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.”

Case Study: Genesee Community Charter School

A Plan from the Heart: How Genesee Community Charter School Brings a Systematic Approach to Whole Child Education

Genesee Community Charter School, located on the campus of the Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, New York, exists to help a diverse student body to develop intellectual rigor, respect for diversity, and a sense of responsibility to the community — but it doesn’t just happen. To nurture all students to be reflective questioners, articulate communicators, critical thinkers, and skilled problem solvers, the school takes a systematic approach that marries the science of learning and development with the staff’s heartfelt dedication to its students. That approach includes fulfilling a commitment to diversity and full inclusion for students with disabilities; teaching a curriculum designed to build social-emotional skills and a commitment to others; regularly assessing students for academic and social-emotional development; providing for comprehensive tiered interventions tailored to individual student needs; and staffing and organizing the school to support the curriculum, the interventions, and, most importantly, the students. This brief tells the story of how Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) brings to life an equitable education for students with disabilities and all other students — a story grounded in science, implemented systemically, and led from the heart.

The Science of Learning and Development: Brains, Bodies, the Classroom and Beyond

Converging research in the science of learning and development tells us there are essential characteristics of educational settings — including those for students with disabilities — that are designed to maximize the human potential of each student [see Essential Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole-Child Design]. They:

  • Foster positive developmental relationships that build emotional connections and enable children to learn 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 communicating worth
  • Provide rich learning experiences for each student that deepen understanding and help transfer skills to new contexts and problems
  • Help develop knowledge, skills, mindsets, and habits by simultaneously developing content-specific knowledge and skills along with cognitive, emotional, and social skills
  • Provide integrated systems of support, including health, mental health, and social service supports to bolster the assets and address the needs of each unique child

Incorporating these principles doesn’t just happen. It requires a systematic approach to the organization of the school, one that is grounded in the science of learning and development and results in a personalized, empowering, culturally affirming, and transformative whole child education for every student.

Positive Developmental Relationships for Growth

The science of learning and development finds that relationships and relationship building are essential to learning and development, especially for students with disabilities, who benefit from individualized attention and support. Relationship building at GCCS begins first thing in the morning with Morning Meeting, a circle gathering in each classroom with all students and staff in each grade. “Every day starts with Morning Circle, and the whole point of that is to foster positive relationships,” said Shannon Hillman, School Leader at GCCS. The daily gathering helps build feelings of unity and mutual support, and students are invited to greet each other by name each morning, engage in a collaborative activity to develop social problem-solving skills, like sharing an item from home — a favorite book or a valued toy — in a collaborative social setting.

Once a week, the entire staff and student body gather for Community Circle, an opportunity for the entire school community to gather, move together with music, do art projects, or celebrate a learning opportunity. Pre-pandemic, families were invited to the every-Wednesday event, scheduled to maximize opportunities for parent participation in service of developing stronger peer-to-peer and peer-to-adult relationships. During the pandemic, Morning Meeting and Community Circle have continued remotely. These and other innovations embody adoption of the crew model for building durable, positive relationships with peers and adults.

“Students with disabilities are not seen with a label, but rather seen as a family member who has unique characteristics just as any other student is viewed in the classroom,” said Shannon Hillman, School Leader at GCCS. “Since students ‘grow up’ together from kindergarten and stay together through their career at GCCS, students with disabilities form lifelong bonds with their peers to create a truly inclusive community of diverse learners.”

Since each classroom is inclusive and houses students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and Section 504 accommodation plans, students are also placed in heterogeneous groups called “crews” to create Final Products, the term for the culminating academic projects completed by all students, including students with disabilities. “This allows academically and socially diverse groups of students to learn collaborative skills as they work together for a common learning purpose. For our students with disabilities, the path to high expectations and outcomes is individualized to support their academic, social, and emotional development,” said Hillman. “All students benefit from this strategic interaction, or relationship building, and students are provided with guidance from their classroom teachers and service providers along the way.”

Building Safety and Belonging Through Diversity

From its origins in 2001, GCCS has sought to build a diverse and inclusive body in one of the most racially segregated communities in the country. The school originated out of a desire to help dismantle decades of systemic racism and educate more of Rochester’s children together to erase social and academic boundaries in service of educational equity. Thirty-eight percent of students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds; 40 percent are racial or ethnic minorities; and 11 percent are students with disabilities, including students with IEPs and/or 504 plans.

As a charter school within Rochester’s public school system, the school actively monitors its racial and ethnic composition and takes affirmative steps to ensure diversity through the charter admissions lottery process. It then builds an environment to encourage team building, problem solving, cooperation, and belonging. As a small school with strong loyalty among families with enrolled children, a relatively small percentage of enrollments each year represent new families. This makes focused, targeted efforts to build diversity essential. To that end, GCCS has audited its marketing and recruitment to improve outreach to students impacted by poverty and English language learners; targeted marketing and advertising efforts in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty; and added new onsite and offsite opportunities for families from historically marginalized backgrounds to learn about the school and apply for admission.

That effort pays off, GCCS educators say, in a student body that sees itself as family and that builds relationships across social divisions. Students build rich and lasting relationships with peers of differing backgrounds that lead to a strong sense of safety and belonging. Indeed, the school builds lessons designed to help students understand the differing needs and abilities of classmates. In one exercise, students return from recess to a classroom with pieces of candy taped at different heights to the classroom walls, and are told that the class’s mission is to ensure that everyone gets a piece of candy. This encourages teamwork and an understanding of how, by including everyone in the challenge, everyone can succeed.

Data shows the effectiveness of this approach toward building a strong sense of student belonging. According to internal survey results shared with NCLD, more than 9 in 10 students say they have a friend and a teacher or other adult they can depend on when they ask for help, and nearly 9 in 10 families say they can be open and honest with their child’s teachers.

Rich Learning Through Community Connections to Past and Future

The decision to adopt the Learning Expeditions curriculum framework by EL Education provides GCCS an opportunity to help students build academic, problem-solving, and teamwork skills, and encourages awareness of their community, its history, and its current needs. Traditional classroom instruction is just the start. GCCS’s approach is built on holistic learning keyed to six historical periods of the local community’s past, present, and future. Each class studies three time periods per year by engaging in intensive, interdisciplinary learning expeditions that combine social studies, science, literacy, and the arts. Students studying Rochester’s frontier past are immersed in solving the problems faced by the area’s Native Americans and early settlers; those studying the area’s role in early industrialization are likewise immersed in the lives of immigrant textile workers. Different grade levels are studying the same historic period at the same time, with each grade approaching different topics.

The combination of intensive research, reading, writing, scientific exploration, fieldwork, and real-world application provides deep, rich and meaningful development of academic skills and community belonging. For students with disabilities at GCCS, learning and development are supported by a co-teaching model in which general education and special education teachers collaborate to meet individual student needs so they can fully access the Learning Expeditions curriculum. At the end of each school year, each class develops a Final Product — a book, performance, public presentation, museum exhibit, or other product that incorporates knowledge and skills developed over the year, usually in service of a community organization or to fill an identified community need. Students with disabilities receive personalized supports, including social and emotional learning supports, to fully engage in the creation of Final Products along with the crew mates. Each class presents their Final Product to the community, including parents and invited local leaders, on Exhibition Night. The effort culminates for sixth graders in a high-stakes student-led conference in which each student presents their Passage Portfolio, a collection of work demonstrating their academic progress and their social-emotional preparedness to assume roles as community leaders to a panel of GCCS community stakeholders.

Whole Students: Developing Skills, Habits, and Mindsets

The GCCS approach to SEL at a glance:

  • Learning expeditions structure
  • Character education
  • Responsive Classroom model

The deep learning opportunities and community connections of the Learning Expeditions structure are designed to simultaneously build academic and social-emotional development. Enhancing social-emotional development goes even deeper. Character education is built on a foundation of seven GCCS character traits that are embedded in the academic program: responsibility, compassion, collaboration, initiative, perseverance, courage, and gratitude. Each academic unit at each grade level includes not just a learning target but a character target — and often, targets are set collaboratively by groups of students to reflect their unique needs and lived experiences. The school further incorporates social-emotional learning through its adoption of the Responsive Classroom model, which focuses on engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmental awareness, and is modified by teachers as needed to meet the needs of students with disabilities. This contrasts with punitive approaches to student discipline, which have been shown to produce disproportionately negative outcomes for students with disabilities. They have also embedded within all classes, including co-teaching settings, Restorative Practices, Zones of Regulation, and Habits of Mindfulness into their social-emotional learning program. 

A System Built for Students: Integrated Supports

Supporting each GCCS student’s academic, social, and emotional development is a carefully honed system designed to provide every individual student what they need to maximize development. The school assesses incoming students to determine if they have previously required an Individualized Education Program or special education services. It surrounds students with disabilities with a comprehensive set of services to support their education. It is staffed to provide those supports — including the presence of a special education coordinator and social worker on staff. And classroom teachers, special education and support teams, school leadership, and the intervention team (described below) meet regularly to track each student’s progress and plan interventions to support their growth.

The system’s foundation is a four-tiered intervention model. At Tier I, students are assessed using academic and behavioral baselines and identify potential intervention requirements. Students identified as not achieving sufficient progress enter Tier II, the beginning of comprehensive, targeted interventions to meet their specific needs. Tier II interventions can include steps as simple as constant teacher proximity, aids for emotional regulation, and academic assistance. Students requiring more intensive, individualized intervention are in Tier III, which can include a wide range of supports, including speech or occupational therapy, teacher assistance with tasks such as packing at the end of the day, additional academic skills benchmarking, and a variety of special education supports. Data collected in Tiers I–III are used in determining which students are potentially eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004), and development of an IEP to guide their support.

GCCS is staffed and organized to provide this level of comprehensive support. Two certified classroom teachers and a teaching assistant are assigned to each class, providing adequate staff to meet the unique needs of each child. In addition to a special education coordinator, the school staff includes a restorative practice coach (for SEL support), ENL teacher (for students who need English language learning services), math intervention teacher, literacy coach, and transition coach (who provides both instructional coaching and Tier III reading intervention to students). This group, along with the special education coordinator and social worker, make up the intervention team. The curriculum coordinator and the school leader meet with the team weekly to discuss overall operating progress. The team meets once every four weeks with each grade level to discuss specific interventions, targets, and progress monitoring data. 

Succeeding for Students

GCCS was sparked by a desire to build an educational environment that broke down divisions, fostered community, and provided educational opportunity that broke down barriers of inequality. Accomplishing that heartfelt goal has required diligence and planning: actively encouraging rich relationships; curating a sense of belonging and worth; building a curriculum that connects students to their community and that prioritizes character as well as academic development; comprehensively supporting students with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds; and organizing and staffing the school to deliver on its promise. The result: academic achievement that competes with or exceeds that of surrounding districts, including performance with key demographic subgroups; lasting student relationships across lines of social division; and a strong connection between the school and its surrounding community. 

An Urgent Imperative for States

Developing Whole Child Policies to Support an Equitable Education for Students With Disabilities

Effective education policymaking and policies are central to the work that states do to ensure that all young people experience and benefit from an equitable and excellent education. This must include students with disabilities, with an awareness of intersectional identities. At every level of a state’s education system, from classrooms and other learning settings to school districts and charter networks to state capitols, policy creates the enabling conditions for all young people to learn and develop.

Decades of research across multiple scientific disciplines tells a hopeful and factual story about what is possible for every young person: When young people are engaged in and supported by conditions intentionally designed to reveal their potential, they will learn, develop, and thrive. Further, for young people to understand and then act on their unique potential, education practices and the policies that enable them must simultaneously attend to multiple dimensions of learning and development: academic, cognitive, social and emotional, moral and ethical, identity, and physical and mental well-being. This is what is meant by educating and developing the “whole child.” 

