We need to change the way schools tackle barriers to learning

Alison Yin/EdSource

Every day our center at UCLA hears from teachers who feel overwhelmed. Clearly, part of the problem is the stress of personally and professionally facing challenges arising from the pandemic. But an even greater stressor is the inadequate support they receive as they attempt to educate the increasing number of students with learning, behavioral and emotional difficulties.

While all schools devote resources to dealing with ubiquitous student problems, what is available usually covers relatively few students. When additional resources are provided, such as the pandemic relief funds, the first trend is to simply add more student support staff (eg counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses).

Some schools are also trying to meet the needs of more students by expanding and integrating services in the context of the community school initiative; some focus more on social and emotional learning and mental health education. Such improvements are relevant, but they fall short of being able to significantly reduce the problems teachers face every day.

Addressing the ubiquitous and complex barriers that hinder effective student teaching and learning requires a system-wide approach that supports the development and learning of the whole child comprehensively and equitably. This includes a fundamental reworking of existing student and learning supports.

The current widespread adoption of some form of a multi-layered continuum of interventions (commonly referred to as MTSS) is a partial step in the right direction. That framework recognizes that a full range of interventions aim to promote healthy development of the whole learner, prevent problems, provide immediate help when problems arise, and ensure help for severe and chronic problems in special education. . Moving forward, our research has clarified the need to reformulate each level of intervention in a way that systematically interweaves school and community resources.

Districts and schools also need to rethink how they organize the practices they use for learning, behavioral and emotional problems. Our research indicates that the various programs, services, initiatives and strategies can be grouped into six arenas of classroom and school-wide student and learning support. By organizing the activity in this way, it becomes clear what support is needed in and outside the classroom to enable effective teaching and engaged student learning. The six arenas include interventions that:

  • Integrate student and learning support into mainstream classroom strategies to enable learning and teaching (e.g., student support staff working part of the time in classrooms to re-engage students and provide special assistance if needed).
  • Supporting transitions (eg, helping students and families overcome the many barriers associated with re-entry or first admission to school, school and class changes, daily transitions, program transitions, access to special assistance).
  • Increase home-school links and engagement (e.g., tackling barriers to home involvement, helping those in the home improve support for their children, strengthening home-school communication, and increasing support for school at home).
  • Responding to — and, where possible, preventing — school and personal crises (e.g., preparing for emergencies, executing plans when an event occurs, mitigating the impact of traumatic events, providing follow-up care, implementing prevention strategies, and a caring and safe learning environment).
  • Increase community engagement and collaboration (e.g., outreach to develop greater community connection and support through a wide variety of resources, including increased use of volunteers and developing school-community partnerships).
  • Facilitate student and family access to special assistance (e.g., as part of the regular program and as needed, by referral to specialist services on and off campus).

These six arenas are easy to map across the multi-layered continuum of interventions.

Finally, districts and schools need to make structural changes to develop the range and type of interventions into a unified, inclusive and equitable system fully integrated into school improvement policies and practices.

We recognize how daunting it is to make the changes we’ve outlined. But we also know that maintaining the status quo is unsustainable and that just more tinkering will not meet the need. It’s time to end the myths and expectations that teachers can do it all and can do it alone.

The Covid-19 pandemic and growing concerns about social justice mark a turning point for how schools, families and communities work together. Those who take over the prevailing layered framework have made a start. Now districts and schools need to develop a coherent and comprehensive approach to address barriers to learning and teaching.

Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor are co-directors of the National Center for MH in Schools & Student/Learning Supports at UCLA, an initiative to improve outcomes for students by helping districts and their schools improve the way they address barriers to learning and teaching .

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the authors. EdSource welcomes comments representing different points of view. If you would like to comment, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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