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Students with special needs were disproportionately affected by COVID-related learning disruptions--focusing on the whole child can help

Special education students need a whole child approach

Students with special needs were disproportionately affected by COVID-related learning disruptions--focusing on the whole child will help get them back on track

In early 2020, 7.3 million students received special education services as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s 14% of K–12 students in public schools in the United States who depend on additional—and often very specialized—services to support their ability to learn and live their lives fully.

But once the pandemic set in and schools closed their doors, the elaborately precarious systems that have been constructed to meet the needs of these students collapsed.

In October 2020, a little more than two- thirds of K-12 principals estimated that their students with disabilities would perform somewhat or much lower than they had before the pandemic. A year later, a November 2021 survey by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates—an advocacy group for students in special education and their families—found that 86% of parents reported that their child experienced learning loss, skill regression or slower-than-expected progress in school.

The predictability of our current situation is tragic. But to blame this entirely on the pandemic is a mistake. Even before the pandemic hit, there were signs that serious trouble was brewing for students with disabilities. COVID only exacerbated a looming problem.

As districts emerge from the pandemic, how can school leaders ensure they are rebuilding and reimagining an educational experience that ensures special education students have access to equitable outcomes? A whole-child approach to special education will help accelerate the learning of this unique population.

A Whole-Child Approach for Every Child

Too often, students in special education are marginalized and lack access to the supports they need to develop academically, let alone as full human beings.

Our goal should be to ensure students leave school literate and passionate, with access to a full life and knowledge of their true selves. When a student comes to us, we should work to understand that whole child, beginning with where they’re coming from, what they need, and what they hope to accomplish. An IEP is generally a helpful document if you want to understand a student’s learning needs. But we need to get to a place where we look beyond the IEP; to help that child articulate who they are and what they aspire to be.

Building Community Around Each Student

At Ulster, we have designed our services around the belief that the student must be at the center of their educational experience. We accomplish this with the help of a staff trained to understand that they are all individual members of a community around each student. First we ask what the student is bringing to our school and think about what wraparound services that individual child will need. Then we ask: Who are the adults who will be interacting with them daily?

There may be nearly a dozen adults affecting one student’s life every day when they are in the school building, including their teacher, a teaching assistant and/or an aid, a physical therapist, a speech counselor, or social worker, to mention a few others. If that student is experiencing a crisis, we may call in our positive intervention team (or PIT crew), an administrator, or even someone from the community outside our school or their family, because our instructional model allows for unique, or “nontraditional” systems of support.

Whatever the child needs, we provide. We have literacy coaches, math coaches, and assistive technology experts. We focus on individualized learning and also are developing our teachers and student’s capacity for Process Based Learning (PBL).  We don’t try to fit our students into the systems we have, rather we do the opposite and build our systems around the students we have.

As an educational service agency, we are fortunate to have more resources and more adults to wrap around our students. But the fact that our model is the exception and not the rule, is frustrating. Students with special needs often require access to tools, edtech, and assistive tech to be able to level up and perform right alongside their peers. But they also need high quality learning opportunities. Achieving literacy and numeracy cannot be the only thing we aspire to for these students. They can achieve so much more, and they deserve to achieve more, even if it requires more resources.

Creating Learning Spaces That Allow Students to “Be”

It seems obvious, but if you are going to adopt a “whole-child” approach that values and celebrates the uniqueness and specialness of each individual child, then the physical design of the space must also reflect those values. Some students cannot concentrate if they are sitting in an uncomfortable chair. That’s an easy fix. But some students cannot focus or breathe properly unless they are lying on their stomachs. Not only have we designed our spaces to accommodate these types of needs, but critically, we have normalized the idea that we can and should do what we can to ensure students can show up ready to learn.  The “traditional” classroom, with rows of desks in perfect lines, was designed as a way to manage—or quash—disruptive behavior. And that’s great if your ultimate goal is compliance. But that’s not “whole-child,” is it? We want our students to learn and thrive, and if they can’t do that when they are uncomfortable, then we have an obligation to make those changes.

But we also are working very hard to model and promote agency and self-regulation, and so we have also created “zones” within our learning spaces where students can move to if they can’t otherwise communicate a need to an adult. For example, maybe a student begins to feel very anxious, and the noise and everyday classroom conversations are becoming overwhelming and they feel themselves shutting down. They may not have the ability at that stage to raise their hand, interrupt class, and politely ask if they can go somewhere quiet. Instead, we have those spaces built into our classrooms, and our students know that they can access those spaces when they need it, no matter what, no questions asked. Autonomy. Agency. Self-regulation. That’s what it looks like to model these skills.

Another physical space that is woefully underutilized—in all schools, for all students, but particularly for students with special needs—is the outdoors. At Ulster, we have an outdoor education program, Camp Ramapo, that all of our students are able to visit multiple times throughout the school year, with some of our highest need students having even more frequent rotations. We’ve found that being in nature and using nature to guide learning has a beneficial effect on our most aggressive students. In addition to academic lessons, students at Camp Ramapo also receive therapeutic support. While we recognize that this type of space may not be feasible in every school or district, but schools can and should be utilizing outdoor spaces for formal learning more than they typically do.

Love Is Not Enough

Social-emotional learning is nothing new at Ulster, especially in our special education classes. Love and nurturing are where everything starts for us. Community and relationships are at the center of our work; our district leadership prioritizes a teamwork approach to school culture where at the foundation of a strong, inclusive learning community. Trust me when I tell you that we very much value love and respect and dignity.

But love is not enough.

These kids need to learn. Love is necessary, but not sufficient, so we’ve been pushing back on this pervasive idea that love is all we need. These are smart kids, and they can succeed in school and in life, but we need to find the right combination of support and offerings—and plenty of love—to help them unlock their potential.

If we start with the assumption that these students are capable and worthy of a quality education experience, the whole game changes. We don’t need to “fix” kids. They are already whole. We, as an education system, just need to give the whole child the tools and support they need to self-regulate and find a passion for learning.

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