The challenge for states in this moment is to redefine, retool, and, in some cases, rebuild statewide systems with the primary purpose of educating and developing the whole child. To do so effectively, policymakers and system leaders will first need to take stock of the extent to which their state’s education and youth-serving systems meet young people’s integrated whole child needs. Particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis affecting millions of families across the country, state policy should work to ensure that every young person is known, engaged, and supported with the resources they need to positively learn and develop. Meeting this historic moment and prioritizing the well-being of all young people will require imagination, flexibility, and better policymaking at the state level — informed by the science of learning and development and centered on equity — so that school districts, charter networks, schools, and educators have the direction they will need to make a positive difference for young people and families. 

A Note on the COVID-19 Pandemic

The significant negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and related, overlapping national crises have hit students with disabilities and their families especially hard. As a result, state policymakers are grappling with the challenge of re-engaging young people in their education, attending to the “whole child” needs of every individual young person, as well as redesigning education systems to be more resilient and effective. While the need for this work has been underscored by the pandemic, awareness of the benefits of whole child education for all children is not new. Rather, the actions needed to achieve these benefits have yet to be sufficiently supported by policymakers.

Today, state policymakers have an important opportunity and need to upgrade their education systems with a whole child approach to education. By understanding and embracing emerging knowledge from the science of learning and development to inform and guide this essential work in the months and years ahead, states can make significant progress toward ensuring equity and excellence for all young people. This includes the near-term work of helping students with disabilities recover from many months of lost instructional time and other critical supports that they rely on to learn.

The Science of Learning and Development Holds Lessons for All Young People’s Education

Specifically, the science of learning and development reveals the following universal principles that should inform state education policymakers seeking to address whole child development, especially when centering the needs and aspirations of students with disabilities within state policies:

  • Potential: Each child develops billions of neural pathways providing significant potential to learn and thrive. 
  • Malleability: The brain is highly malleable, from birth through adolescence and beyond.
  • Individuality: Every child learns and develops differently. 
  • Context: Experiences, environments, and cultures are the defining influences on development. 
  • Relationships: Strong, trusting relationships are essential to learning and development. 
  • Integration: Intentional integration accelerates learning. 
  • Continuum: Human development is a progression, but not a linear one.
  • Meaning making: People continuously make meaning of the ideas, concepts, experiences, and relationships they encounter, and of the cultures in which they live. 

While these key findings of the science of learning and development apply equally to all young people, research also demonstrates that young people with disabilities are disproportionately marginalized by current systems. In fact, due to the design of our current systems, students with disabilities experience worse educational and developmental outcomes compared to other groups of students. As is the case with any young person, equitable and excellent education for students with disabilities is fundamentally predicated on systems that center whole child education informed and enabled by the science of education practice and policy. When states leverage universal knowledge from science about how young people best learn and develop, they will be in a better position to ensure that students with disabilities and their families have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made about their education and their opportunities to thrive both in school and in life.

The Whole Child Policy Table:

An Opportunity to Improve State Education Policy

In 2019, the Learning Policy Institute convened state-serving education policy organizations and advocates to create the Whole Child Policy Table (WCPT) in order to develop a unified framework to guide state policymaking to effectively attend to the needs of the whole child. The WCPT dived deep into the science of learning and development and its implications for whole child learning and development, with a particular focus on supporting young people who are often marginalized and underserved by current systems, including students with disabilities. The WCPT also considered the current state of statewide education and youth-serving systems and worked to identify the highest leverage opportunities for states to re-envision and reconstitute systems to close persistent and unacceptable achievement and opportunity gaps.

The result of two years of work by the WCPT is a complete framework for redesigning education and youth-serving systems so that they meet the integrated academic, cognitive, social, emotional, ethical, and physical developmental needs of all young people. The WCPT framework is deeply informed by the science of learning and development and prioritizes the conditions that every young person needs in order to realize their unique potential to learn, develop, and thrive in school and in life. These conditions include a focus on providing strong, trusting relationships, rich learning experiences, and supportive environments that are the fuel and accelerant of learning and development. 

State Policy Recommendations to Support Whole Child Learning and Development for All Learners

The Whole Child Policy Table (see sidebar) identified five overarching categories, informed by the science of learning and development, to advance state policy change to better support whole child development. Each is accompanied by a set of policy actions to further clarify potential mechanisms to support achieving that end. The categories include: 

  1. Setting a whole child vision 
  2. Transforming learning environments
  3. Redesigning curriculum, instruction, and assessment
  4. Building adult capacity and expertise 
  5. Aligning resources efficiently and equitably 

By utilizing the WCPT framework and its levers for change, state policymakers can more effectively attend to the needs of all students, including students with disabilities. This work will look different from state to state, but the fundamentals of the science of learning and development and how they apply to all young people do not change. The primary goals for states are to center the knowledge from the science of learning and development and to engage students with disabilities and their families in advancing attendant policies.

Building on the work of the WCPT, NCLD has identified policy opportunities specifically aimed at recognizing and responding to the needs of students with disabilities to ensure that they have access to an equitable, whole child education aligned with the core findings from the science of learning and development. In each category, there are examples of ways some states are making progress toward realizing a whole child education for students with disabilities in their state.

Setting a Whole Child Vision

A whole child vision expands upon the antiquated notion of education that focused only on academic growth as a measure of a young person’s success. Instead, the whole child vision includes cognitive, social and emotional, moral and ethical, identity, and physical and mental well-being as well. States that develop a strategic plan focused on each student’s health, well-being, and education ultimately can better support whole child development. This work addresses the challenges associated with the silo approach to child development and can incentivize and develop interagency collaboration focused on the needs of the child. 

Setting a meaningful and inclusive whole child vision must include recognition of students with disabilities. Often the state education systems created to serve students with disabilities are viewed as separate entities rather than being the responsibility of all who work in the education system. Incorporating students with disabilities into the whole child vision acknowledges their presence in the schools throughout a state; reinforces the need for collaboration to support their integrated cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and academic development; and acts as a first important step to ensure access to an equitable and excellent education.

Policy Action:

  • Convene a diverse set of stakeholders to develop an equity-focused, statewide whole child vision.
  • Integrate the shared whole child vision into all policies that impact learning environments by analyzing existing policies and practices against this vision, and by supporting state and local learning and developmental competencies for students aligned with this vision.
  • Establish a children and youth cabinet to help coordinate, strengthen, and streamline services for children, youth, and families/caregivers across state agencies, identify current state capacity and needs, and provide guidance to support local service provision.
  • Create a plan to track and evaluate progress toward implementing and achieving the whole child vision through investments in statewide data systems and learning opportunities for educators, communities, families/caregivers, and other stakeholders, focused on appropriately using data to make decisions for improvement.

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Considerations for Students with Disabilities:

  • Disaggregate and report all relevant education and youth-serving system data, including health and wellness data, that is needed to monitor and incentivize progress toward achieving the vision to reflect students with disabilities — and, where feasible, the intersectional identities of students with disabilities.
  • Create a statewide clearinghouse that identifies and disseminates best practices and highlights exemplary systems, schools, and other learning settings that are effective at implementing a whole child vision that centers students with disabilities.
  • In developing the vision and strategy, meaningfully engage and include stakeholders like educators with experience with students with disabilities, students, families and caretakers, community providers, and youth development specialists.
  • To foster stronger coordination and collaboration, ensure that students with disabilities, their families, and the educators who serve them are invited to be part of children and youth cabinets that may be established by the state.

State Examples

Ohio
In its state vision for education, “Each Child, Our Future,” Ohio emphasizes the importance of serving each child who attends a school within the state, recognizing each child’s key role in contributing to the future for the entire state. Its vision states, “In Ohio, each child is challenged to discover and learn, prepared to pursue a fulfilling post–high school path, and empowered to become a resilient, lifelong learner who contributes to society.” Part of the rationale for this new vision was recognition that the state had been inadequately meeting the needs of specific student groups, including students with disabilities. Ohio’s vision advances the idea that the state must better meet the “nuanced learning needs” of different student groups, including students with disabilities, by providing wider access to education opportunities. 

Ohio goes beyond simply mentioning the importance of better meeting the needs of students with disabilities as part of their vision. They have taken key actions to bring the vision to life for these students. Ohio State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria directed the Office of Exceptional Children (OEC) to develop a complementary plan focused on realizing this vision for students with disabilities. In March 2021, the Ohio Department of Education released “Each Child Means Each Child.” This plan, developed in conjunction with stakeholders and informed by data, “offers recommendations, tactics, and action steps to ensure students with disabilities benefit from the vision and core principles heralded in Ohio’s strategic plan for education, Each Child, Our Future.” Based on stakeholder input, the following recommendations emerged as key to achieve the “Each Child, Our Future” goal for students with disabilities: “1) Getting to the Problem Early: Development and Implementation of a Statewide Model for an Integrated Multi-Tiered System of Support, 2) Building Educators’ and Systemwide Capacity: Promotion of Ongoing Job-Embedded Professional Learning, and 3) Educating for Living a Good Life: Advancement of Postsecondary Learning Experiences and Outcomes.” To support implementation in the coming months, OEC is engaging a cross-agency team to advance the necessary work to ensure that the vision of “Each Child, Our Future” is realized for all students, and especially for students with disabilities. 

Georgia
During the State Systemic Improvement Plan development process, Georgia’s stakeholders and education leaders observed a concerning trend. Each year, over one-quarter of students with disabilities who exited school dropped out before completing high school. Upon further investigation, it was determined that a significant majority of these students were students with a specific learning disability. In light of this finding, Georgia sought to better understand why the state has so many students with learning disabilities failing to complete high school, particularly given that these students have the same intellectual functioning as their peers and just need to learn material differently. Conversations with stakeholders across the state revealed an enlightening realization: To change outcomes for students with disabilities in Georgia, it was first necessary to shift mindsets about what students with disabilities are capable of achieving.

With this mindset shift in clear focus, Georgia began a series of efforts to reorient understanding. Several key principles were at the core. One, students with disabilities are young people first. Two, not all disabilities are the same. The label “students with disabilities” encapsulates a significant variety of learning and developmental differences. By correcting misunderstandings and helping educators better understand the many types of learning disabilities and differences, the state better prepared educators to meet the diverse needs of their students. Three, inclusive leaders and practices can benefit both students with disabilities and all students. Integrating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into the curriculum should be viewed as a best practice for all young people, rather than something only for students with disabilities. Finally, schools have the responsibility of preparing students both for academic success and for success in life. Schools must attend to whole child development to set the student up for success across both dimensions. (Additional information about Georgia’s Whole Child resources is available here.) Taken together, these principles have begun to meaningfully advance change and shift mindsets regarding what is possible for students with disabilities in Georgia. 

Transforming Learning Environments

Creating inclusive, welcoming learning environments centered on trusting relationships and physical and emotional safety will better enable all students to thrive. Transforming learning environments to better meet the academic, social, emotional, physical, and developmental needs of students with disabilities is an important part of this. It cannot be a “one size fits all” approach, but instead needs to reflect the nuanced needs of individual students.

Policy Action:

  • Incentivize and support districts and schools in redesigning learning environments in ways that prioritize positive, caring, and consistent relationships between students, staff, families, and communities.
  • Support districts and schools in creating inclusive environments that provide all students with safety and belonging. 
  • Adopt and invest in inclusive, restorative, and educative approaches to school discipline practice and policy.
  • Support integrated support systems to better serve the holistic needs of students, families, and caregivers.
  • Provide high-quality expanded learning time to reduce opportunity gaps and increase opportunities for enrichment.

