The Three Keys to Closing Students’ Academic and Social-Emotional Gaps

The Three Keys to Closing Students’ Academic and Social-Emotional Gaps:

Strategic Planning, Proven SEL Strategies, and Student-Centered Multi-Tiered Services and Supports

Dear Colleagues,


   There is no school in the country whose students have not been touched by the pandemic-related (and other) events of the past two to three years.

   I do not need to re-review the many studies showing our students’ academic delays—especially emphasizing the disproportionate gaps for our students from poverty, our students with disabilities, and our students of color. Indeed, the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, reported the past two to four weeks, show not only significant declines across all student groups, but even more striking declines in the groups above.

   And I do not need to re-review the many studies showing our students’ diminished social-emotional skills and interpersonal interactions, the increases in their discipline problems and chronic absences, and the wide range of stresses they report and are exhibiting. These problems, once again, are disproportionately affecting students from poverty, students with disabilities, and students of color—many of whom (along with their schools) have less access to the mental health and other intervention resources that they need.

   And, finally, I do not need to re-review the toll that all of this has taken on teachers, support staff, and administrators. . . exacerbated by staff shortages, less professional development and coaching, and more political and societal turmoil.

   There are no easy answers or fixes to the circumstances above. But maybe that is the point.

   Far too many schools are pulling heavily marketed, endorsed, or touted interventions and programs—some clothed with circumstantial data—off the proverbial “rack,” implementing them without regard to their validity, their applicability to their specific students, or their potential to exacerbate the problems that exist.

   Other schools and districts are analyzing their student data, researching and linking their selected interventions and programs to the root causes of their problems, investing in the training needed to ensure their success, and collecting more formative and summative data to realize that success.

   These districts are taking “the long view.”

   And they are more than weathering the storm, they are supporting their students and staff, and they are demonstrating progress and long-term benefits for both their achieving and struggling students.

   And with this progress, their school climate and student-staff morale is more positive, attendance and motivation in both groups is higher, and these districts are attracting higher quality staff and retaining them longer.

   But what is the “secret sauce”?

Schools’ Top Three Keys to Success: Strategic Planning, Evidence-based SEL, and Student-Centered MTSS Interventions

   The districts and schools described above are succeeding because they demonstrate ongoing effectiveness in three areas: Strategic planning, evidence-based social-emotional learning (SEL) systems, and student-centered multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS).

   While it seems simple to “rattle” these three areas off, districts’ implementation of strategies in these areas succeed when they are (a) systemic and comprehensive in nature, (b) leverage significant district- and school-wide commitments and resources, and (c) utilize proven blueprints and integrated strategies that address the individual needs of different schools’ students, staff, and communities.

   Moreover, it is critical to recognize that there are many implementation layers within each of these areas, and while the layers necessarily overlap, some have distinct or unique characteristics or elements.

   Finally, it is critical that those reading this Blog understand that I am not talking about the strategic planning, SEL, and MTSS frameworks and processes that most state departments of education advocate, push, or (even) require.

   As discussed and demonstrated in my Blogs over the past five-plus years, these frameworks (a) are largely unproven; (b) they have not been comprehensively field-tested in large samples of schools with diverse populations; (c) most of their successes are “cherry-picked” from the larger sample of schools that have tried them; (d) most have not been sustained past three years of “implementation;” and (e) many of the “successful” schools have not maintained these “successes” after the external, supplemental funding, resources, and/or coaching was withdrawn.

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   Last month, I discussed these three success areas with Larry Jacobs, the host of Education Talk Radio, in a 38-minute interview. We discussed how schools across the country are “missing the mark” because they are trying to address the staggering problems in our schools today either (a) with “quick-fix” strategies, and/or (b) programs and strategies that are unproven, simplistic, not comprehensively field-tested, poorly matched to specific students and staff, politically-motivated, or unable to be truly sustained.

   You will find the interview immediately below. After that, there is a brief discussion—with links to past Blogs that provide more complete information—so that you can explore and share this information in more depth.

Expanding on Strategic Planning, Evidence-based SEL, and Student-Centered MTSS Interventions

   As noted above, below are links to previous Blogs that provide science-to-practice discussions on how to effectively analyze, design, and implement effective, user-friendly, and outcome-based school-wide approaches to strategic planning, social-emotional learning systems, and multi-tiered systems of support.

   Many of these Blogs integrate two or three of these areas together.

   The goal is for districts and schools to implement comprehensive and sustained strategies that are evidence-based and that produce actual, functional academic and social, emotional, and behavior outcomes with all students—including those who are struggling and/or presenting with significant challenges.

Strategic Planning

   Strategic planning involves a core set of scientifically-proven principles, components, and practices that are applied to different professional settings and situations. Educators, sometimes, have not been fully trained in how to utilize effective strategic planning practices and, thus, their strategic initiatives do not attain the outcomes desired.

