Learning support teams, the collaboration of teachers and specialists to provide for special learners, are of critical importance in the successful implementation of special education. The responsibilities of team members are extensive, including leadership roles in providing ongoing support to students, parents, teachers and school administrators. Team members need to be involved in the school admission process, early identification of student needs, goal setting, case management, defining accommodations and modifications, remediation, strategy instruction, study skills, differentiated instruction, curriculum mapping, assessment and setting standards for classes as well as school grading policies. Additionally, learning support teams often play an important role in guiding parents through the process of understanding their child’s strengths and challenges and helping students through the demystification process and towards self advocacy.
Successful learning support teams are most productive when they are student centered, focused on goal setting and collaborative problem solving, and committed to consistently tracking progress and celebrating successes, no matter their size. The needs of the student should always be the focus of the goal setting and problem solving that takes place in the team. Who are the players on the school’s learning support team? That will depend on the size of your school and your resources. At the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS), our lower school (K-6) learning support team includes the child’s parents, general studies and Judaic studies teachers, the general studies learning specialist and Hebrew learning specialist when appropriate, the child’s guidance counselor, grade level administrator and any outside professionals that may be involved in working with the child.
At CESJDS, the team is convened and led by the general studies learning specialist who assumes the role of the child’s case manager. For some students, there may be 10 people sitting around the table at monthly team meetings and for others, it is not necessary for a school administrator or guidance counselor to be involved and the team meets formally just twice a year. For day schools with more modest resources, learning support teams can be led by a school guidance counselor or administrator and include the parents and child’s teachers. In situations in which a student is receiving the majority of support privately, the private clinician may play a leadership role on the team if appropriate. Some smaller schools may consider hiring private consultants on a contract basis for a certain number of hours per year to play either a leadership or consulting role in school learning support teams.
Private clinicians in the field who develop a relationship with a school can play an important role in guiding goal setting, problem solving and being involved in a number of the priority areas described earlier. Schools will always encounter situations in which the needs of the students cannot be accommodated within the school, or the resources that the school has available are not extensive enough to properly support the student’s needs. Even in situations like this, it is of paramount importance for the needs of the student to drive the goal setting, problem solving and decision making that takes place.
Having a trained and experienced special educator on the team who is the child’s learning specialist and case manager is an ideal scenario. Finding a professional who is trained in research-based, multi-sensory, systematic methods of teaching reading and writing in addition to having expertise in case management, professional development and working with parents is important. At CESJDS, our staff of learning specialists play a central role in not only leading the team but in communicating information and designing and providing support to many students, teachers and parents.
In our lower school, support that students receive from learning specialists frequently includes direct services. Students may receive small group or individual pull-out support for remediation or multi-sensory strategy instruction in areas that could include decoding, fluency, reading comprehension, writing, study strategies or organization. Other students receive direct services in their classroom in addition to or instead of pull-out support. The decision as to the type and frequency of support students receive always leads back to goals set by the team at educational management team meetings. Education plans are written for each student receiving direct services. Other students have no need for direct service from a school learning specialist but require the learning specialist to write an accommodation plan to ensure that their needs are consistently accommodated in the classroom.
In our middle and upper schools (7-12), support is more focused on study skills, organization and time management, which is provided in a structured study hall setting, staffed by our team of learning specialists. Support that each student in our upper school receives is also determined by psycho-educational testing, which helps to guide decisions of the learning support team. The learning specialists also write education plans and accommodation plans for each student. As students progress through our support system, emphasis shifts to helping students understand their own learning strengths and weaknesses, strategies that do and don’t work for them and teaching them to become self advocates as they work towards more independence.
Whether a school has one learning specialist or a more extensive team of educational support services staff like we do at CESJDS, it is critical that a large part of the role of the learning specialists is to work with both general studies and Judaic studies classroom teachers to help support them in meeting the needs of each and every one of the students in their classroom. Visiting classrooms on a regular basis and setting up regular meetings with individual teachers is essential for success in this area. For students with education and/or accommodation plans, many teachers need ongoing support to effectively provide certain accommodations and to integrate remediation and strategy instruction that students receive outside of the classroom into their classroom practice.
Of equal importance is working with teachers to incorporate differentiated instruction into their classrooms, ensuring they are meeting the educational needs of our school’s strongest students while supporting our weaker students to reach toward the same standards of instruction. The learning specialists can collaborate with those involved in professional development to either lead school wide training in differentiated instruction or to play a supporting role with individual teachers that they work with.
Finally, another key role that learning specialists often play in providing ongoing support to classroom teachers which connects to the philosophy and key components of differentiated instruction is helping teachers understand that fair doesn’t always mean equal. If a group of students in the classroom have already demonstrated mastery of a math concept on a pre assessment, is it fair to teach this concept to all students in the classroom or is necessary to differentiate the math lesson on that particular day so that these students are stretched to learn something new? Another group of students may find it necessary for the teacher to provide manipulatives for them to use when practicing this new math skill while most of the class does not require this support. Helping teachers embrace the philosophy that it is their responsibility to structure their classroom to meet the needs of all students across the learning spectrum is a key role that the learning specialist plays in the school.
Just as every school has a wide spectrum of learners, learning support teams work with a wide spectrum of families and need to differentiate the role they play in supporting and guiding parents, depending on where each parent falls on the continuum. In some instances, team meetings will be the first time that learning or social challenges are called to a parent’s attention. In other situations, a family will apply to a school having already had their preschooler tested, working with a speech and occupational therapist and participating in a social skills group.
For families that are working with a team of outside professionals, the learning support team may play a significant role in case management and keeping in touch with the tutor, psychologist and parents on a regular basis to continually identify new goals and new interventions. With other families, the learning support team plays the role of guiding parents to private or public school testing so that they will have the opportunity to learn more about their child’s needs. Having relationships with a team of outside professionals and suggesting families pursue a consultation with a psychologist, have a medication consult, consider a social skills group, or find a summer intensive tutoring program is all part of the responsibilities of the learning support team members. Providing opportunities for parent education to the entire school population is also important through in-house speakers, book groups and connections to lectures in the community.
When schools make the decision to invest in a strong learning support team, the positive impact that this philosophical and financial commitment brings is far reaching and powerful. The entire school community, including students, parents, teachers and administrators, all reap the benefits of the expertise, focus and collaboration that the various team members provide. It is essential for more and more Jewish day schools to make the commitment to meet the needs of a greater spectrum of learners and to find ways to assemble an effective team. Though it is not that hard to think creatively of how to assemble a team that meets the needs of your school, it will always be challenging to meet the learning needs of all students while maintaining a high quality secular and Jewish education. Despite the daunting challenges that this commitment can bring, keep in mind the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). ♦
Lenore Layman is Director of Educational Support Services at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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