Recommended Policy Changes
To help the 1 in 5 thrive in school, in the workplace and in life, targeted policy change is needed in several areas to create a more open, supportive and inclusive society that recognizes the potential of all individuals.
Overview of NCLD’s Policy Recommendations
|MAJOR POLICY AREA||KEY ASPECTS|
|Expand Early Screening||
|Empower Students and Families||
|Cultivate Creative, Informed Educators||
|Drive Innovation for Effective Teaching and Learning||
|Strengthen and Enforce Civil Rights Laws and Invest in Public Schools||
Expand Early Screening
Identifying and addressing children’s learning and attention issues early can set them on a path for future success in school and in life. But often these issues go unnoticed. Far too many children with learning and attention issues are undiagnosed until well into their elementary school years, or even later, at which point they are performing behind their peers and struggling to catch up. Screening students for learning and attention issues—beginning as early as preschool and continuing through early elementary school—can ensure that children have appropriate support and professionals have the tools to better understand and address each child’s needs.
New resource to support early literacy
A grant to create a comprehensive literacy center was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 with the strong support of NCLD. The goal of the center is to support students who are struggling to learn literacy skills due to a disability. To achieve this goal, the center will:
- Develop/identify tools to detect challenges early
- Identify evidence-based literacy instruction, strategies, accommodations and assistive technology
- Provide information to support families
- Develop/identify professional development for teachers on early indicators and instructional strategies
- Disseminate resources within existing federal networks
- Invest in early screening. Early screening initiatives can be expanded through programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start and through opportunities within the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). By recognizing how existing laws can support early screening initiatives, federal and state investments can be used wisely and efficiently.
- Build expertise of educators and healthcare providers to recognize early signs. Research has shown that signs of learning and attention issues may appear in the early years of a child’s life. Yet many educators and healthcare providers do not receive training to recognize these signs. To resolve this, educators and healthcare providers should receive training prior to entering their profession and throughout their career. One resource to support this professional development for educators is ESSA’s creation of a national center focused on students who are at risk of not attaining full literacy skills due to a disability. Once established, this center will give parents and educators access to evidence-based tools to build knowledge of the early signs of learning and attention issues and become familiar with effective teaching strategies. (See more in the box to the right.)
Empower Students and Families
Students with learning and attention issues are most successful when they are active and confident self-advocates with a strong support network. Developing school and community-based programs that provide students and young adults with learning and attention issues more opportunities to develop these essential skills will contribute greatly to social and emotional well-being, academic success and career readiness. Pre-K–12 education must prepare students with learning and attention issues to be successful in their education and career-ready.
Key findings on self-advocacy and social-emotional learning
Self-advocacy skills are essential for students with learning and attention issues because, in order to receive accommodations in college or the workforce, they will have to understand and explain their needs. As NCLD’s Student Voices study shows, self-confidence is an important factor for success among young adults with learning and attention issues. To build that self-confidence, they must be provided opportunities to know themselves as learners and develop self-advocacy skills to seek the support they need to be successful.
The study also underscored the importance of being resourceful and showing perseverance, making decisions and taking action, and overcoming negative messages from peers and adults. All of these factors are directly linked to social-emotional skills in students with learning and attention issues and are evidence of the importance of developing these skills.
- Prepare students for a successful transition to postsecondary education and employment. The transition from high school to postsecondary education or employment can be very challenging for students with learning and attention issues, as the supports and services they were entitled to under IDEA will not be provided automatically and might not be available. Therefore, long before this transition occurs, our education system must ensure access to meaningful opportunities that will prepare students for success beyond school. The transition process must also ensure continuity of services and supports across the several programs that serve young adults.
- Focus on social and emotional learning (SEL). Strong social-emotional skills can be an asset to students with learning and attention issues as they navigate through school, employment and life. Many students with learning and attention issues also struggle with social, emotional and behavioral challenges, and it is important to address these alongside academic needs. However, unique implications for students with learning and attention issues arise in the context of social and emotional learning programs. Educators must take the time to guide students with learning and attention issues—who may struggle with impulsivity or decision-making—through the process of self-reflection and help them build these critical skills.
- Increase access and build capacity of institutions of higher education to meet student needs. Students with learning and attention issues are going to college more than ever. But far too often, they fail to complete their programs of study. It is no longer enough to build a Pre-K–12 education system that meets their needs. Instead, it is critical to provide students with opportunities for success in higher education. This includes ensuring that institutions of higher education receive the information, training and resources they need to prepare their faculty to work with students with learning and attention issues and provide the necessary accommodations and supports.