   Below are three Blogs that discuss how to systematically use strategic planning strategies in districts or schools. . . as applied to school improvement, professional development, and students’ behavioral challenges and violence.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

In Order to Improve. . . Schools Need to Understand How to Improve School Improvement Begins with Principles before Principals: Paying It Forward

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]

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Saturday, May 14, 2022

Reconceptualizing Professional Development for the Coming School Year: Moving Away from Fly-by, “Spray and Pray,” and Awareness-Only Training

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]

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January 22, 2022

(Pandemic-Related?) Behavioral Challenges and Student Violence in Our Schools Today: Preparing for Action by Pursuing the Principles Needed for Assessment and Intervention

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]

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Evidence-based Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Systems

   The goal of a multi-tiered, school-wide social-emotional learning system is to teach students, from preschool through high school, social, emotional, attributional, and behavioral self-management skills that, over time, they can independently apply to different situations.

   Said a different way, we want students to learn and demonstrate (a) positive and prosocial interpersonal skills; (b) effective and developmentally-appropriate social problem-solving skills; (c) sound conflict prevention and resolution skills; and (d) consistent emotional awareness, control, communication, and coping skills.

   To accomplish this, schools need to use scientifically-proven components and activities across students, staff, settings, time, and circumstances in consistent and sustained ways.

   Below are four Blogs that discuss these elements in general, relative to our current pandemic-influenced times, and as applied to school discipline and disproportionate disciplinary actions specifically with students of color and with disabilities.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Addressing Students’ SEL Pandemic Needs by Addressing their SEL Universal Needs: What Social, Emotional, Attributional, and Behavioral Skills Do ALL Students Need from an SEL Initiative? (Part I)

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]

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Saturday, November 6, 2021

The Current State of SEL in our Schools: The Frenzy, Flaws, and Fads: If the Goal is to Teach Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills, Why are We Getting on the Wrong Trains Headed “West”? (Part II)

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]

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Saturday, September 25, 2021

How Have Districts Tried and Failed to Eliminate Disproportionate Discipline Rates for Students of Color and With Disabilities?It’s Not About the Plan, It’s About What’s IN the Plan. . . and the Most Frequently RecommendedStrategies Do Not Work

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]

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Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Components Needed to Eliminate Disproportionate School Discipline Referrals and Suspensions for Students of Color Do Not Require Anti-Bias Training:Behind Every Iron Chef is an Iron-Clad Recipe (Part II)

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]

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Student-Centered MTSS Interventions

   Districts are required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to design and implement a local, comprehensive, and “personalized” multi-tiered system of supports that meets the needs of their specific students in both academic and social, emotional, and behavioral areas.

   In today’s educational world, this—again—needs to factor in the impact of the pandemic on these broad areas.

   To accomplish this, districts need to use a strategic planning process (see above) that includes needs assessment and resource analysis activities that identify what they are doing that is and is not working, and what curriculum, instruction, and intervention gaps still exist.

   These, then, need to be integrated into their comprehensive academic instruction and intervention systems, and their social, emotional, behavioral (SEL—see above) systems.

   Below are two Blogs that provide a “primer” regarding how to establish effective “tailor-made” multi-tiered systems for individual districts and their schools.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Implementing Effective Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports during a Pandemic: Upgrading Your Academic and Social-Emotional Prevention, Assessment, and Interventions. It’s Not Your Fault. . . .

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]

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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Redesigning Multi-Tiered Services in Schools: Redefining the Tiers and the Difference between Services and Interventions

[CLICK HERE to Link to this Blog]


  These are incredibly challenging times in education, and the pressures are coming from many different sources.

   And yet, while the effects of the pandemic are still affecting our students and staff, districts and schools are again being evaluated as if the pandemic never occurred.

   This Blog referenced what we all know. . . that students are exhibiting significant academic and learning delays, and they are demonstrating social, emotional, and behavioral challenges that are interfering with the interventions that are focused on addressing these delays.

   Added to this is (a) the disproportionate impact on students of color and with disabilities; (b) schools that are understaffed and missing the special education and mental health specialists they need; and (c) communities with limited resources and large numbers who live in poverty and disarray.

   But this Blog predominantly focused on the scientifically-proven solutions that will help students, staff, schools, and systems to make the needed short-term and long-term progress required.

   The “keys to success” discussed are Strategic planning, Evidence-based SEL systems, and Student-centered multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS).

   The Blog provided links to a recent interview on Education Talk Radio, and to a core set of earlier Blogs with the content needed for successful implementation in these three interdependent areas.

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   I hope that the information in this Blog (and the earlier, linked Blogs) is practical and useful to you.

   In many ways, my goal in writing these Blogs—often based on my experience in working intensively with districts and schools across the country—is the same as your goal:

To help you to maximize the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, application, and independence of your students.

   While I trust your skills and expertise, sometimes an “outside” voice helps to facilitate the progress you need “inside” your organization.

   If I can help to be that voice—for you, your colleagues, your school, your district, or your specific professional setting—please feel free to send me an email, and let’s set up a time to talk. I would be honored to assist.