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Considerations for Students with Disabilities:

  • Identify best practices on inclusion, and ensure that educators receive professional development on meaningful and effective inclusion that supports improved outcomes and relationship building between students with disabilities, school staff, and peers.
  • Ensure that students with disabilities have equitable access to identity-safe environments and restorative discipline systems that nurture whole child learning and development.
  • Ensure that physical learning settings are accessible and healthy.
  • Educate school professionals on trauma-informed approaches to building strong conditions for learning, including ways that a student’s disability may or may not be visually apparent or commonly understood, and how disability may impact a student’s responsiveness to school discipline. These approaches include Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). 
  • Ensure expanded learning time programming for students with disabilities, prioritizing opportunities for a well-rounded education, including education in the arts, music, physical education, and other extra- and co-curricular activities such as apprenticeships and mentoring supports.
  • Establish systems and structures that encourage and enable students to advocate for themselves and their needs.

State Examples

Massachusetts
In April 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) published its “State Equity Plan for 2015–2019.” This plan aims to support ESE as it works “to identify equity gaps in [its] students’ learning and to determine strategies to eliminate those gaps.” One of the commonly reported challenges noted in Massachusetts was a lack of training to effectively support students with “diverse needs,” including students with disabilities and students with social-emotional issues.

In response to this challenge, Massachusetts created the “Educator Effectiveness Guidebook for Inclusive Practices,” which aims to enable educators to “create a place for all students to thrive in general education settings.” The Guidebook defines inclusive practice as “the instructional and behavioral strategies that improve academic and social-emotional outcomes for all students, with and without disabilities, in general education settings” and centers on educators’ role in establishing inclusive learning environments. Further, it provides “tools for districts, schools, and educators … that promote evidence-based best practices for inclusion following the principles of Universal Design for Learning, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and Social and Emotional Learning.” Additionally, Massachusetts developed a virtual course for general and special education teachers to guide teachers as they work to support students’ social-emotional and academic development in alignment with the practices elevated in the Guidebook.

Michigan
The Michigan Department of Education has long recognized the academic, social, emotional, and behavioral benefits of MTSS for students with disabilities and for all students. The statewide MTSS program, begun in 2000, has continuously improved its model, implementation, and supports to better meet the needs of students and support their success. In approaching this work, Michigan focused on creating a set of supports that would be inclusive of all students, while benefiting students with disabilities — paying particular attention ensuring that students with disabilities benefit from their time in general education classrooms in addition to any other specific interventions they may receive. 

With a vision to expand the MTSS model across the state over time, Michigan recognized the need to ensure fidelity of implementation to achieve the desired outcomes. To support schools and districts as they implement MTSS, Michigan established the MiMTSS Technical Assistance Center, which “assist[s] educators in developing infrastructures to support high-quality and sustained implementation of effective, data-driven practices within a Multi-Tiered System of Supports framework.” Through high-quality, evidence-based, and data-informed technical assistance, the MiMTSS Technical Assistance Center helps schools confront challenges they face while implementing the MTSS model, signals the need for additional professional development and technical assistance, and supports the provision of more effective, school-level interventions across all three tiers.

Redesigning Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

States and districts often create curriculum, instruction, and assessment without giving significant attention to differentiation, instead relying on individual schools and educators to determine the extent to which it should be adapted to support different learners. These materials frequently are not designed with students with disabilities in mind, often leaving educators to their best to provide adaptations and accommodations. Redesigned curriculum, instruction, and assessment with academic content in multiple forms (e.g., verbal, visual, etc.), integrated social-emotional learning, and several different ways for students to demonstrate understanding would better support students with disabilities and all students. 

Policy Action:

  • Promote and support the development of rich learning experiences through high-quality standards, curricula, and personalized learning structures.
  • Support the design and implementation of authentic systems of assessment that support student growth.
  • Adopt an effective, holistic accountability system that measures students’ opportunities to learn and that supports a system of continuous improvement.
  • Strengthen distance and blended learning models to ensure equitable access to virtual learning and engagement opportunities.

Considerations for Students with Disabilities:

  • Develop culturally relevant and competent curricula that include multiple modalities for learning academic material, such as UDL, embed social-emotional learning with academic content, and are inclusive of the narratives, perspectives, and expertise of people with disabilities
  • Provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate understanding of academic content.
  • Design IEP goals and implementation structures to help students make progress in all areas, including academic, social, and behavioral, and aligned to grade-level standards.
  • Ensure that IEP accommodations are tailored to individual student needs and that educators and other school staff are aware of the accommodations and how to best provide them.
  • Provide professional development to help educators understand the importance of executive function in accessing educational content, and ensure that educators can explicitly teach those skills and support students who struggle with these skills.

State Examples

New Hampshire
Rather than rely on more traditional forms of instruction and assessment, New Hampshire adopted Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE), “an innovative assessment and accountability system grounded in a competency-based educational approach designed to ensure that students have meaningful opportunities to achieve critical knowledge and skills.” Teachers assess students’ comprehension over the course of a year through a set of performance tasks designed to determine whether a student has mastered a particular competency. This replaces high-stakes, moment-in-time tests with real-time feedback and assessment that can inform instruction. 

According to an NCLD case study on PACE, students with disabilities may benefit from the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of competency through more flexible assessments like those in PACE. Additionally, compared with a multiple choice exam score, the performance assessments may inform more personalized approaches to learning as educators can more effectively pinpoint students’ individual challenges. Early research indicates that students with disabilities in districts implementing PACE increased their Smarter Balanced eighth-grade math scores more significantly than their peers in non-PACE districts.

Washington
In 2018, the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) announced a new set of Priorities for Improving Outcomes for Students with Disabilities, which emerged from statewide stakeholder listening sessions. Underscoring each of the focus areas was a deep interest in improving outcomes for students with disabilities. 

This intensive stakeholder engagement ultimately translated into legislative action when, through the 2019–2021 biennial budget, the state legislature authorized $25 million to address inclusionary practices. Out of this funding, the Inclusionary Practices Project (IPP) was born with the goal of “achiev[ing] full inclusion for 60 percent of students receiving special education services by Spring 2021.” At a time when Washington State was among the 10 least inclusive states, reaching this goal required significant change to the way instruction was happening, focusing both on mindsets and on instruction. Beginning with mindsets, Washington worked to elevate the significant data discrepancies in outcomes for students with disabilities compared to their peers and to develop a sense of collective responsibility to better meet these students’ instructional and developmental needs. IPP then turned to strong educator coaching with a clear focus on improving “inclusive education, differentiated instruction, and individualized instruction.” Within two years, IPP had surpassed its initial goal by increasing the number of students in least restrictive environments to 65%, and by changing mindsets and beliefs about students with disabilities. 

Building Adult Capacity and Expertise

To support a shift to a whole child system, states must work to build educators’ and other youth-serving adults’ expertise related to young people’s social, emotional, and cognitive development through professional learning opportunities and ongoing supports. This includes preparation and professional learning that address the skill sets needed to meet students’ individual social, emotional, and academic needs, including the specific needs of students who may have a disability. To more effectively serve all students, adults who work with young people, including teachers, paraprofessionals, and service providers (e.g., occupational therapy or physical therapy specialists), must understand how instruction and assessment can be adapted or differentiated for students with different strengths and needs.

Policy Action:

  • Design educator preparation standards, programs, assessments, and accreditation to ensure that educators have the knowledge and skills needed to support students’ whole child developmental needs.
  • Adopt proactive recruitment and retention strategies to address teacher shortages and to ensure that all young people have access to diverse and effective educators.
  • Support high-quality mentoring and induction programs.
  • Promote professional development and school structures that promote educator collaboration, are responsive to educators’ learning and growth needs, and help them meet whole child needs.
  • Adopt educator evaluation and improvement systems that support student and educator learning growth and well-being and that encourage teacher collaboration and reflection.
  • Support educator and staff social, emotional, and mental health and well-being.

Considerations for Students with Disabilities:

  • Include requirements related to understanding and instructing students with disabilities in general educator preparation program standards, approval/accreditation processes, and educator certification, including licensure and assessments. 
  • Ensure that all in-service professional development sessions include considerations for how classroom/school practices, policies, and procedures may need to be adapted for students with different disabilities. 
  • Require structures to support cross-functional, school-based team collaboration that includes general education teachers, special education teachers, and specialized instructional support providers to ensure whole child learning and development.
  • Include measures related to effective instruction of students with disabilities in teacher evaluation and improvement systems, and provide teachers with the necessary support to enhance their practice.
  • Implement professional development on research-based frameworks like UDL principles to better meet the learning needs of all students, including students with disabilities.
  • Develop systems and structures that incentivize the retention of special education educators such as through financial incentives and effective professional support.

State Examples

New York
New York is the only state that has standard/coursework and practica requirements related to students with disabilities. Within the New York State teacher standards, Standard I requires “Knowledge of Students and Student Learning” and explicitly focuses on teachers’ ability to develop (and modify as needed) lessons that are appropriate to meet students’ learning and developmental differences, including through differentiation of instruction. Additionally, teachers are required to complete coursework focused on “understanding the needs of students with disabilities, including at least three semester hours of study for teachers to develop the skills necessary to provide instruction that will promote the participation and progress of students with disabilities in the general education curriculum.” Finally, registered teacher preparation programs require “at least 100 clock hours of field experiences with students with disabilities related to coursework prior to student teaching or practica.”

New Mexico
New Mexico Educator Standards reflect specific criteria associated with providing meaningful, differentiated instruction designed to meet different students’ “exceptionalities, including learning disabilities, visual and perceptual difficulties, and physical or mental challenges.” This includes an understanding of several things: how to provide different approaches to learning and instruction for students based on their diverse needs as well as elements to support the inclusion of students with disabilities; the range of disabilities a student may experience; the role of an educator in developing and implementing a student’s IEP; the importance of collaboration between general education and special education professionals; and the unique social, emotional, and academic developmental needs that students with exceptionalities may experience. 

Aligning Resources Efficiently and Equitably

Even with the continued federal underfunding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), states can take actions to ensure that resources are allocated effectively and efficiently for students with disabilities. By better aligning resources and supporting improved coordination across multiple child-serving systems, and by recognizing and addressing persistent resource inequities, states will better be able to support a more equitable, whole child system.

Policy Action:

  • Adopt more equitable school funding formulas that prioritize high-need schools and that support all young people in having access to the whole child opportunities they need to succeed.
  • Allocate adequate funding across the developmental continuum to ensure that children and families are supported from birth to age 5.
  • Blend and braid federal, state, and local resources to reduce fragmentation, improve alignment across programs and funding streams, and strengthen supports to children, youth, and families.
  • Leverage federal funds in ways that support all young people in having access to the whole child opportunities they need to succeed.
  • Invest in community schools and wraparound services to better serve the holistic needs of children and families.
  • Close the digital divide to ensure that every child has access to appropriate technology and connectivity to meet their whole child needs.

Considerations for Students with Disabilities:

  • Continue advocacy at the federal level for full funding of IDEA.
  • Use COVID relief funds to directly address challenges faced by students with disabilities during the pandemic.
  • Consider implementing weighted funding formulas that provide additional resources for students with disabilities. 
  • Understand how various funding streams that support students with disabilities interact with each other, and identify opportunities to maximize the allowable uses of each source of funds. 
  • Use Medicaid funds, where possible, to reimburse allowable education expenditures for students with disabilities. 
  • Provide technological supports that include accessibility tools for students with disabilities, and teach students’ parents/guardians and students how to operate those tools.

