July 19th, 2021

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

The Challenge

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

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

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

IDEA Special Education Eligibility Requirement

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

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

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

Practice and Policy Considerations

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

Practices to provide appropriate interventions and instruction to struggling learners.

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

Instruction and academic interventions:

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

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

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

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

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

Behavioral and social-emotional supports:

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

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

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

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

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

Policies to provide appropriate interventions and instruction to struggling learners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating Children for Special Education


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

Brief #1

Effectively managing special education evaluations.

Brief #3

Parent & Caregiver Guide:

Special education evaluations.

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

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