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Transitioning to a workload approach offers room for more effective support in special education, leading to improved student outcomes.

Transitioning to a workload approach in K-12 special education

Examining the impacts of a workload approach on school staff and students with special needs

Key points:

A recent 2022 Schools Survey conducted by American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) revealed that 78 percent of clinical service providers rely on the caseload approach to determine the number of students they served. Traditionally, this caseload approach has revolved around the number of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs), Multi-Tiered System of Support/Response to Intervention (MTSS/RTI) and 504 plans.

Special education providers continue to use the caseload approach to guide them in counting the number of students they are expected to provide services to. School district administrators typically use these numbers to determine how they will distribute staff across schools to meet service delivery needs.

However, by using this method, critical aspects are often overlooked and unaccounted for. This includes planning and paperwork demands related to indirect services with students, the long list of tasks that are involved in case management, meeting compliance standards, and collaborations with peers. Most importantly, the crucial role that a service provider plays in advocating for students in special education programs and ensuring they can advocate for themselves doesn’t fit into a “number” that can be counted on a caseload. This oversight can have a significant impact on both special education service providers and students.

Staff impacts

The caseload approach often imposes a significant burden on special education providers, leading to potential burnout. The number of students on a caseload doesn’t account for the unique needs and demands that each individual special education student brings with them. While the provider juggles the existing assessment and intervention caseload responsibilities, additional students are added to their programs. This results in swells that are not accounted for when the caseload was initially distributed, resulting in additional unpaid workload demands and considerable stress which contributes to burnout. It’s worth noting that a single annual review meeting for a special education student can generate 25-35 pages of paperwork. Providers are required to address the varied individual needs of each of the students on their caseload and all too often, planning time is limited.

It’s important to consider that not all caseloads are equal. For example, a speech and language pathologist (SLP) may appear to have a manageable caseload of 50 students. However, when you factor in that these 50 students are on three different campuses and 23 are in specialized classes and they require communication boards and devices, the task demands begin to compound. When 75 percent of the students on this caseload have sessions twice a week, the SLP needs to carve out travel time, in addition to planning and creating individualized materials and meeting the administrative demands associated with managing a caseload. The weekly stretching and pulling on a provider’s schedule and the constant attempts to squeeze in more tasks, can strain a provider’s energy, leaving them with less time for meaningful student interactions and tailored interventions.

Student impacts

The caseload approach often raises concerns about its impact on student achievement, especially when caseloads become excessively large due to the absence of caseload caps in many states. This leads to providers having to create large groups, to find a way to provide their service delivery.  However, these larger groups can lead to less individualized support and diminished student attention. It can also make it challenging for students with more severe needs and formidable goals.   

Amid these challenges, U.S. schools face an ongoing shortage of special education professionals, with a consistent 25 percent turnover rate over the past two decades. With consideration to the demands placed on these professionals and the implications for school staff and students, we should explore an alternative paradigm: the workload approach, an existing yet underutilized model.

Benefits of a workload approach

The workload approach focuses on student needs, prioritizing the time required for special education providers to effectively address and meet those needs. This holistic approach considers all the essential tasks and supports required for students to achieve their goals while managing provider responsibilities.

Shifting from a caseload to a workload approach can result in enhanced student outcomes as they benefit from more personalized attention, support, and intervention when necessary. In fact, alongside the available research demonstrating enhanced learning outcomes and reduced referrals, leading organizations including ASHA, The American Occupational Therapy Association, and American Physical Therapy Association recognize that implementing a workload approach can enhance service delivery effectiveness and student outcomes.

Implementing the workload approach not only unlocks valuable time for special education providers but also redefines how their contributions are valued. While the caseload model often focuses solely on direct student-facing time, the reality is that providers spend hours on critical tasks such as billing, report writing, parent communication, and creating communication tools—all of which directly benefit students. Recognizing these tasks as vital components of student support empowers special education providers. With more time dedicated to students and acknowledgment of their comprehensive role, job satisfaction increases, reducing the risk of burnout and improving staff retention.

Steps to transition

1. Reflect on current policies: What policies are in place that may prevent transitioning to a workload approach? What formulas are being used to determine the workload on a campus? These policies were likely established years ago and require adaptation to meet the evolving needs of today’s students who require special services. Preventive practices such as response to intervention are typically sacrificed to meet high caseload demands. Engage your experienced staff by asking, “What would happen if we reduced your caseload by 10 students? What would you be able to accomplish?”

2. Evaluate the staffing landscape: Assess how to address staffing needs to ensure all students receive necessary services. In a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics, it was found that among the 15 percent of students receiving special education services, the largest proportions have specific learning disabilities (32 percent) and speech or language impairments (19 percent). As the demand for special education services grows, more school districts are adopting teleservices to meet staffing shortages and ensure students receive the services they need. This proactive approach not only enhances and expands service coverage but also allows the on-campus providers to distribute the workload as students are added to programs.  

3. Create an implementation strategy: Develop a comprehensive plan outlining clear steps, timelines, and responsibilities to ensure a smooth transition. Define a strong leadership team to guide staff through the change. This strategic approach not only supports the retention of experienced staff but also plays a crucial role in reducing turnover rates. By providing a roadmap and fostering a culture of adaptability, you can effectively implement the workload approach and ensure its long-term success.

Transitioning to a workload approach is not without its own set of hurdles, as it is a shift in how we think about the direct and indirect tasks that are involved in supporting special education students. While a caseload approach is an easy way to divvy out students to staff, it does not account for the necessary tasks that have to happen when students are not in the therapy room.  A workload approach validates these tasks and allows professionals to allocate time to complete these during the workday.    

Transitioning to a workload approach offers room for more effective and personalized support, ultimately leading to improved student outcomes. The long-term benefits for both students and professionals become evident, with students receiving more attentive and meaningful services and providers channeling their resources and time toward their students’ growth and success.

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