Volume 12, Number 4
Fall, 2007

Policy & Practice:
Not Waiting for Failure

Now that the school year is underway, it is time to look around and see who is being left behind. How are students who have not been promoted responding to repeating a grade? How many students are having difficulty making the transition into the next grade and/or a new school (e.g., adjusting to new teachers, new classmates; new content and standards)? Which students who seemed to make a reasonable start this year are now showing indications of significant learning, behavior, and/or emotional problems? How many are continuing to be affected by a range of barriers to learning that have plagued them previously?

It is only a matter of weeks (sometimes days) after students enter a new school or begin a new year that most teachers know which ones are experiencing difficulties It is particularly poignant to see a student who is trying hard, but not succeeding.

It is no secret that for some schools the number of students who are not doing well is quite large. And, if problems are not addressed, student motivation dwindles and misbehavior increases. It is clear that the problems of such students are exacerbated the longer they are not effectively addressed. This state of affairs is so widespread that schools have been accused of having a "waiting for failure" policy.

Identifying System Deficiencies

Clearly it is important to respond to each student who is having trouble. And, it is essential to respond to problems as soon after onset as is feasible. But, it is also important to identify and correct deficiencies in current systems in order to prevent problems and improve the ways they are addressed so that fewer students need specialized individual assistance. Consequently, while it is compelling to think about student/learning supports mainly in terms of individual interventions, data on individual students also must be aggregated with a view to identifying system deficiencies.

For example, school staff need to identify who is and who isn't succeeding at school. Then, an analysis must be conducted to determine what is and isn't being done to (1) prevent, (2) intervene as soon after problem onset as is feasible, and (3) provide special assistance when necessary. This analysis also needs to focus on data gathered in response to general arenas of classroom and school-wide interventions (e.g., efforts to personalize instruction, support transitions, involve the home, provide specialized assistance). These data provide an invaluable basis for identifying major system deficiencies that require in-depth discussion at school improvement planning and decision making tables.

In identifying system deficiencies, here are few basics to look for initially:

  1. In the classroom Focus on how the teacher and support staff affect student engagement and address students who are having difficulty with tasks. Specifically:
    • Do classroom interventions appear to
      • enhance or reduce the engagement of students?
      • have an impact on unengaged and disengaged students?
      • modify instruction to fit those who are having difficulty?

    • Do support staff work with the teacher in the classroom to help address these concerns?

  2. Transition supports Even though the first wave of newcomers arrive at the start of a school year, others enroll throughout the year. Starting a new school is a critical transition period and, as with all transitions, specific supports often are needed. To identify system deficiencies in this arena, focus on matters such as:
    • Does the school and each classroom have a well-designed and implemented welcoming program and mechanisms for ongoing social support?
    • Is there capacity building (especially staff development) so that teachers, support staff, and other stakeholders can learn how to establish (a) welcoming procedures, (b) social support networks, and (c) proactive transition supports for family members, new staff, and any other newcomers?
    • Has the office staff been provided with training and resources so they can create a welcoming and supportive atmosphere to everyone who enters the school?

  3. Overall experience at school (in the classroom and school-wide) From a psychological perspective,.basic concerns are whether students' experiences at school are resulting in a positive sense of connectedness and engagement, no sense of connectedness and engagement, or psychological reactance. To identify system deficiencies in this arena, focus on matters such as:
    • How safe do students feel at school and coming and going to school?
    • To what degree does the school minimize threats to and maximize students' feelings of competence and self-determination, as well as connectedness with significant others (e.g., positive relationships between staff and students and among students)?
    • To what degree does the school (e.g., teacher, support staff, administrators) overrely on extrinsic reinforcers to enforce rules and control behavior?

  4. Home involvement We stress home rather than parent to account for the variety of caretakers (including grandparents, siblings, foster caretakers) whose involvement is of concern. The value of home support for student schooling is well-established. Just as students vary in their motivation and ability to participate at school so do their caretakers. For caretakers who are not able or motivated to positively support a child's success at school, the school must outreach in effective ways and provide a continuum of supports to enable effective caretaker involvement in schooling. To identify system deficiencies in this arena, focus on matters such as:
    • To what degree does the school help address specific support and learning needs of the family?
    • How good are school processes for communicating personally with the home?
    • How good are school staff efforts for outreaching positively to caretakers who have not shown the motivation and/or ability to connect with the school?
    • How well does the school involve all families in student decision making?
    • To what degree does the school provide effective programs to enhance home support for learning and development?

  5. Special assistance Focus on how long identified students have to wait for special.assistance and how appropriate and effective the assistance is.
    • To what degree is extra support provided as soon as a need is recognized and pursued in least disruptive ways?
    • To what degree are referrals appropriate and effective?
    • To what degree is special assistance for students effectively monitored and managed?
    • To what degree are special interventions appropriately and effectively coordinated?
    • To what degree do special interventions produce positive outcomes that outweigh negative effects?

Correcting System Deficiencies

Identifying problems is relatively easy; correcting them can be exceedingly complicated. As Henry Mencken noted: "There is always a well-known solution for every human problem neat, plausible, and wrong."

Correcting system deficiencies related to the matters discussed above starts with advocacy and tends to involve revisiting current policy priorities. Decisions about improving an arena of intervention always involve questions about resource use. And, how well improvements are planned and implemented involves infrastructure and systemic change considerations. Finally, we stress that correcting such system deficiencies must be done in ways that avoid exacerbating the marginalization, fragmentation, unnecessary redundancy, and counterproductive competition that characterizes current policy and practice.

To these ends, the Center has developed a range of resources that can be downloaded at no cost (see the Exhibit on the next page).


Center Resources for Correcting General System Deficiencies and Enhancing Specific Arenas

Correcting System Deficiencies

Enhancing Specific Arenas

This article was prepared by the School Mental Health Project/Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. Comments can be sent to smhp@ucla.edu.

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WebMaster: Perry Nelson (smhp@ucla.edu)