Whole-Child Appraoch for Special Student Population

What is a Whole Child Approach for Special Student Populations?

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Adopting a whole-child approach means understanding the social, emotional, mental, physical and academic needs of your students and finding ways to meet those needs as they evolve.

Simple, right? Not in the least.

Implementing the whole-child strategy is complicated. For it to work, each person supporting that student needs a clear view of the child’s strengths, challenges and goals — and an understanding of how all of those pieces fit together.

When every member of a child’s support team has a good handle on how the pieces fit together, it becomes easier to tailor effective, individualized support, and monitor progress. You also need and an easy way to communicate across roles, responsibilities and locations.

In 2007, ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) outlined an approach to whole-child education. The methodology includes five tenets based on child-development theory. ASCD’s approach states that each child deserves to be:

  • Healthy
  • Safe
  • Engaged
  • Supported
  • Challenged

Why is educating the whole child important?

Many parts of a child’s life improve when he or she feels healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged. And one key improvement of a whole-child approach is better academic performance. A review of over 200 studies of programs that taught kids social and emotional skills found that these efforts significantly improved students’ achievement, feelings about school and behavior. These programs also made schools safer and were beneficial across student populations regardless of income or race.1

Students receiving support services are now known as special populations. The term “special population” covers a wide range of student communities, including young people who:

  • Live with disabilities
  • Are from economically disadvantaged families, including foster children
  • Face barriers to educational achievement, including individuals with limited English proficiency

This is not a complete list of special populations and these categories are not exclusive. Many students belong to two or more special populations at the same time.

Does the whole-child approach change if a student is part of a special population?

When a child is struggling with a learning or behavioral difficulty, he or she might start receiving interventions as part of a multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) or response to intervention (RTI) program. If a student’s school performance is adversely affected by a disability in one of the 13 categories listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), he or she should receive support as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

No matter which path a student’s support team decides is necessary to best support that learner — having a child in special education, or in an MTSS / RTI program, or receiving support as part of a 504 plan — serving students who belong to a special population adds complexity to implementing the whole-child approach.

Why is that?

It comes down to this question:

What needs to happen in conjunction with, or outside of, general education for that child to thrive?

To answer that question, a student’s support team ― including educators, counselors, parents, in-district or external service providers and, of course, the student ― need to have a shared understanding of that student’s strengths, challenges and (if possible) goals for the future.

For example, if a child has an IEP and is also an English learner, the IEP and language teams should be in close contact throughout that student’s enrollment in school to ensure that:

  • Both of sets of needs are being addressed, along with any other needs that come up
  • Progress is being monitored on both sides: special education and language support
  • The correct testing modifications and accommodations are being used consistently
  • The student and his/her parents are kept in the loop

The same holds true for a child who used to receive support as part of an MTSS program for a reading difficulty but who has now been diagnosed with a disability and has an IEP. To support the whole child, the IEP team should be given access to past intervention and progress-monitoring data for that student so they don’t have to start from scratch after the transition to special education.

So, how can you avoid informational silos and use the whole-child approach to improve coordination and planning for young people who belong to one or more special populations? Having a digital base of communication that you can use to easily see current and historic student information helps. Yet even with a shared system, it’s important to understand more about the various supports your students with special needs may be receiving – or may need to receive in the future. This knowledge will help you put the pieces together and better serve that young person.

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Supporting the whole child within specific special populations

Special education

A high-quality IEP is at the center of ensuring that students with disabilities receive an education tailored to their needs. Not only that, but a well-written, actionable IEP also helps educators and families make sure that a young person is healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged.

“I hope you will agree that our expectations for students should be ambitious. Our confidence that we can facilitate meaningful growth in our students must be equally ambitious.”

Carol Kosnitsky, special education author, speaker and trainer

The cornerstone of an IEP consists of individualized annual goals that align with each student’s areas of need and strengths. These goals provide direction for appropriate instruction. Because of the complexity of creating multi-dimensional, strengths-based IEPs, it’s important that special educators have a chance to brush up on IEP best practices from time to time. It’s also crucial that special educators and general educators collaborate to develop the IEP, guide instruction and oversee accommodation and modification delivery.

