance and overall social-emotional health. 

Conduct regular formative assessments to drive class-wide and individual interventions. Children have had inequitable access to instruction throughout the pandemic. Regular formative assessments will allow educators to evaluate instructional loss for the class in general and for individual children, as well as determine which types of interventions will be most effective to accelerate learning. Ongoing formative assessments that are embedded into instruction will allow educators to effectively adjust instruction without siphoning off additional instructional time. 

Develop guidelines and provide funding to help caregivers support their children at home. Districts and states should develop guidance and use resources to provide caregivers with what they need to support their children’s instruction. Districts can consider using a portion of their Title I parent engagement funds that are set aside to provide resources or coaching. Or states could choose to provide additional funds to Parent Training Information Centers. 

Increase funding to focus on social-emotional learning and behavioral supports. States and districts should increase resources available to schools and increase availability of school mental health professionals to support children’s and educators’ social-emotional learning and behavioral supports.

Evaluating Children for Special Education

Introduction

Obligations to locate, evaluate, and serve students with disabilities.

Brief #1

Effectively managing special education evaluations.

Brief #3

Parent & Caregiver Guide:

Special education evaluations.

This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

BRIEF 1: State and District Obligations to Locate, Evaluate, and Serve Children With Disabilities

The rights of children suspected of having a disability and the process to evaluate them for special education are just two of the many components in our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Children eligible for special education have the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means that districts must continue to provide FAPE and LRE for all children with disabilities, regardless of school disruptions. FAPE must include access to instruction and interventions (whether virtual or in-person) that allow a child to achieve ambitious goals commensurate with their abilities. Instruction of students with disabilities must be provided alongside their peers without disabilities as much as possible.

During the pandemic, IDEA remained in place. No waivers were granted to states or districts. States were and are required to comply with their obligations to locate, evaluate, and serve any eligible child with a disability. Despite this, the implementation of IDEA varied across the country. Many children with disabilities did not receive the specially designed instruction and services guaranteed in their Individualized Education Program (IEP).

At the same time, virtual and blended instruction has given caregivers a new perspective into their child’s education. Parents and caregivers now better understand their children’s strengths and areas of growth, what activities and environments are most challenging, and what interventions are most effective. The collaboration between caregivers and schools varied by district, by school, and even by educator. In some instances, the caregivers and districts had robust conversations about how to ensure that the child had access to FAPE despite the health and safety concerns caused by COVID-19. In other instances, caregivers struggled to receive clear information and effective solutions.

As schools fully reopen and recover from the pandemic, districts will need to consider how to provide services that children may have missed out on due to COVID-related school disruptions, as well as how to meet any new or increased needs that students receiving special education may have developed in the last year. Districts must keep in mind the core components of IDEA when making decisions about referring a child for special education and when determining the appropriate placement and services for each child deemed eligible for special education. These include: 

Ensure that free appropriate public education (FAPE) is afforded in any setting. 

Every child with a disability has a right to FAPE and must have equal access to education. A student’s IEP should be implemented as written, whether in a virtual or in-person setting, until a team of education professionals can reconvene to update the IEP or conduct a reevaluation. A child’s current IEP — or the district’s delay in updating a child’s IEP — must not prevent a district from providing a child with a disability equal access to the learning environments offered to children in general education. Teams of education professionals and caregivers must work together to determine the most appropriate instructional placement for a child and make decisions about how each child will resume a learning environment that is best suited to maximizing learning.

Consider least restrictive environment (LRE) when making decisions.

When establishing school schedules or student groupings that follow health and safety standards, teams of education professionals should abide by IDEA’s requirement to ensure that children with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment that allows them to make adequate educational progress. As many districts try to prioritize students with disabilities for in-person instruction and increase their access to live instruction and services, it is important to ensure that students with disabilities are not segregated from their peers based on their disability status alone. Instead, decisions should be made on an individual basis as to what kind of learning environment is most appropriate for each child, with a goal of increasing time spent with non-disabled peers. And after in-person instruction resumes, a child may not be moved to or asked to continue with virtual learning due to behavioral issues. 

Revisit IEPs to make sure they are aligned to grade-level standards.

Teams of education professionals, working with caregivers, should review individual IEPs as the next school year’s instruction resumes to ensure that each IEP is aligned to grade-level standards and provides additional or new services to compensate for academic and social-emotional challenges.

