As more districts are heading back to in-person learning, educators are being tasked with meeting the needs of students who have had a wide range of instructional and learning experiences over the past year. This might seem like even more of an uphill battle than what teachers have already gone through. Yet, there are several approaches that schools and districts can turn to help support this transition. Many of these approaches are key components of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), with which educators are already familiar. Below, we highlight the important distinction between learning and instructional loss as well as outline a few tips for effectively addressing the different skills and needs of students when they return to schools and classrooms.
Learning Loss vs. Instructional Loss
Educators have been warned about student learning loss or the “COVID-19 slide” and the implications it will have on teaching when students return to school. Although many students were not physically in school buildings this past year, learning was still taking place. Some learning was through intentional remote instruction while other learning happened through children’s experiences in the home while figuring out how to cope with the changes that the last year has brought them. It is also important to consider the skills that children and adolescents learned while spending more time at home. Perhaps some kids took up new hobbies or had to learn new responsibilities or roles within their households or communities. This is why education and child development experts are referring to this phenomenon as “instructional loss”, rather than learning loss, in order to highlight the mix of learning experiences students had throughout the pandemic and focus on the need for refined instructional approaches.
Focus on Support Rather than Remediation
As districts and schools are building out their return-to-school plans, there are some common mistakes to be mindful of in order to avoid them. One mistake is dedicating the majority of core instructional time to remediation. Instead, teachers should instruct at the appropriate grade level while incorporating skills from the prior grade that are necessary to move forward. In other words, content review should be built into lessons but should not be the only focus of instruction. There are also several strategies teachers can use to assess students’ prior knowledge on a particular topic. Students who do require additional remediation and targeted support should be provided that through smaller group lessons or one-on-one instruction.
Another pitfall to avoid is only focusing on Reading and Math instruction while taking time away from other subjects, such as Science, Social Studies, Music, Art, Physical Education and any lessons and activities around social-emotional learning. Many teachers may feel pressure to devote less time to non-core subjects in order to strengthen the content areas where students are regularly assessed. It is the responsibility of district and school leaders to make sure this doesn’t happen by emphasizing the importance of a well-rounded back-to-school educational plan. Exclusively focusing on Reading and Math may also backfire as students will be less prepared for other subject areas that have been shown to be critical for success in high school and post-secondary education.
Use Reliable Data to Address Student Needs
Although many districts have continued to administer universal screeners and standardized tests throughout this school year, educators need to ensure that they are using evidence-based assessments and interpreting the results from those assessments accurately and effectively. It is essential for schools to use consistent, reliable, and valid assessments across the school year to accurately monitor student growth. When interpreting the results, educators should be aware of biases that could be skewing the findings. For example, knowing the percent of students that completed assessments at each time point can help contextualize the results. This is also why test scores from this school year should not be used for accountability purposes or high-stakes decision-making. Instead, these results need to be used to identify areas of growth and decline and build out support plans for those students who need more targeted instruction to get back on track. Shifting this focus from accountability to decision-making and support can help reduce the burden placed on educators to focus exclusively on test preparation.
Another important area of assessment is students’ social-emotional competencies. The same standards for reliability and validity should be applied when selecting a universal social-emotional assessment and a similar process should be used when interpreting the results. It is likely that many schools will have an increased number of students who return to classrooms with social and emotional challenges and will therefore need to implement additional social-emotional learning programming and support. It will be critical for schools to be able to accurately track the impact of those efforts across the school year, both through universal screening and targeted progress monitoring.
Finally, schools need to be prepared to address issues related to disproportionality and equity, not only with assessment results, but with other pieces of data, such as tier placement, plan implementation, and referrals for special education. Evidence suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic and associated school closures has widened the racial achievement gap. This trend is expected to persist when students return to school. Therefore, schools need to monitor growth across different demographic groups and ensure that all groups are being provided with the same opportunities for targeted support. Districts and schools with a large proportion of racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse students also need to make sure they are using culturally appropriate and relevant assessments and intervention programs.
District and school leaders must recognize that addressing instructional loss is not something that can be achieved in the short-term. If supported effectively, students will gradually make up for any skills or competencies that were negatively impacted. It is much more sustainable to invest in a long-term plan rather than a short-term “catch-up” one that is just focused on remediation. If teachers are pressured to bring students up to speed quickly, and cram months worth of content into a few weeks, they will likely experience high levels of burnout (on top of the increased burnout already experienced throughout the pandemic). Instead, schools should focus on building out systems and processes that will be used to identify which students need additional support and how that will be provided. Support must also be provided for teachers, who might benefit from additional guidance on implementing certain strategies, interventions, and programs, instead of expecting them to figure it out on their own (Check out this Resource Audit Worksheet) Many schools might continue to see declines next school year, but as long as they are building out a strong foundation they should not be discouraged. As students and teachers are readjusting to in-person learning it doesn’t mean that growth isn’t on the horizon. It is also important to recognize small but important gains that might not be reflected in the results of universal and standardized assessments.
Incorporate What Worked from Remote Learning into Schools and Classrooms
Remote learning came with many struggles for both students and teachers, but there have also been some benefits from virtual instruction that can be carried over to in-person learning. For example, we’ve heard anecdotal reports that some students have thrived from having a more flexible learning and working environment at home. Being able to move around and use different working areas or stations could be something that teachers incorporate into their classrooms. Some teachers might find it helpful to continue with instructional approaches such as breakout groups, as well as opportunities for independent projects driven by student interest, knowledge, cultural backgrounds, and experiences. There has also been a surge in accessible online resources that can still be implemented in the classroom. Increased family support might have been another benefit for some students. On Branching Minds, we have noticed more family communication being documented using flexible methods, such as video calls and text messaging. For those teachers who were able to develop a strong partnership with parents and families it is important to not lose this connection and keep caregivers informed and involved as much as possible.
Working remotely has also opened up new opportunities for holding team meetings among teachers, interventionists, and other staff members. School leaders should check in with their staff to see if they would like to continue with online meetings and professional development. Even when working in the same building it can be difficult for teachers to gather at the same time in the same place. Remote meetings might be more efficient in some contexts and allow for more flexibility. It also offers the opportunity for sessions to be recorded and shared with those who are unable to attend. Meetings are a key component of any MTSS framework, so educators should capitalize on any opportunities to strengthen the problem-solving and decision-making processes that drive both grade- and school-level meetings.
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Over 2000 evidence-based activities, strategies, tools, apps, and programs
At Branching Minds, we pride ourselves for having the most robust library of evidence-based K-12 interventions and accommodations of any online platform available to schools. Our library includes over 2000 evidence-based activities, strategies, tools, apps, and programs collected from the most trusted and respected hubs of evidence-based supports, including the Florida Center for Reading Research, What Works Clearinghouse, Evidence for ESSA, Intervention Central, the IRIS Center from Vanderbilt University, and Sanford Harmony. All of the supports have been reviewed by our team of learning scientists and sorted by ESSA guidelines for determining tiers of evidence. The supports include detailed descriptions to help teachers understand what each support is, why to use it, how to use it in alignment with the evidence, what the evidence is and provide them with any materials necessary to implement the support.
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.