Here are three steps you can take to ensure students in special education are healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged.

2. Create measurable, annual IEP goals that align to state standards and improve progress monitoring with this eBook  
3. Simplify collaboration between general and special education teachers by reading this blog post  


[Video] 5 strategies to make it easier for parents to participate in the IEP process

Watch the Video


Maybe a student doesn’t need special education but does need some targeted assistance to be supported, challenged and engaged in general education. MTSS or RTI could be a gamechanger for that young person. MTSS/RTI approaches a focus on the whole child by helping educators meet students’ needs by using data-informed decisions to plan targeted interventions and monitor progress.
3 in 10 Educators Track Interventions Effectively
Source: Florence, A. (2019). Building and scaling interventions to support every student. EducationDrive. Retrieved from: https://www.educationdive.com/news/building-and-scaling-interventions-to-support-every-student/561328/

To identify at-risk learners, most schools screen their population three times per year (fall/winter/spring). Those data are then used to recruit students whose risk profiles indicate they require intervention services. Every school that follows an MTSS or RTI model has its own procedures to identify students for services and move learners up and down the tiers of intervention.2


[Blog Post] Why Use Baseline Data to Drive Decisions in K-12 Education?

Read More

Tiers or levels of intervention

Some districts use a four-tiered system of support. However, it’s more common to use three tiers.
Three Tiers of Intervention Pyramid
Source: Sylvan, L. (2018). Tiers to Communication Success. The ASHA Leader, 23(8), 44 – 53. Retrieved from: https://leader.pubs.asha.org/doi/full/10.1044/leader.FTR1.23082018.44.

However, MTSS and RTI aren’t just for academics. For students to meet developmental milestones, learn, grow and lead productive lives, it’s critical that their social, emotional and behavioral issues also be addressed. Research shows that youth with mental health problems have lower educational achievement and greater involvement with the criminal justice system. Improving and expanding social-emotional supports not only helps the students who have those challenges but can benefit nearly every learner and adult in a school.3

MTSS/RTI programs come with many moving pieces, so it’s important that program coordinators and educators pay attention to the details and verify that student data is accurate, complete and archived. It’s also critical that district and school staff implementing intervention programs have a shared understanding of the organization’s overarching MTSS/RTI mission: the outcomes you’re collectively working toward and the tools you’re all using to get there. Staff will also need an effective way to share knowledge across buildings and classrooms.

Here are three steps you can take to strengthen your MTSS/RTI program and collaborate across grades, classrooms and buildings to make sure students feel supported, challenged and engaged.

2. Learn how to build behavioral supports into your MTSS/RTI program with this blog post  
3. Develop MTSS/RTI professional development opportunities for staff. Get examples in Section 7 of this guide  


[Podcast] Why RTI?

Learn more about the relationship of school culture and climate to RTI and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS). Listen Now

Section 504

Ever wonder if a 504 plan is the right “path” to use to ensure a student is safe, healthy and supported, or if an IEP is the right option? If you have, you’re not alone. To say it’s a complex decision would be an understatement.

Though both 504 plans and IEPs can help struggling students, the definition of disability under 504 is very different than it is under IDEA.

Section 504 IDEA
A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (like going to school).
  • autism
  • deaf-blindness
  • deafness
  • emotional disturbance
  • hearing impairment
  • intellectual disability
  • multiple disabilities
  • orthopedic impairment
  • other health impairment
  • specific learning disability
  • speech or language impairment
  • traumatic brain injury
  • visual impairment (including blindness)

Not only is the definition of disability different, the goals of the two regulations are different. Rather than changing the educational experience like special education does, Section 504’s goal is to ensure that students with physical or mental impairments that affect major life activities (such as learning, but not only learning) can access the same general education experience that their peers not living with disabilities are entitled to.

So how does a 504 plan fit into a whole-child approach?

It goes back to the importance of assessing and responding to each student’s individual needs. For example, if a student has dyslexia, would he or she benefit more from a 504 plan or an IEP? Because both are valid avenues for a learner with dyslexia, you have to consider which is the best fit based on that student’s unique strengths, challenges and goals. Does he or she need specially designed instruction to thrive — or will providing accommodations in a general education setting fit the bill?