Reestablish instruction and interventions.

Carefully consider eligibility in the referral and evaluation process given new considerations due to COVID-19.

While districts are working to mitigate COVID-related challenges related to special education evaluation and to appropriately identify and develop services for children eligible for special education, they must also consider their existing obligations to students already receiving special education services. For more information on the core components of IDEA and district obligations under federal law, refer to:

Additional Resources:

Evaluating Children for Special Education

Introduction

Creating an inclusive environment.

Brief #2

Effectively managing special education evaluations.

Brief #3

Parent & Caregiver Guide

Special education evaluations.

This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Evaluating Children for Special Education During COVID-19 and Beyond

Practice and Policy Considerations to Mitigate COVID-Related Challenges

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are grappling with the impact of the widespread instructional loss that most students have experienced. Some students have also experienced stress, disruptions at home, and trauma, and historically marginalized populations are likely to be most impacted academically. Even where educators, school administrators, and caregivers worked to deliver high-quality instruction to all children, many children with learning and attention issues received fewer supports, accommodations and services that they rely on to access general education curriculum in virtual or remote instruction.

As a result of these compounding effects, school and district administrators are preparing for an increase in referrals for initial evaluations for special education and new requests to add additional services to children’s existing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).  In addition to a backlog created by out-of-school time and remote education, the dislocation, trauma and loss caused by the pandemic add complicating factors to an already challenging eligibility process. It will be more complex for schools to determine eligibility for special education as they must seek to determine if a disability is the primary cause of a student’s academic, social, emotional, or behavioral challenges. If not done carefully, districts face a risk of misidentifying students as needing special education when, in fact, they are in need of instruction and support that can mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

School and district administrators are exploring how to manage this compounding and unprecedented challenge. They must keep in mind the core components of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when referring a child for special education and making decisions about placement and services for each child. It will also be important to make significant investments in providing high-quality instruction, evidence-based intervention, behavioral supports, and meaningful family engagement to help students reintegrate into their learning environments and to make appropriate decisions about the special education evaluation process.

To help districts navigate these complex challenges, NCLD has developed briefs to inform state and district policies and practices: 

Obligations to locate, evaluate, and serve students with disabilities.

Brief #1

Creating inclusive environments.

Brief #2

Effectively managing special education evaluations.

Brief #3

Parent & Caregiver Guide:

Special education evaluations.

This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Case Study: The GALS Denver Middle School

Learning Differently, Succeeding Academically, Leading Confidently, Living Boldly, and Thriving Physically: The GALS Denver Middle School

Girls Athletic Leadership Schools (GALS) is a network of three tuition-free, public, all-girls college preparatory schools in Denver, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. The flagship school in the growing network, GALS Denver, envisions a world where all young women are given access to a personalized and holistic education that provides them the opportunity to access the skills, knowledge, and self-determination to succeed at school, in their postsecondary pathways, and in their careers, and to develop as leaders.

This brief tells the story of how GALS Denver Middle School works to provide an equitable education for students with disabilities and all other students — a story grounded in the science of learning and development, rooted in inclusion, and brought to life with physical movement.

A School for Every Girl

The founding philosophy of GALS Denver is based on the positive impact of physical activity on academics, social-emotional learning, and a pattern of lifelong good habits. GALS Denver students gain joy, energy, and confidence from movement — and research demonstrates that daily exercise improves memory, attention, and cognition. Students have a block of time set aside each morning for exploring different types of movement, including running, cycling, circuit training/CrossFit, dance, and yoga.

Student Demographics

White: 48%
Hispanic:  32%
Black:  10%
Asian:  4%
Students with disabilities:  11%
English language learners:  14%
Eligible for free or reduced meals:  36%

Founded in 2009, GALS Denver is a single-gender school where anyone who identifies as female or was assigned the female gender at birth is welcome. The school has created an environment where girls and young women engage in opportunities to know themselves well, discover their agency, and develop their voice. Further, as this brief discusses below, the GALS curriculum and culture provide for deeply personalized experiences and environments for students to develop deep content knowledge and practice skills that will serve them in becoming their most authentic selves in the world. 

