Alison Yin/EdSource

Every day our center at UCLA hears from teachers who are feeling overwhelmed. Clearly, part of the problem is the stress of contending personally and professionally with challenges stemming from the pandemic. But an even greater stressor is the inadequate support they are receiving as they try to teach the increasing numbers of students with learning, behavior and emotional problems.

While all schools devote resources to coping with pervasive student problems, what is available usually covers relatively few students. When additional resources are provided, such as the pandemic relief funds, the first tendency is simply to add more student support personnel (e.g., counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses).

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

Addressing the pervasive and complex barriers that impede effective teaching and student learning requires a systemwide approach that comprehensively and equitably supports whole-child development and learning. This involves a fundamental reworking of existing student and learning supports.

The current widespread adoption of some form of a multitiered continuum of interventions (commonly designated as MTSS) is a partial step in the right direction. That framework recognizes that a full range of intervention encompasses a focus on promoting whole student healthy development, preventing problems, providing immediate assistance when problems appear, and ensuring assistance for serious and chronic special education concerns. Moving forward, our research has clarified the need to reframe each level of intervention in ways that systematically weaves together school and community resources.

Districts and schools also need to rethink how they organize the practices they use for learning, behavior, and emotional problems. Our research indicates that the various programs, services, initiatives, and strategies can be grouped into six arenas of classroom and schoolwide student and learning support. Organizing the activity in this way helps clarify what supports are needed in and out of the classroom to enable effective teaching and engaged student learning. The six arenas encompass interventions that:

  • Embed student and learning supports into regular classroom strategies to enable learning and teaching (e.g., student support staff working part of the time in classrooms to help reengage students in instruction and provide special assistance as needed).
  • Support transitions (e.g., assisting students and families as they negotiate the many hurdles related to reentry or initial entry into school, school and grade changes, daily transitions, program transitions, accessing special assistance).
  • Increase home and school connections and engagement (e.g., addressing barriers to home involvement, helping those in the home enhance supports for their children, strengthening home and school communication, and increasing home support for the school).
  • Respond to — and, where feasible, prevent — school and personal crises (e.g., preparing for emergencies, implementing plans when an event occurs, countering the impact of traumatic events, providing follow-up assistance, implementing prevention strategies, and creating a caring and safe learning environment).
  • Increase community involvement and collaborative engagement (e.g., outreach to develop greater community connection and support from a wide range of resources—including enhanced use of volunteers and developing a school–community collaborative).
  • Facilitate student and family access to special assistance (e.g., as part of the regular program and as needed, through referral for specialized services on and off campus).

These six arenas readily map across the multitiered continuum of interventions.

Finally, districts and schools need to make structural changes to develop the range and type of interventions into a unified, comprehensive and equitable system that is fully integrated into school improvement policy and practice.

We recognize how daunting it is to make the changes we have outlined. But we also know that maintaining the status quo is untenable and that just doing more tinkering will not meet the need. It is 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 adopting the prevailing multitiered framework have made a start. Now districts and schools must develop a cohesive and comprehensive approach to addressing 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 enhance how they address barriers to learning and teaching.

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  1. A. Ase 5 months ago5 months ago

    Not to be a shill, or anything, but I happen to be on the board of directors for an organization that has a good track record of addressing these very concerns, Sound Discipline. We may go by a different name by the end of next year, but for now we offer facilitators that do a great job of gathering and analyzing data and helping guide schools toward culturally competent responses.