And of course, needs change over time. A student who is ready to exit special education may still benefit from certain reading accommodations. At that point, it might be worth considering a 504 plan for that young person.

In order to use 504 plans as part of a whole-child approach, your district needs to have consistent 504 processes across classrooms, buildings and grades. Unlike special education, Section 504 doesn’t dictate how to develop plans. So in the absence of finite guidelines, district and school leaders need to build and maintain strong processes that promote consistency in 504 decision-making across all grade levels and locations

Here are three steps you can take to ensure your 504 process and plans consistently address students’ individual needs and keep them healthy, safe and supported.

1. Learn the differences between 504 and special education, and how to develop 504 plans that ensure equitable access with these videos  
2. Test your 504 knowledge and reinforce what you learned from the videos with this quiz  
3. Protect against the unlawful disclosure of students’ personal and health information by reading this blog post  

English-learner (EL) programs

As noted in a recent study in the Journal of Educational Research and Practice, “Because of the linguistic differences of ELs, it can be very challenging for teachers to determine if students have learning difficulties or if they are showing typical characteristics of language acquisition, such as the silent period or slower development of academic versus conversational language.” ― Eichhorn et al., 2019

What if a student who is on a 504 plan or an IEP is also an English learner? What if an EL is twice exceptional? What kind of proactive planning and collaboration need to happen in your building or district to make sure that child is supported, engaged, challenged, healthy and safe? And what about communication between school staff and that student’s family?

With the population of English learners in the U.S. growing (scroll down to see growth by state) it’s becoming more important that school personnel overcome barriers to both in-district teamwork and collaboration with families to uncover when the needs of ELs go beyond language acquisition.

If a student’s support team doesn’t have a shared understanding of the different programs that the learner is receiving support under, and progress that is being made, a lot of crucial information can fall through the cracks.

“Collaboration between special education, 504, RTI and ESL… is extremely important because it all involves students with needs who need specialized instruction or specialized accommodations to help them experience success in the classroom.”

Anna Brown, Special Education Director, Meridian World School

Is it simply a question of training school staff to proactively share student information across specialties like English as a second language (ESL), gifted, 504 or special education programs? Or are there other things you can do to build bridges across programs to support the whole child when his or her first language isn’t English?

Take these three steps to make sure ELs in your district feel supported, engaged, challenged, healthy and safe.

1. Use restorative practices to support English learners’ growth and address behavioral issues. Listen to the podcast  
2. Provide even more targeted support for staff working with ELs using the strategies in this blog post  
3. Form cross-functional teams
to better serve students who have dyslexia, including English learners, with this podcast  

Changes in English-learner population in the U.S. from 2003 – 2017


Strategies for using the whole-child approach for special populations

A report published by the Learning Policy Institute summarizes research about the effects of positive school climate, social-emotional learning and productive teaching strategies on achievement. It also shares strategies for district and school policies that encourage these practices on a wide scale.

The report outlines priorities you can use to create school environments that support the whole child.

  • Build positive classroom and school environments
  • Shape positive student behaviors
  • Use educative and restorative approaches to discipline
  • Provide supports for student motivation and learning
  • Create multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to address student needs


10 Best Practices for Improving and Expanding Social, Emotional and Behavioral Supports

Start using these 10 interconnected strategies this year to create a system to meet the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students. Read the Blog Post

1. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. (2019). From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope: Recommendations from the National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development. Retrieved from: http://nationathope.org/wp-content/uploads/2018_aspen_final-report_full_webversion.pdf
2. Wright, J. (2018). RTI/MTSS and End of School Year: 7 Tips to Reflect and Recalibrate. Frontline Education Blog. Retrieved from: https://www.frontlineeducation.com/blog/7-rti-mtss-tips/
3. Levenson, N. (2017). 10 Best Practices for Improving and Expanding Social, Emotional and Behavioral Supports. District Management Journal, 22. Retrieved from: https://www.frontlineeducation.com/blog/support-student-social-emotional-behavior-needs