The Science of Learning and Development: What Is True for All Young People

Converging research from the science of learning and development tells us there are essential characteristics of equitable and excellent educational settings for all students, including those with disabilities. The best educational settings:  

  • foster positive developmental relationships that build emotional connections and enable children to master knowledge and skills, grow in competence and confidence, and take on new challenges;
  • provide environments filled with safety and belonging through shared values, routines, and high expectations, demonstrating cultural sensitivity and affirming identities; 
  • provide rich learning experiences for each student that deepen understanding and help transfer skills and knowledge to new contexts and problems;
  • help develop knowledge, skills, mindsets, and habits by simultaneously developing academic mindsets, knowledge, and skills along with cognitive, emotional, and social skills; and
  • provide integrated systems of support including health, mental health, and social service supports to bolster the assets and address the unique needs of each child.

GALS Denver’s approach to delivering a transformative student experience that is personalized, empowering, and culturally affirming has deep roots in the science of learning and development.

Even the timing of the school day is based on adolescent brain development. Every morning begins with movement and electives. Core content classes (math, science, language arts, social studies, and GALS Series) don’t start until 9:00 a.m. and rotate every day, because students absorb knowledge differently at different periods of the day.

The GALS Series. “We say at GALS that all students are well known and well seen,” said Director of Instructional Coaching and Curriculum Sara Dishell. “The relationships between staff members, families, and students are paramount to what we are doing every day. We know that humans need to feel safe and feel known in order to be their best and most authentic selves in the world, and we believe that the opportunity to practice that authenticity must start in the school building.” The GALS Series curriculum provides GALS students with the tools needed to become more aware of their individual and community identity, the skills to navigate through challenges and decisions successfully, and empowerment to drive them. The GALS Series curriculum encompasses five themes: mindfulness, wellness, voice, relationships, and goal setting. Classes also focus on the continued development of reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, with grade-level, Common Core standards.

Although not technically an academic course, the GALS Series is a centerpiece of the GALS experience and is assigned the same amount of time and priority in the curriculum as science, math, social studies, and language arts. Why? Because GALS believes that social and emotional development are as important as core academics. The GALS Series class includes specific units about relationships, employing role playing, among other techniques, to build skills for developing a healthy relationship with oneself and with others.

For example, one of the first GALS Series lessons is about control and boundaries: “Saying no means you can say yes to what you want.” Through these lessons, students learn how to understand their locus of control and how to handle life’s challenges as “my best self.” As Dishell explained, “You can walk into a sixth grade classroom and watch students work through how to tell a friend that she’d hurt her feelings. Then, walk into a seventh grade room and hear girls talking together about how to handle it when someone is being passive-aggressive. And last, go into an eighth grade class to hear girls talking about race, class, and privilege.”

These social-emotional skills are core to relationship-building. As Dishell said, “We know our students really well. That knowledge helps us guide them to become their best, most authentic selves inside and outside the school building.”

Students with disabilities affirm that is true. In a 2020 survey, 67% of students with disabilities agreed that “When I get upset, I feel that I have options of adults to support me.”

The GALS Pledge

I know who I am.

I know that I matter.

I know what matters to me.

I pay attention to what I feel and need. 

I make choices and decisions that are good for me.

I take good care of my body.

I stand up for what I believe in.

I let people know what I think, even if I am angry or confused or in disagreement with everyone else.

I am a valuable friend.

I know I can make a positive difference in the world in my own unique way.

Full Inclusion Promotes Safety and Belonging

Considered a full inclusion model, GALS Denver is classified as “cross categorical” and serves students with a variety of disabilities, including developmental, physical, intellectual, and emotional. Unlike many schools, GALS Denver’s infrastructure is intentionally designed to welcome students with mild or moderate disabilities, as well as students with more intensive physical and developmental needs. “GALS is a very attractive option for families of special education students,” said Dishell. “Because of our full inclusion model, focus on movement, and full-time social-emotional curriculum, students with a diversity of learning differences are able to thrive and feel welcome at GALS.”

Middle-schoolers face so many changes, from academic expectations to puberty, that any given school day can become overwhelming. GALS deeply understands that when students are upset or frustrated, they can’t concentrate or focus on the tasks at hand. To mitigate those bumps in the road, every student has access to schoolwide systems for social-emotional care.

As one example, GALS Denver teachers have mindfulness corners in their classrooms, where the goal is to teach students healthy coping mechanisms. The school also has a “reset room.” There, a counselor is always ready with techniques and activities to help students take the time to get back on track and back to class. At the end of each day, GALS Denver staff evaluates when and why students felt the need to leave the class. If the pattern is emerging in a particular class, GALS Denver works with teachers, students, and families to overcome the obstacles.