Dimensions of Equity

The Alliance for Resource Equity Dimensions of Equity Framework includes 10 dimensions of education resource equity that education systems should attend to in order to advance resource equity. When evaluating equity across schools and states, these dimensions should be considered as they may help reveal the multiple ways that inequity can manifest:

  • School funding
  • Teacher quality and diversity
  • School leadership quality and diversity
  • Empowering, rigorous content
  • Instructional time and attention 
  • Positive and inviting school climate
  • Student supports and intervention
  • High-quality early learning
  • Learning-ready facilities
  • Diverse classrooms and schools

State Examples

California
In 2020, California made progress toward more equitable special education funding by correcting a decades-old “quirk” in their education funding laws. The old funding formula allocated funding based on the overall number of students in a given school district, rather than just the number of students in special education in a district. As a result, the additional per-student special education funding in districts ranged from $500–$800. The new funding formula aims to remedy the inequity, altering the way funds are allocated and closing the gap between the districts receiving lower amounts of funds and districts receiving larger amounts funds in the old formula.

Wisconsin
In an effort to support the development of a comprehensive school improvement plan and to align the efforts of teams who operate across different federal and state programs, Wisconsin provides coordinated technical assistance across Title I, special education, and ELL teams to address the needs of specific student groups. The state connects Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) interventions with those required under the State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP) for students with disabilities, creating a more unified and comprehensive approach. By coordinating resources, the state aims to avoid duplicative interventions and maximize existing resources to improve outcomes. 

Conclusion

Strong policy alignment and implementation at all levels of a state’s education system are key to ensuring that the learning and developmental opportunities and services that allow students to thrive are provided for every young person — and especially for those with disabilities. The good news is that there is ample scientific research and evidence showing what works when policymakers take a whole child approach for learning for all young people, beginning with students with disabilities. 

Policy plays an important role in the process of advancing whole child education for all students and especially students with disabilities. By approaching policymaking while attending to the scientific knowledge and policy considerations presented here, states can achieve more meaningful, equitable, and promising outcomes for their students. 

A Note on Using American Rescue Plan Funding

In recognition of the challenges faced by schools and districts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). As these funds flow into states, states will have the important role of distributing them and providing specific guidance to districts and schools on how to best use these funds to support academic and social-emotional learning for all students, including students with disabilities. 

Within ARPA, Congress allocated $3.03 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). This increase in funding is long overdue, as IDEA has been woefully underfunded for decades. Many states use their IDEA funds to hire special educators, specialized instructional support personnel, and others who can provide special education and related services to students with disabilities. During the pandemic, these services were limited in some places due to challenges with virtual learning and the health risks posed by in-person learning. Further, students with disabilities may return to school with new and increasing needs. Therefore, IDEA funds can be used to prepare educators to effectively identify and respond to students’ needs and to reconnect children with the in-person learning environment. 

Additionally, ARPA provides $130 billion dedicated to elementary and secondary education that should also be leveraged to meet the needs of all students, and districts must pay special attention to the needs of specific populations such as students with disabilities. These funds should be used to intentionally design interventions, learning acceleration programs, and SEL programs with attention to accessibility. States should issue guidance on allowable uses of funds with specific attention to uses for students with disabilities, prioritize resources for students with disabilities recognizing the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on their education, and continue to monitor the outcomes for students with disabilities with particular attention to early warning indicators that may signal needs for additional support.

SEL Parent Advocacy Toolkit

Developing Accessible and Inclusive Social-Emotional Learning Approaches for Students With Disabilities

This toolkit can help you understand more about the importance of social, emotional, and academic development for students with disabilities. Then you can advocate at your child’s school and district for high-quality practices and policies to support this approach. Using these recommendations, you can encourage decision makers in your child’s school and district to create an inclusive vision, design supportive learning environments for all students, support educators, and use funding and resources in ways that will address the needs of students with disabilities. 

Introduction

When we think of learning in school, most people’s minds jump to reading, writing, history, math, and science. For students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans, conversations typically focus on academics. You might ask your child’s teacher how your child is doing in reading, or your child’s teacher might mention which math skills your child is struggling with.

But learning and developing as a student is about more than just memorizing facts, being able to read and write, or solving math problems. Research shows that students learn best when they actively engage with content and with others in positive and meaningful ways. Students must also grow in areas of social and emotional development.

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Over the past year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students have had fewer opportunities to engage with each other and their teachers in meaningful ways. The pandemic has been devastating to millions of students. Many have struggled academically as well as socially and emotionally. The crisis may have caused students with disabilities to face new and different barriers to success. Now, as more schools reopen across the country and more students go back to in-person learning, it’s important to ensure that we’re prepared to meet the needs of all learners.

About this Toolkit

This toolkit is designed to help parents advocate at their child’s school, school district, or school board for whole child education that is inclusive of students with disabilities. The toolkit is grounded using the 7 Principles for Serving Students With Disabilities & Intersectional Identities Through Social-Emotional Learning Approaches.

The goal of this toolkit is to help you work together with your child’s school to ensure students with disabilities have the opportunity to successfully learn and develop. So dive into all or part of this toolkit and start advocating!

For decision makers at the state and local level who would like to support these policies, we have also developed “An Urgent Imperative for States: Developing Whole Child Policies to Support an Equitable Education for Students With Disabilities”.

What is Social-Emotional Learning (and other important terms)?

As you move through this toolkit, it’s important to understand how students learn best. You may hear a few key concepts when talking about social-emotional learning. 

  • Science of learning and development
  • Whole child education
  • Social-emotional learning 

The science of learning and development is a relatively new field of research that seeks to combine what we’ve learned from many different sciences, including cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral science, biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The research conducted across these fields in recent years has resulted in the understanding that students learn best when schools provide:

What Are the Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning?

  • Increases abilities to identify emotions from social cues, set goals, take perspectives, and problem-solve. 
  • Increases positive attitudes about oneself, including self-esteem, self-concept, and self-efficacy, as well as positive attitudes toward the school and teachers.
  • Reduces bullying, school suspensions, and other acts of delinquency.
  • Reduces emotional distress such as depression, anxiety, stress, or social withdrawal.
  • Increases academic performance on standardized tests and school grades.
  • Positive developmental relationships: This includes relationships between adults and young people that are trusting and consistent.
  • Environments filled with safety and belonging: This includes classrooms and other learning settings that are healthy, safe for young people to explore and build their individual identities, and free of bullying or other forms of harassment or exclusion.
  • Rich learning experiences: This includes academic content and projects that are engaging, meaningful, and relevant.
  • Development of knowledge, skills, mindsets, and habits: This includes learning how to learn, create, reflect, take responsibility, be empathetic, and plan for the future.
  • Integrated systems of support (health, nutrition, discipline, etc.): This includes being able to access important services to be physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.
  • All services in personalized, empowering, and culturally affirming ways: This means that adults and schools are able to provide individual young people what they need to learn and develop when they need it, including having their IEP, 504, and other needs met in timely and uplifting ways.

A whole child education “prioritizes the full scope of a child’s developmental needs as a way to advance educational equity and ensure that every child reaches their fullest potential. A whole child approach understands that students’ education and life outcomes are dependent upon their access to deeper learning opportunities in and out of school, as well as their school environment and relationships.”

Social-emotional learning (or SEL for short) “is the process of developing and using social and emotional skills … to cope with feelings, set goals, make decisions, and get along with — and feel empathy for — others.” SEL includes important knowledge, skills, and habits that must be intentionally taught and developed through instruction to meet the needs of the whole child.

Science of Learning and Development


Definition:
A field of inquiry that synthesizes knowledge from multiple scientific disciplines to help describe how young people learn and develop in positive ways both in and out of school. Knowledge from the science of learning and development reveals that all young people need: positive developmental relationships, environments filled with safety and belonging and rich learning experiences, development of knowledge, skills, mindsets, and habits, integrated systems of support (health, nutrition, discipline, etc.), all services in personalized, empowering, and culturally affirming ways.

Whole Child Education

Definition: An educational approach that prioritizes the full scope of a child’s developmental needs (academic, cognitive, social, emotional, and physical) as a way to advance educational equity and ensure that every child reaches their fullest potential. This approach recognizes that students’ education and life outcomes are dependent upon their access to deeper learning opportunities in and out of school, as well as their school environment and relationships

Social Emotional Learning

Definition: The process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

Although these terms are related and sometimes used interchangeably, be cognizant of whether you are referring to the field, an approach, or a process in communication. We encourage readers to recognize that the different terminology can be used in different settings to effectively communicate with school and district staff. In short, the biggest takeaways are: 

  1. Every child’s academic, social, and emotional learning and development are inherently linked, and you can’t successfully attend to one without the others. 
  2. Each child’s context — experiences, environments, relationships, cultures — is the defining feature that determines how they learn and develop.

This toolkit focuses on social-emotional learning as an embedded component of a whole child education framework.

Frequently Asked Questions Relating to Social-Emotional Learning by Students With Disabilities

Can my child’s IEP goals include social-emotional learning?

Yes! Social-emotional learning can and should be used in your child’s IEP goals if appropriate and agreed upon by the IEP team. Social-emotional skills are an essential part of learning and can go a long way toward helping your child make progress in school. SEL goals should be an option for any student regardless of their type of disability. Too often, SEL is only a priority for students who have disabilities that impact behavior, but all students can benefit from these types of goals. For example, one social-emotional skill area your child might focus on is emotional regulation.

IEP EXAMPLE

Sofia will increase social-emotional regulation skills as measured by the following benchmarks: 

  1. Sofia will identify emotional states in herself 80% of the time. 
  2. Sofia will state what would be an appropriate response to a particular emotional state 80% of the time. 
  3. Sofia will use a self-regulation/coping strategy (i.e., movement break, deep breathing, quiet space) in frustrating situations 80% of the time as measured by observations and documentation.

I’m concerned about academics because my child is behind in subjects like reading and math. Shouldn’t I focus on those areas instead of advocating for social-emotional learning?

It may seem like the focus on reading and writing may be diminished if SEL is added. But that’s not the case! SEL should be embedded throughout the school day, including in subjects like reading and math. In fact, when this process is done effectively, students’ academic achievement grows in other areas too. One review of over 200 studies found that students participating in SEL programming not only had positive outcomes related to their social and emotional well-being like managing stress and depression, but on average, students increased their academic performance by 11 percentage points on standardized tests and grades.

My child struggles with executive function. Won’t focusing on social-emotional learning in addition to every other subject area be hard for my child?

For students with executive function challenges*, explicit instruction and additional supports are key. Effective SEL in your child’s education can help bolster executive function skills. For example, SEL requires students to develop skills in the area of emotional regulation, self-awareness, conflict resolution, and more — all skills that demand a certain amount of executive function. Therefore, essentially, executive function is foundational to developing SEL skills. For SEL to benefit a young person, it is important for educators to: (1) be aware when students are having difficulty with executive function, and (2) be intentional in their instruction and support for students who have learning disabilities and attention issues. Your child’s teacher or IEP team may want to consider providing explicit instruction and accommodations related to executive function to ensure that your child is equipped with stronger skills and supports to successfully engage with the SEL curriculum.

*Executive function is a set of mental skills and processes that we use repeatedly in our daily lives as we perform tasks. Executive function skills allow us to plan, focus, remember instructions, and manage multiple competing tasks at one time. Executive function includes skills such as working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. 

How do self-advocacy skills fit into social-emotional learning?

 Self-advocacy is a skill that enables us to understand our strengths and weaknesses, know what we need to succeed, and communicate that to other people. Social-emotional learning supports the growth of this skill by assisting students with becoming more self-aware, recognizing how to have positive relationships, and understanding societal dynamics that impact them. Effective self-advocacy cannot occur if a student isn’t given the tools to create this baseline understanding. Therefore, implementing SEL in your child’s school can be a powerful step toward helping your child develop strong self-advocacy skills.

My child struggles to interact with peers because of a disability. How will social-emotional learning benefit my child?