- Invest in research on outcomes after young adulthood. When students with learning and attention issues leave high school, it can be difficult for researchers to collect information on their challenges or successes later in life. Many individuals who had IEPs in high school do not disclose their disabilities in college or in the workplace. A dedicated investment must be made to understanding the experiences of adults with learning and attention issues. This should include identifying adults with learning and attention issues, understanding the challenges they face, discovering success among them, and prioritizing strategies that can positively impact more young adults with learning and attention issues before they enter the workforce.
New efforts to support college students
NCLD strongly supports federal bills like the RISE Act and increased investments in resources like the National Center for College Students with Disabilities as important steps toward increasing access and success in higher education for students with learning and attention issues. According to a 2016 NCLD survey of parents, half of the respondents said they had difficulty accessing information about disability services in college. Half also reported that they were unclear on what steps needed to be taken to receive accommodations and support services.
Cultivate Creative, Informed Educators
General education teachers, special education teachers, school counselors, school psychologists, and other education professionals work together to support students. But despite their desire to help, these educators are often unprepared to support the diverse learning needs of students. We must rethink how to prepare new educators, support those already in the classroom, and ensure that schools employ the range of professionals needed to support students with learning and attention issues.
- Create more supportive classrooms by rethinking educator preparation programs and professional development. Making changes to existing preparation programs and ongoing professional development for teachers and other educators who work with students with learning and attention issues will help drive effective instructional strategies, expand the use of accommodations, and foster better collaboration among educators and families to support students with learning and attention issues.
- Changes to the Higher Education Act’s Title II relating to teacher preparation can transform how educators are equipped to instruct students. By including more opportunities for hands-on, clinical experience through residency programs or mentorships, teachers will enter the profession more prepared to identify the early warning signs of learning and attention issues and to effectively instruct these students.
- ESSA offers another opportunity to use policy to expand the expertise of educators. ESSA provides states with funding that can be used to support both general and special educators as they increase their understanding of and skill in effective teaching strategies to support students with learning and attention issues.
- Partner to erase discipline disparities. Data has revealed that students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at rates well above those of their peers without disabilities. Yet there are practices that work to reduce these disparities and foster safe, positive learning environments. To address this issue, we must ensure that educators are fully involved as partners, are aware of the problem, and are provided with resources and professional development—particularly related to cultural competence—to implement successful strategies (such as PBIS) that will support the academic and behavioral needs of students with disabilities.
- Expand research to prevent youth involvement in the justice system. Data shows that youth with disabilities are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system. More research is needed to determine the prevalence of learning and attention issues (including ADHD and executive functioning challenges) among young people involved in the justice system—and the relationship between having these issues and becoming involved with the justice system. Reliable research into this relationship and the scope of the problem will allow us to take steps—either through policy or practice—that will improve outcomes for students. An increased investment into precipitating factors of justice involvement, common challenges with the justice system, and transition issues upon exiting the justice system are important next steps to addressing this complex and urgent issue.
Drive Innovation for Effective Teaching and Learning
- Transform teaching by investing in research on the science of learning. While there have been advances in understanding the differences in brain structure and function in children with learning and attention issues, there is much that remains unknown. Specifically, there is little research on the stigma that accompanies learning and attention issues and the impact that stigma has on the children and families facing these challenges. With new and increased research and development into learning and attention issues, we can make research-informed teaching and learning the central focus of our educational system.
- Federal investments are needed in all four centers within the Institute of Education Sciences. This includes the National Center for Special Education Research, whose funding was cut by 30% in 2011.
- Increased investment in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development within the National Institutes of Health would allow more research focused on understanding the biological basis of learning disabilities and effective interventions, among other areas.
- Investing in the National Science Foundation could expand the brain science research portfolio focused on learning and attention issues.
- Expand evidence-based literacy and math instruction. ESSA’s new literacy program focuses on improving academic achievement in reading and writing using evidence-based, explicit, systematic instruction to support phonological awareness, phonic decoding, fluency and comprehension. This program, called Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN), will provide educators and families with strategies to recognize early signs of dyslexia and other literacy-related challenges, and training for teachers to learn effective instruction and accommodations. States should consider taking advantage of this grant opportunity to provide comprehensive literacy instruction to students. Parallel efforts should be made to develop evidence-based math instruction for students struggling to master skills in math. By recognizing the early signs of math-related challenges and preparing educators to provide effective instruction, great progress can be made for students with math disabilities.
Funding that can help states innovate
Because personalized learning is a new effort in many places, there is sometimes confusion about how a school can both personalize learning for students with disabilities and also meet its obligations under IDEA. State education agencies can play an active role in promoting personalized learning by issuing guidance on how to further these efforts using existing funding streams, including through ESSA and IDEA.