UDL Comes to Life as GALS Works to Provide Rich Learning Experiences and Develop Critical Skills, Habits, and Mindsets

A hallmark of the GALS Denver approach is centering students with disabilities when designing what the school day looks like. “Our students with special needs are not an afterthought; we practice Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in every area of our programming, including movement, core academics, and the GALS Series class when we plan academics, physical activities, and social-emotional learning,” said Dishell. “Our prioritization of those students defines us.”

Because we do not plan our schoolwide systems to be one-size-fits-all, things can get messy. And I hope we can stay messy, because humans are messy. This is humanizing pedagogy — when things are messy, we know we are doing what we need to as a school to center the individual.Sara Dishell

Over 90% of teachers at GALS Denver write their own curriculum grounded in Colorado’s Academic Standards. To do this, they define a standards-based end goal applicable for all students and then build the scaffolding needed to provide support for students with special needs. Specific ways GALS Denver personalizes and helps UDL come to life for students with disabilities include tailoring expectations for physical movement, customizing assignments, expanding the ways classroom lessons are used in the real world, and personalizing sex education classes to those with developmental disabilities. Class unit plan end goals are UDL designed and then general education teachers work with special education teachers to make accommodations and modifications, while ensuring that all students are aiming for the same end goal. For example, the GALS Series classes culminate in a project-based event called “Voice Night.” All students learn the academic, executive functioning, and public speaking standards and skills that are required of the project, but all the projects are tailored to each individual student’s needs and learning goals.

Integrated Supports Enrich the Learning Experience

Students with disabilities at GALS Denver are fully integrated with their general education classmates, aside from an academic accelerator period where students with disabilities have dedicated time with a special educator. “We thought it was abundantly important that this time was real world relevant and reinforced the skills on the students’ IEP goals — math, literacy, and social,” said Dishell. So students with disabilities at GALS Denver participate in a business lab where they run their own in-house coffee shop. Here, students practice integrated social, emotional, and academic skills by developing and managing their own enterprise. Within this project-based, student-led learning setting, students develop a plan for how the coffee shop is to be run, including things like greeting their “customers” (school staff) and taking beverage orders; using listening skills to communicate specific coffee orders; and using their math skills to accept the money, make change, and calculate the coffee shop’s revenues and budget. Additionally, students learn how to market their products and set up a delivery system. This class is specifically designed to incorporate math, literacy, and communication practice.

Alongside recognitions for academic excellence, effort, and improvement, students at GALS Denver are regularly recognized for embodying the school’s “Habits of Heart and Mind.” These habits include: power, flexibility, focus, and balance. When a student falls short of these aspirations, the school’s discipline systems are based on restorative justice, not punitive measures. In addition to the GALS Denver emphasis on movement to help students regulate, seasoned counselors are on staff for one-on-one social-emotional care.

Building a Team to Support Students

At GALS Denver, programs are designed to wrap around students and their needs — and the hiring and staffing model reflects that. “Because of our full inclusion model, we try to make sure in hiring and in ongoing professional development that every core academic teacher sees themselves as a special education teacher,” said Dishell. The team invests in a staffing structure that provides additional support for students, including: 

  • an additional teacher in every grade-level team, who focuses exclusively on the GALS Series;
  • a robust counseling team with three full-time counselors and three or four interns who gain hands-on experience in the classroom; and
  • a special education team that includes a director, seven paraprofessionals, and four full-time providers.

This investment in staff comes through when surveying students about their experience at GALS Denver. Highlights from a 2020 survey showed that:

  • 92% of students with disabilities said they have the mental health support that they need to focus on learning (compared to 80% of students without disabilities).
  • 83% of students with disabilities said they see the counselors at GALS to be people who can help them when needed (compared with 68% of students without disabilities).

In the most recent round of district and statewide data (pre-pandemic), GALS special education students ranked second for highest growth in math and seventh for highest growth in English language arts. GALS Middle School was the only school in the Denver Public Schools that was in the top 10 of both lists.

By building on insights from the science of learning and development, GALS Denver strives to live up to its mission to empower students to succeed academically, lead confidently, live boldly, and thrive physically. As one parent said, “A generation of young women knowing these things can change the discourse of the community, the world. We’re the beneficiaries as a family. We have much stronger, more empowered girls.”