It’s true that some students’ disabilities impact the way in which they interact with others. However, a major focus of social-emotional learning is helping students develop relationship skills. Therefore, SEL can be particularly beneficial for students with disabilities as it can explicitly teach them more about relationships and social interactions. For example, in addition to fostering a sense of safety and belonging, SEL can help students develop skills related to feeling and showing empathy for others, as well as skills for working cooperatively with others, establishing supportive relationships, and making caring decisions. When all students engage in this learning process, the entire culture and climate of the classroom can improve, making it an environment where your child feels more comfortable engaging with peers. In addition, SEL places an emphasis on affirming an individual’s unique identity, so your child may develop more self-awareness and confidence at the same time.

How does SEL fit into returning to school and making up for lost instructional time?

SEL is important to rebuilding classroom community upon returning to in-person instruction. Students need to feel comfortable in their classroom to engage in learning experiences, especially after rapid changes to their learning environments since March 2020.

SEL is a critical component of states’ plans for addressing the needs of those most impacted by the pandemic. In spending COVID-19 relief funds, states and local education agencies are required to not only consider how planned interventions will address lost instructional time but also how students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs will be addressed.

Advocating in Your School Community for Social-Emotional Learning

The responsibility of implementing high-quality social-emotional learning approaches in schools is not just on teachers. Everyone in the school community has a role to play. For example, educators can ensure that their classroom embeds SEL within their instruction during the school day. School leaders can provide resources and guidance to make sure the entire school community is involved. The IEP team can ensure that SEL goals are integrated into your child’s programming. And as a parent or caregiver, you can affirm your child’s identity and model positive relationships and SEL skills in your own life.

If your child’s school is using an SEL program already, you can use this toolkit to ensure they are including and supporting students with disabilities. If your school is not yet prioritizing SEL, you can use this toolkit to help decision makers understand why SEL is so important and how to support all students using SEL. Together, we can help ensure that districts address the needs of students with disabilities when implementing a social-emotional learning approach.

There are some priorities where you, as an advocate, can raise awareness to ensure that SEL programs meet your child’s needs:

Explicit Instruction and Accommodations

When schools implement any new initiative, or are working to enhance and improve an existing program, it’s important that educators and school leaders recognize that all students learn differently and that some may need additional accommodations or support to access the curriculum or intervention. For example, students with learning disabilities or attention issues may struggle with executive function. This set of skills is foundational to successful SEL, so schools should be thinking about how to explicitly teach skills related to executive function and provide accommodations to students in this area. Educators will need to use evidence-based strategies in the classroom and work together with special educators and service providers to ensure that students with disabilities are effectively accessing and benefiting from the program, including any SEL program or approach.

Universal Design for Learning

Designing social-emotional learning that is accessible for all — including students with disabilities — also means embedding flexibility and multiple means for educators to share content. This concept is known as Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. Students must have multiple ways to engage with learning and the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways as well. When programs are designed universally, every student has the opportunity to learn.

Have you ever felt as if your child were being seen as “separate from” peers, or treated as “different from” students without disabilities? If so, you aren’t alone. Students with disabilities have often been an afterthought when new initiatives were planned in schools. Students with disabilities should be included alongside their peers and meaningfully incorporated into all programs within the school.

Inclusion and Impact

In order for the rights of students with disabilities to be upheld and to ensure equal access to learning opportunities, SEL programs must be designed inclusively from the start. This means that in addition to planning for accessibility (see above), schools will also need to think about inclusion, measuring progress, and the impact that SEL programs have on students with disabilities. Educators will need explicit knowledge and skills to incorporate evidence-based SEL instruction into the school day in ways that will work for students with disabilities.

Resources

For any program or initiative to work well, school funding and resource allocation will be important. It will take adequate resources to ensure that your child’s school can implement high-quality social-emotional learning for all students. Fortunately, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government is providing billions of dollars to schools with a great deal of flexibility in how it is used. Schools and districts should use these funds to select SEL initiatives that hold high standards, are accessible to and inclusive of students with disabilities, and prepare educators to serve students with disabilities effectively and equitably. 

First Step: You can ask your child’s educators these questions.

How does/will this SEL program enable my child to access content in a variety of ways?

Talking Points

  • I believe educators should use the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a way to meet the needs of all types of learners such as my child. UDL is a framework that requires creating multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement to set up all students for success.
  • Some students, like my child, may also have social, emotional, and/or academic needs that are different from those of their peers. I believe that to effectively serve all students, adults who work with young people must understand the ways that instruction and assessment can be adapted or differentiated for students with different strengths.
  • I also think educators should have meaningful agency within their work and have positive work environments that embrace their own social and emotional needs to support students.

Does/will the content include built-in accommodations for students with disabilities like my child?

Talking Points

  • My child needs specific accommodations to access content, such as assistive technology, extra time, or a note-taker. I believe it’s important that educators consider needs like these as they embed social-emotional learning opportunities throughout the day. Accommodations should be “built in” and not retrofitted later which can lead to students not being included in the initiative in a meaningful way. 

My child sometimes needs tools to help with organization, self-control, and paying attention. Does/will your program recognize the differences in students’ executive function capacities and provide for explicit instruction in this area?

Talking Points

  • I know that social-emotional learning requires students to exercise their executive function skills. I believe our school should include explicit instruction to help students strengthen these skills. Additionally, any assignment or activity should be done with the understanding that some students may need additional support in planning, organizing their thoughts, and engaging with the content.

What, if anything, are you doing differently or better to support students with disabilities in the area of SEL?

Talking Points

  • I believe educators should have the same high expectations regardless of their students’ backgrounds or identities. Just like in reading and math, my child needs accommodations and supports for SEL, and explicit instruction may be different from that of other students. 
  • I believe my child would benefit from some instructional modifications such as added wait time and multiple opportunities to share and contribute.

Tip: Tell your story! You may want to describe how you think SEL can benefit your child. You could share any struggles you have experienced related to accessibility of the curriculum, getting appropriate accommodations, or communicating across teams within the school.

How are you working collaboratively with other professionals such as special educators and specialized instructional support personnel (counselors, social workers, paraprofessionals, school psychologists, therapists, etc.)?

Talking Points

  • I believe SEL should be a schoolwide approach, not something that is done by a single individual within our school. I think it’s important that all educators in the building coordinate with others in the building and learn from each other in order to best support my student.

What kind of data are you gathering to know if this SEL approach is helping your students? Are there things I can look for as well?

Talking Points

  • I believe that our school’s chosen SEL approach should be evidence-based. It is important to me to know what information my child’s school is using to measure progress and to know that the SEL approach they’ve chosen is actually benefiting students with disabilities. 
  • I also believe there should be a plan for gathering data and making observations to know if my child is making progress. I’d like to know more about what kinds of assessments our school will use to measure effectiveness. 
  • I’d also like to learn more about how I can support SEL at home and ways I can contribute, such as sharing observations with you.

How can parents and community members support your social and emotional well-being?

Talking Points

  • I believe educators should be recognized for their efforts in the classroom and should be provided with resources to support their own social-emotional needs.
  • I think we should allocate funding to address the health of educators, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Next Step: You can ask your child’s school leaders these questions.

How does/will the structure of the school day and the physical environment of our school make SEL content accessible for my child as well as all students, including those with disabilities?

Talking Points

  • I believe we should be prioritizing collaboration and clear communication between all educators — general educators, special educators, and specialized instructional support personnel. All of these educators will need to work together to ensure that accommodations and services are provided appropriately and in a coordinated way. 
  • I believe we should ensure that extended learning time programming is accessible to students with disabilities and prioritizes opportunities for a well-rounded education, including education in the arts and music, physical education, and other extra- and co-curricular activities such as apprenticeships and mentoring supports.

How have students with disabilities, their families, and educators been included in the process of developing the SEL approach, or how will they be?

Talking Points

  • (If your school has not yet chosen an SEL approach) I believe we should include students, families, and the educators who are directly serving students with disabilities in developing the SEL approach. 
  • (If your school has an SEL approach in place) I believe we should create ongoing feedback loops in case any approach is not working as intended. I think it’s important that families be able to share observations and help our school improve and refine the SEL approach over time.

Tip: Discuss with your student’s IEP team how specialized instructional support personnel (such as a school psychologist or interventionist) can be involved in ensuring that the SEL approach is fully integrated into your child’s program and tailored to your child’s unique needs.

Can you share the evidence behind the SEL approach you’ve chosen, and particularly how you will know if it is benefiting students with disabilities?

Talking Points

  • I’d like to learn more about how this SEL approach was chosen and how it will be implemented across the school to ensure that students, particularly those with disabilities, benefit. 
  • I believe there should be a plan for gathering data and making observations to know if students are making progress. For example, we could use surveys of school climate as one way to know whether SEL has improved the school environment over time.
  • I’d like to know what current data exists on school climate and where it’s published so families can follow changes over time. 

How will/do you support educators to ensure that they have the resources and knowledge they need to fully understand and affirm the unique identities and needs of students?

Talking Points

  • I believe we should ensure that SEL approaches are beneficial to and inclusive of all students by requiring that the approach affirm student identities and meet students where they are. 
  • I think educators will need certain knowledge and skills in order to effectively teach SEL to all students. We should have plans to provide educators with strong professional development and time to collaborate with one another to continue improving their instruction.
  • I believe we need to create a culture that encourages and incentivizes IEP teams to create IEP goals that emphasize growth and improvement in students’ social and emotional development.

How are you funding the SEL program, or how will you fund it? What is your plan to ensure sustainable funding in the years to come?

Talking Points

  • I think our school should use COVID-19 relief funds to directly address academic and SEL challenges faced by all students during the pandemic, and these funds can and should be directed to students with disabilities as well. We should also plan to continuously fund and prioritize SEL programming once these relief funds run out.

How will you invest in building educator capacity and expertise so that the SEL program is equitable for all students?

Talking Points

  • We should plan for sustained professional development that focuses on meeting the needs of students from specific communities, such as students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and more. 
  • I also think we should recognize the existing shortages facing our public schools and develop plans for recruiting and retaining special educators and other specialized instructional support personnel (such as school psychologists or interventionists) who are necessary to successful SEL programs. This might include financial incentives for educators, stronger professional support, and more. 

Tip: Share your child’s experience during the pandemic, including any stressors as well as accomplishments. Knowing where your child might need support and what strengths you’ve seen during this time can help you and the school discuss what kinds of supports your child might benefit the most from when school resumes.

Sample Email to School Leaders

You can start to tailor this letter by copying the text into your email browser. You may want to create different versions to send to your child’s principal, a school board member, or a local teachers’ group.

Before sending, remember to (1) attach the SEL principles fact sheet, (2) adjust the words in brackets, and (3) remove the brackets.

[SUBJECT LINE:] Parent Request for Our [SCHOOL/DISTRICT] to Support Social-Emotional Learning

Dear [NAME]:

I’m reaching out about our [SCHOOL’S/DISTRICT’S] ongoing response to the COVID-19 crisis. I’m writing to ask you to make social-emotional learning a priority for all students and to make this learning inclusive of and accessible to students with disabilities.

Getting our school to focus on social and emotional aspects of learning would be especially helpful for kids like mine. [OPTIONAL: INSERT A SENTENCE OR TWO ABOUT HOW YOUR CHILD WOULD BENEFIT FROM HAVING A FOCUS ON SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING]

There are a lot of benefits to social-emotional learning. If done well, social-emotional learning can:

  • Enhance student engagement
  • Improve students’ academic outcomes
  • Increase students’ ability to manage stress and depression
  • Improve classroom and school culture 
  • Foster inclusivity for all students

I know that school leaders and educators need support to do these things effectively and inclusively. In light of the increased federal funds available to help schools recover from the pandemic, I urge you to target resources within our school budget to support educators in implementing these strategies.

