One of my favorite memories as an artistic and creative child was when the “art lady” came on Fridays to my 4th-grade class. She would introduce a project, and we got to pull out those crayons and paints we stored in our desks. We learned to do “stained glass” with tissue paper, draw pumpkins, and learn what to do when we made mistakes.
Now, as an educator, I see those art lessons not just as a fun time filler for busy elementary students but as another place to learn and practice skills, start over, and deal with frustration when we aren’t good at something right away. Learning to hold scissors, draw straight lines, and even the basics of color theory were a few of the ways those initial art lessons impacted my skills as a student.
In different eras of school policy, electives and art classes have been cast aside or cut from schools to better invest in math and reading. When this happens, it can take years to recover to previous funding levels for arts. In the process, students lose out on the benefits and opportunities these courses offer.
Non-core subjects, like art, music, vocational tech, foreign languages, and even physical education, are often seen as “extras,” taking away from the time needed to learn core subjects and implement interventions. Students might lose one of their electives for extra math or reading classes at the secondary level or miss out on enrichment time in specials as elementary students. These classes impact school culture and connection for students and staff. When implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports, these classes and teachers are valuable resources for the benefit of all.
Why MTSS Needs Elective Classes
The umbrella of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports is designed to identify a student's strengths and challenges in academics, social-emotional competencies, and behavior. It’s not only about uncovering those strengths and challenges but also about collectively deciding how to address them and creating a system of support where students’ needs can be met and then allowed to thrive. Specials and electives teachers are vital stakeholders in a school and are a resource that can and should be tapped to support students.
For example, within the MTSS process, when a student is identified as needing support, there should be a time to discuss that student's strengths and interests. “Electives classes reveal the skill sets of some students that might not be obvious in their other classes, helping them see their strengths and affording them opportunities to be of value to their classmates.” (Rambo, 2011) Non-core subject teachers, specials or electives, can give valuable insight into those students, especially those struggling in traditional classroom settings.
Let’s talk about how non-core subjects within a school can benefit the MTSS practice.
What Are the Benefits of Electives and Arts Classes for MTSS Practice?
Research shows that the arts help students emotionally, academically, socially, and behaviorally. Electives focusing on project-based learning, learning other languages, and even exposure to different skills provide a well-rounded educational experience. Elective classes add to what the MTSS practice can offer students, whether that be another teacher to support or a different avenue of learning.
If MTSS is a whole child framework, it needs every kind of course and teacher to support students in developing their interests and discovering new ways of expressing and challenging themselves. In fact, MTSS needs arts and elective classes to strengthen the system of supports in these specific ways:
Supporting Core Instruction
Elective classes allow for another path for students to apply the skills they learn in core classes. Since these classes might be more engaging and interesting to students, they have more incentive and motivation to use these skills. At the younger grades, skills such as summarizing instruction, following directions, and working with a team are reinforced. Often elective classes require presentations, technical reading, and learning to take feedback.
A few examples:
Music reinforces reading skills and group skills
Food labs and carpentry classes require applying math concepts, and technical reading
Foreign language class enriches a student’s understanding of the world and other cultures, as well as reading and writing
Theater requires speaking and presenting skills as well as working with others
Allowing for Student Choice
According to Marzano’s research, one of the best ways to keep students engaged in their learning is to offer them choices in what they get to learn. Even young students can be offered choices within their special classes and activities. Allowing students a choice in their classes gets them excited about something. It also offers a chance for them to explore different subjects that may relate to their eventual vocation.
Many schools are now offering unique electives pertaining to current topics and trends. For example, computer coding and robotics are offered as entry points for students to learn about technology and relevant career skills needed for careers that might not exist yet.
Building on Social-Emotional and Behavior Skills
Often, in my years as a teacher, my students would be excited to show me their artwork or a new skill they learned in their foods lab. They were confident and excited about school on those days. The hands-on nature of electives classes allows students to access different aspects of themselves as they learn. Learning to work with others, receive feedback, and make course corrections in a project might be easier within an environment that feels new to everyone, such as an intro to a foreign language class or debate class.
These courses are a chance for students to gain confidence, learn to relate to others, make friends and gain those social and emotional competencies. Research has shown the influence of the arts, specifically on student wellness.
And for students struggling with behavior skills, electives are sometimes the perfect place to build motivation. Many of my students who needed more support with behavior skills were excited and engaged in non-academic activities and classes, motivating them to keep coming to school and to keep their behavior in check.
Providing a Place of Connection for All Students
One of the most critical benefits of including elective courses within the MTSS framework is their importance in building school connectedness, a factor so important to student success that it can literally save student lives. According to the American Psychological Association, students who are engaged and connected to school are less likely to engage in unhealthy, dangerous, and anti-social behaviors. Any adult can build positive relationships a student connects with in school, even better when there is a shared interest in a course or topic.
This is especially important for adolescents who often feel misunderstood and out of place. Positive relationships with adults at school can help them feel less isolated. Classes focused on team or group projects bring those teens together for a common goal, giving them a sense of purpose and connection to others. So many examples spring to mind:
. . . The PE teacher who mentors and does check-in and check-outs with students daily
. . . Music teachers using homeroom as extra practice time for students who need it (or just love it!)
. . . Art and Theater classes that allow students to do projects based on self-expression
As an artistic student, I gravitated to teachers that shared my interests, like theater or art teachers, throughout my academic career. Finding common ground and topics to talk about with them was easy. They gave me feedback on my art and writing and talked to me about musicals and my future plans. Because of them, I felt seen and heard, even when I felt out of place with my peers.
Electives courses are a valuable resource for the MTSS framework within a school, strengthening core instruction and practical social, emotional, and behavioral skills. These teachers also often have different perspectives and insights into students and can form a strong connection with those who need it and provide a way for students to have agency in exploring their interests. For these reasons and so many more, electives and the arts deserve a seat at the table in MTSS practice, leading the way to enriching students' lives and the school's culture.
Learn more about how to utilize the MTSS practice to engage all learners, integrate electives at the secondary level, and identify student strengths.
Larissa Napolitan is the Content Copywriter for Branching Minds. As a former middle school English teacher and instructional coach, she has over 13 years of experience building systems for improvement, training and coaching teachers in new technology and instructional methods, and leading efforts to build curriculum and literacy initiatives. She holds Masters's degrees in both Curriculum and Instruction and Education Administration from Emporia State University. Not only is she passionate about using her experience and academic knowledge, but loves to use her writing to make a broader impact on education, teachers, and students.