The pandemic has interrupted students’ learning and impacted our achievement. This disruption increases students’ needs, but there are practical solutions to overcome them. The Program for Inclusive Education (PIE) is pleased to share the following piece by Colleen McCoy-Cejka, NCEA’s Director of Professional Learning, who provides insight as we tackle this issue. We are so grateful for her dedication to inclusion and her willingness to share with this blog!
Flexibility and Intentionality to Meet the Needs of Students Post-Pandemic
With the hope that the world will soon emerge from a two-year blur of pandemic uncertainties, allowing ourselves a moment of joy at the prospect of normalcy feels good. Nonetheless, planning our next steps as we move toward a new normal will require acknowledgement that our students and our schools have changed, so going back to the way things were may not be an option.
Moving forward, two realities will converge, and the solutions to these post-pandemic realities will benefit all learners. For years, champions of inclusive education have pointed to the reality that children with disabilities are already in our schools. The Catholic response to this reality is ensuring that families are kept together in one school even if a sibling has learning differences and ensuring that high schools have flexible pathways within their college prep programs to include all learners.
Oftentimes, when a school decides it’s time to “become inclusive,” groups are surprised to learn that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of their student body already has needs that require accommodation or modification in the general education setting. “Becoming inclusive” for some schools sometimes means developing the structures around the students who are already there to ensure their success, to build knowledge and skills of educators and school leadership to welcome all learning differences, and to make a commitment to serve our community families who want a Catholic, Christ-centered education for their children. “Becoming inclusive,” therefore, translates to acknowledging the current reality of the school and moving forward with a new sense of openness and confidence. We welcome all students because Catholic schools are challenged to ensure all who seek Christ will find belonging within our walls.
The same structures, skills, flexibility, and mindsets will move schools toward success in a post-pandemic reality where interrupted learning for typical learners and social emotional health must be prioritized. For schools that have already embraced structures and mindsets to meet the needs of all learners through inclusive practices, these next steps will come more naturally. Here we highlight practices that inclusive schools can embrace to create a smoother transition on the road where interrupted learning and social emotional health issues require strategy and priority.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
Applying a UDL framework that allows flexibility in the way information is taught, curriculum is accessed, and students can express what they have learned moves schools toward success for all learners. UDL casts a wider net so that more students’ needs are met in the general education classroom naturally, and flexibility allows for natural accommodation in instruction and assessment. Students educated with their peers develop a strong sense of belonging with the school community. An excellent resource to learn more about UDL is udlguidelines.cast.org/. With UDL, accessibility and equity can become the norm in every classroom.
Healthy Data Culture
More than ever, teachers and school leaders need to know where students have learning gaps. Interrupted learning and regression are real side effects of the pandemic, and students with learning disabilities may have lost out on services or interventions that helped them stay on track. Developing a healthy culture around data use within schools will help teachers to identify gaps in knowledge and skills and also help leaders identify trends that will inform curriculum goals and resources. Data tells the story of academic need, and schools who embrace a healthy culture around it will have an advantage.
Intention toward Social Emotional Health
Mental health and trauma affect learning. Due to a variety of reasons, students are experiencing higher levels of anxiety and the aftereffects of trauma caused by the pandemic. A stressed brain cannot learn, and as such, intentionality around classrooms that prioritize social emotional health, coping skills, and communication skills will help students get back on track.
Professional Development that Builds Knowledge and Skills
In many cases, professional development during the last two school years has focused on crisis management and immediate needs. In the coming school year, schools can once again think about professional learning for teachers to enhance their skills as professionals, rather than a response to the moment. Schools that consider professional development that gets back to solid, research-based teaching practices will reinforce the importance of high expectations and achievement for all students that Catholic schools are known for. Training around resources that increase student accessibility of content and curriculum for students and normalizing data analysis will also help schools transition to the new normal strengthened with the professional skills needed to meet the needs of all learners in the general education classroom.
The National Catholic Educational Association is looking forward to Convention 2022 in New Orleans, where we have built a program that includes professional learning aimed at meeting the needs of all students.
To learn more about the convention, visit www.ncea.org/NCEA2022