I’m attaching a fact sheet with more information about social-emotional learning and students with disabilities. I’d like to schedule a time when we can meet in person or talk on the phone about our [SCHOOL’S/DISTRICT’S] goals for supporting students’ social and emotional needs after the pandemic. Please let me know when it would be convenient for us to discuss this.

Thanks in advance for your time,

Going Further: 5 Tips for Parents on School Board Advocacy

Your local school board makes many decisions that can affect your child’s education, such as approving the school district’s budget and allocating state funding for things like teacher training on a specific topic. Parents can influence these decisions by speaking up at school board meetings. Use these tips to advocate to your school board for the prioritization of accessible, inclusive, and equitable social-emotional learning in your school community. 

Take some time to learn what your school board meetings are like.

Try to go to a board meeting or two so you can see how the meetings are structured. It’s also a good idea to sign up for the school board’s email list. School boards must post the agenda for each meeting ahead of time. Knowing which topics will be discussed can help you get ready to speak. 

Look for an ally on the board.

Before you raise an issue at a meeting, try to find a board member who is especially interested in things like engaging parents or meeting students’ social-emotional needs. (One way to do this is to read news stories about board elections or meetings.) Most districts post each member’s contact information online. You can reach out ahead of time to see if a particular board member might be interested in speaking with you to learn more, or even take up the cause themselves!

Look for other parents to join you in speaking up.

Seek out local parents whose children have similar challenges and/or parents who have interests around social-emotional learning. Encourage them to join you in speaking up about the issue or idea. Here are some groups that could help you find supportive parents: 

  • Your district’s special education parent committee (often called SEPAC, SECAC, or SEPTA) 
  • Local learning disability, ADHD, or dyslexia support groups 
  • Parent organizations like your school’s PTA or PTO and neighborhood or cultural groups 

Consider reaching out to a local teachers’ group. 

Many schools encourage teachers to develop professional learning communities (PLCs). These groups help teachers collaborate and learn from each other. PLCs are likely to be interested in efforts to get more resources or training to help teachers better support their students’ social-emotional learning. 

Prepare your remarks.

Use this resource to develop your talking points. Be sure to highlight areas of concern that you might have for children like yours (using data and evidence where you can). Provide reasons why social-emotional learning will benefit them. If you know other people who are planning to speak, you can work together to make sure key points are covered. Let the board know if anyone needs an interpreter or needs board materials translated. Once the meeting is over, follow up with your school board members on any next steps you’d like them to take. 

Inclusive Social Emotional Learning for Students with Disabilities

Introduction:

Learning and developing as a student is about more than just memorizing facts, being able to read and write, or solving math problems. Research shows that students learn best when they actively engage with content and with others in positive and meaningful ways. Students must also grow in areas of social and emotional development. Social-emotional learning (SEL), is the process through which students learn to cope with feelings, set goals, make decisions, and get along with — and feel empathy for — others. SEL is an embedded part of a whole child education, which is an approach that prioritizes the full scope of a child’s needs.

Unfortunately, students with disabilities are often not fully considered in SEL initiatives. NCLD has been working hard to change the course of SEL to ensure it is developed in a way that is inclusive and equitable. We are excited to announce the release of these resources to help ensure more inclusive and equitable SEL. This work builds on the previous report co-authored with 7 other organizations: Exploring Intersectionality: Understanding Student Identity to Promote Equitable Social Emotional & Academic Development During the COVID-19 Pandemic.  The new resources feature 7 principles for inclusive SEL, a parent advocacy toolkit, a state policy brief, and two case studies showcasing inclusive SEL practices.

SEL can be particularly beneficial for students with disabilities as it emphasizes relationships and social interactions, helping students to develop a sense of safety and belonging. In addition, distance learning has taken a heavy toll on students and families. SEL is important to rebuilding classroom relationships upon returning to in-person instruction and must be included to foster students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs.

We hope you will join us in creating more inclusive and equitable SEL initiatives by using these new resources.

 

Part 4: Federal-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions

Federal actions and guardrails to increase the effectiveness of accelerated learning are critical. Accelerated instruction requires a new approach to instruction as well as dedicated resources. In addition, accelerated instructional models can push the bounds of existing accountability systems. Congress and ED can help ensure that there are important, relevant guardrails. Specifically, the federal government can: 

Increase resources to implement accelerated learning approaches with fidelity.

Provide states and districts with additional federal dollars in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Congress should prioritize a COVID-19 relief package that provides sufficient funding to states and school districts in order to select and implement accelerated learning approaches with fidelity. This may include hiring curriculum design experts, providing tailored, culturally competent professional development, and hiring additional educators and school support staff. 

Increase funding for IDEA – including Part B, Part C, and Part D. Since 2009, the average federal share per child has remained stagnant, while the number of students served and the national average per pupil expenditure (APPE) has continued to rise. The result is a declining federal contribution to the costs of educating students with disabilities. States and districts need Part B and Part C monies to provide the interventions, supports, and services students need. Part D is also essential to provide the infrastructure to implement programs through training and professional development for personnel, technical assistance, and more.

Increase funding for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – especially Title I, Title II, and Title IV of ESSA. Congress should increase funding for schools to provide additional support and additional instruction to all students following COVID. These funding streams allow states and school districts flexibility to select and implement accelerated learning approaches that fit their particular needs and student population. 

Provide updated guidance on how to braid and leverage funding streams to maximize program impact. Since the pandemic began, new funding streams have been used to provide emergency funds to states and districts. To ensure efficiency in the use of resources, ED can offer updated guidance on braided funding streams to maximize resources that can be allocated to support these approaches, including through COVID-19 emergency funding, professional development funding, and other education funding streams. 

Pass the Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act to assist in scaling up effective tutoring programs. Congress can provide additional funding to expand the number of available AmeriCorps positions to provide service opportunities such as mentoring and tutoring students who need additional support. 

Increase funding for the competitive State Assessment grants to allow more states greater ability to improve the development and administration of assessments, including virtual assessments. Ensure that the competitive Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority grant programs require states to prioritize equity for students with disabilities, students of color, students impacted by poverty, and ELLs in their innovative approaches to assessment. 

Invest in research to better understand the effectiveness of accelerated learning approaches.

Increase federal funding for the Institute of Education Sciences to evaluate programs and practices that seek to address instructional loss during the pandemic and accelerate learning, such as the new initiative, “Operation Reverse the Loss”.

Create a national mathematics panel that builds upon the 2008 National Mathematics Advisory Panel to explore the fundamental components of math instruction and inform approaches to accelerating student engagement with, interest in, and achievement in math.

Conduct hearings and/or listening tours to elevate the importance of accelerated learning. Many accelerated learning approaches are new and have yet to be implemented at scale. Congress can hold hearings or listening tours to highlight and better understand successful accelerated approaches. 

Maintain guardrails to ensure that all students are held to and perform at high levels.

Reinforce the importance of grade-level standards for all students. The ED 2015 IDEA guidance clarified that IDEA’s requirement to provide each child with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) means that IEPs should be written in ways that create a pathway for students to strive for, and meet, grade-level standards. ED should reiterate the importance of this guidance and should use indicators that measure how well students are meeting grade-level standards as a part of the Results Driven Accountability and state determinations process under the requirements outlined in IDEA. 

Support the use of statewide assessments that provide transparent data to help inform policy and practice. ED should develop meaningful guidance to help states implement statewide assessments during the pandemic. Standardized assessment data may not be as reliable as in previous years, but it remains an important indicator of student success and well-being amid the pandemic.

Part 3: State-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions

While educators and schools will be at the heart of efforts to reimagine instruction and accelerate learning, states also have an important role to play. The following state-level policy recommendations can guide school districts in decisions about reimagining learning while also implementing effective guardrails to ensure that acceleration efforts do not compromise the commitment to guaranteeing all students a high-quality, rigorous education.

These recommendations focus on accelerating instruction, but this is only one piece of a necessary, comprehensive approach to support students, families, educators, and schools during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Allocate resources to design and implement acceleration approaches with fidelity. States can:

Establish tutoring programs and prioritize serving students with disabilities and students most in need. States can encourage school districts to blend funding from Title I, IDEA, and the CARES Act to establish robust tutoring programs. Tutoring services should supplement whole group grade-level instruction taught by a content expert, essentially acting as a double dose of instruction rather than as a replacement for whole group instruction.

Invest in hardware, software, and infrastructure that allow all students to access and engage with virtual or blended instruction. States should provide additional funding to increase the device-per-pupil ratio and create solutions to ensure that all students have access to the internet. Without this investment, the reliance on distance or blended learning could have a disproportionate negative impact on students experiencing poverty, students of color, and students with disabilities who, generally, have less access to devices, assistive technology, and adequate instruction.

Protect and expand funding for specialized instructional support personnel. States should allocate sufficient funding to districts to pay for school psychologists, school counselors, social workers, and other specialized instructional support personnel. COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on the mental health and social-emotional well-being of children. Due to the pandemic, many children will experience greater levels of stress as more families face economic hardship, and caregivers balance work, caring for friends and family, and schooling. Schools will need the same, if not more, support from specialized staff to meet the needs of children during uncertain COVID-19 times and beyond.

Support and encourage districts to administer formative assessments regularly to assess progress of individual students and adapt instructional approaches for students who are not making sufficient progress. During the coming months, it will be more important to focus on instruction than on standardized assessments that are used to measure student proficiency for high-stakes decisions such as grade promotion and graduation. In the short term, states should encourage districts to support the frequent administration of formative assessments as a way to determine the impact of new instructional models on student learning. While data from these assessments are essential to guide educators in planning and delivering well-targeted instruction, they are not intended to serve as a measure of student learning for school and district accountability purposes.

Cultivate the knowledge and skills to reimagine learning. States can:

Create partnerships with education organizations to help districts and schools execute accelerated models in different instructional contexts (asynchronously, synchronously, virtual, blended, in-person). States can help establish partnerships with education organizations (e.g., community-based programs, national and state nonprofits, colleges, technology businesses, independent researcher entities) to develop guidance, materials, and professional development protocols to assist in the implementation of evidence-based, culturally competent, accelerated approaches in fully virtual and blended learning models.

Create professional development and guidance on how to use ongoing, formative assessments to identify students’ unique learning needs. States should issue guidance and provide additional resources to increase the amount of professional development available to help educators effectively administer and use data from these assessments.

Allocate resources to build expertise around accelerated curriculum. States should allocate additional resources from federal relief packages or other sources to allow districts to develop and provide personalized professional development. Funds should be made available to hire additional personnel to ensure manageable class sizes, to address challenges posed by online and hybrid learning, and for ongoing coaching to educators as they implement accelerated curricula.

Streamline and focus learning by identifying “power” 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 of students that were disproportionately impacted by the school disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Establish guardrails so that acceleration approaches are implemented in an inclusive and equitable manner.States can:

Establish guardrails within new acceleration approaches to ensure that struggling students and those with identified disabilities have access to grade-level content and rigorous learning opportunities. It will be challenging to determine if a child is making meaningful yearly progress and staying on “grade level” in new instructional learning environments that allow students to advance at their own pace. To minimize the risk of having students fall behind, states should help districts to develop strong progress monitoring systems that identify when students are not making sufficient progress. See more important guardrails here.

Ensure that students with disabilities have access to grade-level instruction in the least restrictive environment. States should monitor data and COVID reentry plans to ensure that all students will have access to accelerated curriculum, especially those who were most negatively impacted by school closures in the spring of 2020 and during the 2020–2021 school year. Specifically, states should clarify that accelerated approaches should not be used to “track” students — or put certain student groups on different learning trajectories. For instance, states should monitor and ensure that students with disabilities will benefit from accelerated curriculum approaches alongside their peers without disabilities.