Promote personalized learning. The future of education is one in which each child receives a customized learning experience that enables him or her to thrive. Increasing opportunities for schools to adopt a personalized approach will allow students with learning and attention issues to learn at their own pace, with structured support in areas where they struggle, and gain a better understanding of their strengths.
Personalized learning can transform education for students with learning and attention issues. The key, however, is to ensure that personalized learning systems are designed from the beginning with students with disabilities in mind. Because personalized learning efforts often arise at the district level, it is crucial that special educators, parents, and advocates for students with disabilities are involved in the process early on. (For more detailed recommendations, visit /personalizedlearning.)
Implementing best practices
States should encourage districts to use ESSA and IDEA funds to implement UDL and MTSS and provide professional development to educators on effective use of these strategies in the classroom.
Use UDL and MTSS to reach every student. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that customizes teaching and learning for all students to meet individual needs. While UDL is essential to the education of students with disabilities, who often need multiple means of instruction and of sharing what they know, UDL benefits all students. UDL can and should be incorporated into every classroom.
A multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) allows educators to collect real-time data on how instructional strategies and interventions are working for students—and then make changes accordingly. Where MTSS is used with fidelity, more students are meeting proficiency standards, fewer students are experiencing disciplinary action, and more students are having their educational needs met in general education.
- Invest in integrated student supports. Integrated student supports–which include the availability of resources like tutoring, mentoring, and addressing physical and mental health–is one way schools can better support the comprehensive needs of students with learning and attention issues. Making sure that school systems are investing in the human capital needed to provide these supports is critical to their success.
Strengthen and Enforce Civil Rights Laws and Invest in Public Schools
The overwhelming majority of students with learning and attention issues attend public school and are covered by civil rights laws that prevent discrimination and promote equal access to education. These laws require schools to provide accommodations for students with disabilities and to provide specialized instruction and related services to students who qualify for special education. If the laws aren’t being carried out appropriately, parents of children with disabilities may take legal steps to ensure that the school takes corrective action. These laws serve as an important foundation for educational opportunity and must be preserved.
Issues involving comorbidity
Currently, IDEA requires students to be identified only by their “primary disability.” The law does not have a way of tracking comorbidities, which are very common among students with learning disabilities and ADHD. Requiring more detailed data collection can help increase our understanding of and ability to meet students’ needs.
- Strengthen and enforce civil rights laws. Federal and state laws afford students with qualifying disabilities such as learning disabilities and ADHD rights and protections that must be maintained and enforced. These include the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), access to the general education curriculum, and many other rights. Upholding federal protections and increasing investment in education are key to ensuring that students with learning and attention issues have every opportunity to succeed in school and in life.
- IDEA was most recently updated in 2004 and may be updated again in the next few years. It is imperative that this law’s many essential legal protections for students with disabilities and their families remain strong.
- ESSA aims to close achievement gaps and ensure equal access to education for historically disadvantaged groups of students, including students with disabilities. As states prepare and implement their accountability plans, strong oversight is critical to ensure that high expectations are set for students with disabilities.
- Invest in public schools and reject private school voucher proposals. Laws guaranteeing equal access and protecting the rights of students with disabilities are most effective when funding is provided to states, districts, and schools to uphold them. Programs such as Head Start and Medicaid and those funded through IDEA and ESSA must receive adequate funding to fully support the needs of students. But Congress keeps slashing the federal education budget, leaving states and local districts struggling to cover the shortfall. These budget cuts are exacerbated in several states by programs that divert public funding away from public schools and to private schools.”
- Members of Congress have championed the IDEA Full Funding Act, which would provide the level of funding for special education that Congress promised when it passed the law in 1975. This funding is necessary if Congress is going to fulfill its commitment to the 6 million special education students and their families.
- Any diversion of resources away from public schools—in the form of private school voucher programs or otherwise—is a disservice to children and families.
- Schools and students rely on Medicaid to support necessary services. Any reduction in Medicaid funding will shift considerable costs to states and school districts that they cannot afford.
- The Every Student Succeeds Act—our nation’s main education law—includes funding for many important programs that impact students with disabilities. To help achieve its mission of closing achievement gaps and supporting all students, ESSA—and the diverse programs it supports, from school accountability to access to mental health services—must be adequately funded.
Tell Congress: Pass the RISE Act
We need your help! Ask your member of Congress to support students with learning and attention issues.
Thanks to support from generous partners like you, we are able to create programs and resources to support the 1 in 5 individuals with learning and attention issues nationwide.