Articulate pathways for students who are graduating or aging out of high school to earn needed credits and participate in college and career transition services. States should issue guidance to require high schools to ensure that students who are graduating or aging out of high school can access the necessary coursework to receive their diploma or certificate, despite school closures. This may include allowing juniors or seniors to complete coursework or access transition services after their graduation or age-out date.

Part 4:

Federal-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions

Part 2: Implementing Acceleration Approaches With Success

Implementing any of these approaches to accelerated learning can be complicated, and fidelity of implementation is critical to success. Regardless of the approach, states, districts, and educators should build an inclusive learning environment, provide meaningful support to educators, and create systems to facilitate family engagement.

Inclusive Learning Environment

No matter the instructional model or curriculum, an inclusive learning environment helps all students thrive. This is increasingly challenging, given that health and safety concerns mean that schools are likely to shift between virtual, blended, and in-person instruction throughout the 2020–2021 school year. 

Inclusion is especially important for students with disabilities. The majority of students with disabilities spend most of their school day in general education classrooms, alongside students without disabilities. This trend reflects the mandate in IDEA requiring that students be educated in the least restrictive environment (which more often than not means a general education setting) to the greatest extent possible. The following elements are key to building an environment that is inclusive of, and accessible to, students with disabilities and other learners:

 

Embracing Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework to improve teaching and learning for all based on how individuals learn best. It requires creating multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement to set up all students for success. As changes to learning environments are made in response to the pandemic, most school districts will rely heavily on technology. Schools will need to acquire and use assistive technologies that offer features such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text. They will need to use instructional platforms that offer scaffolding for assignments. These features can be lifelines to learning for students with disabilities, ELLs, and other struggling students.

Designing instruction for students on the margins is beneficial for all students, but it is particularly important for students with disabilities. Embedding flexibility and multiple means for educators to share content and for students to demonstrate their knowledge will help students with disabilities access the general education curriculum alongside their peers. 

Implementing Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS). MTSS is a data-based problem-solving approach to delivering core instruction, in which teachers monitor student behavior and performance and change the course or intensity of interventions to accelerate learning or provide targeted instruction to address gaps in learning. Ongoing progress monitoring helps educators identify students who need individualized services and supports, guiding decisions about the allocation of time and resources. Progress monitoring can also ensure that students who fail to keep pace with an accelerated curriculum are quickly identified so they can receive additional interventions based on their real-time needs. Student data gathered during the course of MTSS can also be helpful to guide decision making during a special education evaluation process. 

Prioritize student development and growth of executive function skills. Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control. Many students, but especially those with attention-related disabilities, struggle with obtaining and mastering these skills. This can result in challenges with starting, completing, or prioritizing tasks. While strength-based approaches that allow students to advance at their own pace can accelerate learning, these models must embed supports to build executive skills. Until students are able to manage a self-paced structure, educators should provide additional scaffolds and guidance to ensure that all students progress meaningfully.

Intensive Educator Supports

Accelerating instruction is challenging and — for most educators — new. Teachers and specialized instructional support personnel will need targeted support to help them identify student needs and implement strategies to accelerate learning. And, when necessary, educators will need support in adapting to new and changing learning environments. 

It is important to recognize that educators and schools are already bearing a heavy burden. Policymakers must first address many other factors that impact teachers’ capacity, including teacher shortages, class size, instructional leadership, educator health and well-being, and school funding. Once these basic needs of schools and educators are met, equipping educators with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to implement instructional approaches to accelerate learning includes the following:

Invest in extensive professional development and ongoing coaching and support. This might include adding capacity in the form of expert educators and leaders who can serve as mentors or coaches. Coaches should help implement systems of supports for educators, equipping them to address students’ unfinished learning; to develop and instruct students based on personalized, rigorous learning progressions that blend grade-level instruction with prerequisite skills; and to shape learning environments that feature multiple modalities in virtual, blended, and in-person contexts. 

A recent pre-COVID-19 report by NCLD found that many general educators do not feel well-prepared to teach students with disabilities. It is more than likely that educators are experiencing even greater challenges now that they are required to teach in virtual and hybrid instructional environments. Given that the majority of students have missed extended periods of valuable instructional time and have experienced instructional loss, most educators are faced with unprecedented challenges. In addition, professional development is needed to ensure that educators are prepared to provide accommodations and support to students with disabilities and other historically marginalized student groups, including ELLs.

Leverage the expertise of educators to maximize the impact of instructional models. States should provide guidance to districts about the development of innovative staffing plans that match educators to student groups and delegate responsibilities based on their expertise. Educators who have previous experience with accelerated programming and those who have demonstrated expertise with high-need student populations should be assigned to work closely with the students who are furthest behind. Special educators can help their colleagues identify and implement accommodations and interventions that will improve learning for all students. However, school systems should embrace an inclusive environment that recognizes the collective responsibility of educating students. This environment should provide the structures, time, and skills for effective collaboration between special and general educators. Educators who need ongoing support should be provided regular coaching and feedback so they are able to implement an accelerated program of instruction that maps onto the general curriculum. 

Family Engagement

Families are essential partners in supporting students and improving outcomes. They are also advocates and key decision makers for their children. Just as acceleration is new for teachers, revised curricula and restructured instructional models will be unfamiliar to families. To help students and support learning at home, families should be engaged to inform the development and design of acceleration programs. 

Given the likelihood that instruction will be virtual or blended for the majority of the 2020–2021 school year, it is critical to equip families and caregivers with information and knowledge to maximize the effectiveness of their participation. Families should be informed about how schools are adapting curriculum and instructional strategies to accelerate learning while ensuring the health and safety of all children and school personnel. Meaningful family engagement includes:

Establishing flexible and regular communication with families. Regardless of the curriculum or instructional approach, students perform better when families are engaged with the school and their learning. While clear lines of communication — in their native language and in an accessible way — are always important, regular communication during COVID-19 school disruptions are especially critical to help families manage uncertainty and support children navigate changing instructional environments. The onus should not be solely on teachers; there should be a coordinated schoolwide effort led by school leaders to set the precedent for frequent and effective communication. 

A recent report found that families use a wide range of communication systems to connect with schools and teachers. Generally, families prefer personalized outreach, like emails or calls, but some value social media (that bypasses the need to learn a new system or remember passwords) or web-based platforms made available by the school. It’s critical that school leaders provide communications in a variety of formats to best meet the needs of all families.

Describing how and why schools are adapting curriculum and designing learning plans. More than ever, parents and caregivers are supporting students’ daily instruction. They need clear and concise information about the school’s expectations so they can allocate the time and attention required to help children reach their learning goals. Parents of students with disabilities need specific information about how redesigned curricula and individualized learning plans will ensure that instruction is accessible to their child.

Part 3:

State-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions

Part 1: Research-Based Approaches to Accelerate Learning

Due to school closures and lost instructional time, the vast majority of students are entering the 2020–2021 school year behind grade level. Many schools will aim to design a learning progression that remediates instruction, meets students where they are, and picks up the curriculum where students left off. This approach will, at best, keep students from falling behind further but will not accelerate instruction. Research shows that these approaches to remediate instruction are largely ineffective to help students “catch up.” 

Remediation as the primary way to support students performing below grade level is especially concerning for students with disabilities. It can result in lowered expectations for these students and relegate them to lower “tracks” than their nondisabled peers. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released guidance to clarify that, as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) requirement to provide each child with a free appropriate public education, IEPs should be written in ways that create a pathway and roadmap for students to strive for and meet grade-level standards.

Jump to:

Any discussion of reimagined learning or accelerated learning must take into account students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Endrew F. case recognized the right of all students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to have ambitious academic goals. Further, the Court stated “while the goals may differ, every student should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” The Supreme Court also recognized that if a student is not making expected progress toward his or her annual goals, the IEP team must revise, as appropriate, the IEP to address the lack of progress. If a school or district decides to implement an instructional model that attempts to “accelerate” learning or get students to meet grade-level standards more quickly, it must consider the needs of all students. Students with significant cognitive disabilities should be able to participate in and engage with content alongside their peers. 

For more information on inclusive practices for students with significant cognitive disabilities, visit the TIES Center at www.tiescenter.org, the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies that works with states, districts, and schools to support the movement of students with disabilities from less inclusive to more inclusive environments.

Promising approaches to accelerating learning share common characteristics. These models do the following:

Streamline curriculum while focusing on grade-level standards. Research shows that, in lieu of remediation, effective acceleration programs streamline content, reducing redundancies in curriculum in order to focus on rigorous, grade-level content while familiarizing students with prerequisite skills at critical junctures. This careful focus allows students to make up for lost instruction while keeping up with grade-level instruction. 

Allow for additional time to integrate necessary prerequisite skills. While streamlining curriculum is important, students may still require more time to acquire prerequisite skills or engage with and master new content. Allowing for additional time at the school or district level necessitates collaborative conversations about schedules that include representation from special educators, service providers, language or reading specialists, electives teachers, and families. Allowing for additional time at the classroom level should be determined in a collaboration between general and special educators.

Customize instruction based on strengths and areas of growth for each student. Effective approaches to accelerating learning demand that curricula be tailored to deliberately and intentionally meet individual learners’ specific needs over a prescribed period. Rather than approaching instruction from a deficit model, efforts should focus on student strengths, simultaneously providing compensatory strategies and additional instruction to address gaps in learning and needed areas of growth. Special educators should be an integral part of this process as they have nuanced understanding of student strengths and progress with specific skills. Effective models also ensure that needed accommodations are provided. 

Leverage student interests that lead to deep, engaging learning. When content is aligned to student interests, the result is an increase in engagement and learning outcomes. Culturally responsive education that recognizes and affirms students’ cultural and racial identity also leads to better academic outcomes.

Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), multiple modalities, and small group instruction. UDL and multiple modalities for instruction can support accelerated approaches. Teachers should use UDL to design flexible learning environments that anticipate learner variability and provide alternative pathways into the curriculum. Teachers should also adapt approaches to accelerated learning to reflect the strengths and areas of growth for each student. Small teacher-to-student ratios and small group instruction can also build ownership of learning for students and reinforce social ties that improve learning and behavioral outcomes., Furthermore, small group tutoring has been shown to be one of the most effective strategies to improve student outcomes. 

Some districts and programs already have approaches that embody these key components for successful acceleration. The following examples incorporate many of the evidence-based practices that can lead to acceleration of learning. It is important to note that while these approaches show promise, not all students with disabilities would be served well in them. Decision makers should recognize the need for balancing student-responsive instruction with accelerated models.

Importance of Accountability and Guardrails in All Instructional Models

Regardless of the instructional approach used, it is critical to preserve and adhere to the statewide assessment and accountability system laid out in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The federal accountability system measures student proficiency by grade level and uses time as a means to determine if students are making progress similar to that of their peers within and across subgroups — like students with disabilities, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, ELLs, and students of various races/ethnicities. For instance, ESSA maintains the federal requirement (which began with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act) to administer statewide standardized assessments to all students in grades 3–8 and once in high school to measure students’ proficiency against grade-level standards. Schools must report the results, must disaggregate data by student subgroup, and are held accountable for student performance on these assessments, among other indicators. The disability and civil rights community has fought for such a system where comparable, annual statewide assessments are administered and publicly reported on so that all students are counted and communities can understand where there are inequities in public education. 

By design, some of the accelerated approaches to instruction presented here take a more fluid approach to the pace of learning progressions. In these situations, it is critical that school leaders and policymakers effectively monitor student progress and proficiency using valid and reliable measures. This will ensure that no student groups are held to lower standards or set on trajectories that will prevent them from reaching the same levels of achievement as their peers. If accelerated models of instruction use growth models, grade spans, or other ways to group students and track progress, adhering to federal assessment and accountability requirements is still paramount. Without these guardrails, students at the margins — like students with disabilities — may be held to lower standards or left behind.

Refer to Part 3: Policy Recommendations for more information.

Approach A

Power Standards: Educators focus on delivering a subset of standards or prioritized grade-specific indicators that any state or district determines are critical for student success.

Power Standards: Milwaukee Public Schools
As part of Milwaukee Public School System’s reopening plan, the district articulated instructional expectations for teachers, students, and families. The district designated “power standards” — the most important grade-level goals — as priorities for the first six weeks of school, and provided sample lessons for educators to use when teaching those standards. In other words, the district expected teachers to condense and focus on critical grade-level content with time carved out to address prerequisite skills. This type of district- or state-level guidance is helpful as it paves the way for the redesign of curriculum and instruction to accelerate learning. Organizations such as Achieve the Core have created guidelines on the best ways for districts and schools to maintain high expectations for mastery of grade-level content during and after COVID-19, despite instructional loss. 

Example of Power Standards for Grade 2 Mathematics

Combine lessons in order to reduce the amount of time spent on time and money. Emphasize denominations that support place value understanding such as penny-dime-dollar. Limit the amount of required student practice. 

—Achieve the Core, 2020–2021 Priority Instructional Content in ELA/Literacy and Mathematics, page 25

Impact
While there is no data about the efficacy of this specific district-level practice and policy, similar efforts in postsecondary education have demonstrated promising outcomes. For instance, the California Acceleration Project (CAP) worked with community colleges to redesign remedial courses for students who have not fully satisfied college-entry benchmarks and are required to pass remedial classes before qualifying for college credit. The CAP created streamlined courses that incorporate prerequisite skills and simultaneously allow students to earn credit. 

Key features of this approach:

  • Streamlines curriculum while focusing on grade-level standards
  • Frees up time from grade-level curriculum to integrate necessary prerequisite skills

This approach has been shown effective in increasing course completion. For example, course completion rates increased by 2.3 times for required English classes and by 4.5 times for classes in statistics.

Approach B

Competency-Based Education: Competency-based learning is “an educational system in which each student gets what they need to reach their fullest potential and master high standards through flexible pathways, differentiated support, individual and collective tasks, and multiple means and opportunities to demonstrate skill development. Students have individual agency as well as collaborate in co-constructing pathways and measures of learning. Standards, competencies, and measures of mastery incorporate community input and voice to ensure pathways reflect Universal Design for Learning and are culturally responsive, nonbiased, and anti-racist.”

Competency-Based Education: Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis
Established in 2017, Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS) is a collaboration among Purdue University, the City of Indianapolis, and industry partners who seek to prepare students for rigorous postsecondary coursework in STEM fields.

PPHS has three high school campuses serving a total of over 700 students in grades 9–12. Fifty-five percent of PPHS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 15 percent receive special education services. The student population is racially and ethnically diverse — 34 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 36 percent White/Caucasian, and 6.1 percent Multiracial. PPHS takes a competency-based education approach, providing students credit for demonstrated learning mastery as opposed to time spent in school. Every student has a personalized learning coach and is assigned to an advisory group of 15 to 17 students. Students work with their coaches and with peers, setting goals, reviewing progress, discussing current events, and creating plans and schedules for the coming week. Students work on “challenges,” which are projects with industry partners that could include, for example, creating product prototypes or drafting business plans. Each challenge lasts for six weeks, after which a new “project cycle” begins. A key feature of this approach is “personalized learning time,” during which students progress through required course content (e.g., U.S. history) at their own pace. Coaches are available to assist students either individually or in small groups if they have questions or are struggling with academics or their industry-supported STEM projects. 

Impact
Evidence suggests that this approach holds promise. During the school’s second year (SY 2018–2019), PPHS students passed the PSAT 8/9 (an assessment given to students in grades 8 and 9 to gauge college and career readiness) at a rate similar to the national average and five percentage points above the state average. In addition, PPHS students outperformed all but one local township/school district on the 2018–2019 state assessments.

Key features of this approach:

  • Streamlines curriculum while focusing on grade-level standards
  • Leverages students’ interests and capitalizes on opportunities for deep engagement in learning
  • Uses multiple modalities and takes advantage of benefits inherent to small group instruction and peer engagement
  • Frees up time to integrate necessary prerequisite skills
  • Customizes instruction to students’ strengths and areas identified as targets for growth 

Approach C

Tailored Acceleration: In this model, educators regularly conduct short, formative assessments and develop individualized learning progressions for each student. Students engage in flexible groupings and in different modalities — independent practice, small group teacher instruction, computer instruction, small group practice — based on their mastery of various skills.

Tailored Acceleration: Teach to One 360
Teach to One 360 is a holistic math instructional model that leverages analytics from historical learner patterns and individual learner attributes to create a custom math curriculum. Learning is tailored to meet the strengths and needs of each student. Teach to One’s adaptive technology develops individualized learning progressions that are updated regularly as teachers conduct short, formative assessments. Students engage in flexible groupings and in different teacher-led, student collaboration, and independent modalities based on their mastery of various math skills. Students get more time to develop prerequisite skills while still being exposed to grade-level content. 

Various schools have adapted the Teach to One approach to address restrictions related to COVID, and have demonstrated how to implement the model in blended or distance learning environments.

Impact
A 2019 report by MarGrady Research, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that schools whose students enrolled in Teach to One over a three-year period saw an average of 23 percent more growth than a national reference sample. However, a second study on a smaller set of schools, by the Consortium of Policy Research in Education at Teachers College, was unable to draw any generalizable conclusion. The report suggested that the inconclusive impact of the program might be due to a lack of fidelity in implementation and to the school district continually reconfiguring the program to align the teaching to the specific grade-level standards on which schools are assessed. 

Find out more about the Teach to One 360 approach.

Key features of this approach:

  • Uses multiple modalities and small group instruction
  • Frees up time to integrate necessary prerequisite skills
  • Customizes instruction to fit each student’s strengths, areas of growth, and interests

Approach D

Small Group, High-Impact Tutoring: Schoolwide, one-on-one tutoring or tutoring in very small groups takes place at least three times a week, or for about 50 hours over a semester with the same group of students.

Small Group, High-Impact Tutoring: SAGA Education
SAGA Education is a tutoring program in Chicago, New York City, Florida, and Washington, DC. SAGA pairs students with a tutor who is interested in public service — often a recent college graduate who is an AmeriCorps member. Tutors work in the program for one year and receive a stipend and pre-service training. Tutors are paired with two to four students who are behind grade level in math for one 50-minute class period per school day. 

Find out more about Saga Education.

The daily tutoring sessions count as a credit-bearing elective course toward high school graduation for the students who are being tutored. Importantly, tutoring sessions do not replace participation in full-class grade-level instruction with teachers who have content expertise. Instead, the tutoring sessions provide a double dose of instruction to support and accelerate learning. 

Impact
The impact of this approach has been shown to be positive. Students who received SAGA tutoring achieved 2.5 years of growth in math in one year. Among participating students, there was a 50 percent decrease in math course failures. The impact also spilled over into content areas outside of those targeted by tutoring, with a 28 percent decrease in non-math course failures. 

Key features of this approach

  • Uses multiple modalities and small group instruction
  • Frees up time to integrate necessary prerequisite skills
  • Customizes instruction to fit each student’s strengths, areas of growth, and interests

Part 2:

Implementing Acceleration Approaches With Success

Promising Practices to Accelerate Learning for Students with Disabilities During COVID-19 and Beyond – Introduction

Introduction

COVID-19 shuttered school buildings and the impact on students will potentially be significant for years to come. Experts predict that school closures last spring could leave students a full year behind in math — with even greater impact as disruptions in instruction continue through the 2020–2021 school year. While instructional loss will affect most students, it could have a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and other historically marginalized populations, including students of color, students impacted by poverty, and English language learners. For example, one study looked at the amount of grade-level content students had learned in math and reading during the fall semester. The researchers found that in schools that predominantly served students of color, scores were 59 percent of the historical average in math compared to 67 percent for all students. For reading, students of color had learned 77 percent of the content in reading compared to 87 percent for all students.

Even before COVID-19, these students with disabilities, students of color, English language learners (ELLs), and students impacted by poverty experienced persistent opportunity gaps and lower achievement compared to their nondisabled, native English speaking, and affluent peers. For instance, proficiency and graduation rates of students with disabilities continue to trail those of their peers, even though research demonstrates that they can meet the same academic standards when provided high-quality instruction and needed services and supports.

Generally, remedial instruction that simply reteaches content has been the default approach to bringing struggling students up to grade level. The major shortcoming of this approach is that students are pulled out of class to work on skill development in the target academic area, and the time spent away from their general classroom results in less engagement in grade-level curriculum. In other words, while remediation may help students improve isolated skills, the gap in these students’ subject-specific knowledge continues to widen. Additionally, while the remediation may prevent a widening gap in certain skills, it may not be sufficient to close the gap or to help students catch up as their peers forge ahead.

COVID-19 continues to exacerbate opportunity gaps. Students are struggling to access online resources, participate in virtual classrooms, and connect meaningfully with teachers and peers. Students with disabilities and ELLs carry the additional burden of accessing needed specialized instruction and related services and supports that were provided in person before the pandemic. In many cases, these services and supports have been disrupted or denied due to the pandemic. Students of color who have disabilities or who are ELLs face even more compounding challenges due to inequitable distribution of educational resources. What’s more, these students may lack accessible devices or reliable broadband and, as a result, will have more difficulty benefiting from distance or blended learning.

Planning for Equity and Inclusion: A Guide to Reopening Schools


Principle 4: Reimagine Learning
:
States and districts must prioritize high-quality instruction and educational experiences, whether in-person, fully distanced, or through blended learning, and provide opportunities not just to remediate student learning but to accelerate progress.

Considerations:
1. Educate students with disabilities alongside their peers
2. Redesign and accelerate curriculum
3. Use continuous formative assessments
4. Prioritize inclusion of students with disabilities

It is critical that schools take immediate steps to address the issue of instructional loss and prevent students from falling further behind. NCLD released a guide that outlines key principles to help shape inclusive and equitable learning opportunities for all students in the 2020–2021 school year. One of those principles is “reimagine learning” — an ambitious and critical goal to mitigate instructional loss from the pandemic. Until now, our nation’s schools have struggled to find effective ways to accelerate learning, or, as defined in a report by TNTP, “putting every student on a fast track to grade-level [proficiency].” The report highlights that children who have faced barriers academically, whether due to a disability, lack of English language proficiency, or other factors, rarely “catch up,” regardless of whether they receive additional support and services. Too often, these students are on a parallel but different trajectory from their peers who are performing at grade level.

Given that so many students have missed critical instruction since the start of the pandemic, there is an urgent need to identify what works — and to scale effective, research-based models that accelerate learning and improve outcomes for students, now and in the years to come. While states, districts, and schools pilot new approaches, policymakers, school leaders, educators, and parents should be vigilant in measuring the efficacy of these models and hold themselves to high standards of accountability, ensuring that sufficient guardrails are in place. This brief explores some of those models and highlights important considerations for historically marginalized student populations, especially students with disabilities.

Importantly, COVID-19 will have far-reaching consequences on students, teachers, schools, and education systems overall. For instance, it has exacerbated teacher shortages and has added additional stress and work to teachers’ already full plates. Implementing effective models to accelerate instruction and mitigate instructional loss must be only one piece of the overall strategy to support all students, families, teachers, and schools to maximize student outcomes during and after the pandemic. Indeed, focusing on acceleration or learning recovery without simultaneously addressing teacher shortages, funding scarcity, and other pressing challenges cannot be successful.

Part 1:

Research-Based Approaches to Accelerate Learning

Part 2:

Implementing Acceleration Approaches With Success

Part 3:

State-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions

Part 4:

Federal-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions