October 26, 2014
Governor’s Special Education Task Force
Dear Special Education Task Force Members:
On behalf of the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists (NJASP) we would like to thank all members of the Governor’s Special Education Task Force for their efforts in studying issues related to the funding, delivery, and effectiveness of special education programs and services for public school students. NJASP also would like to thank you for this opportunity to share our comments on the topics that are deemed the Task Force’s four areas of priority. NJASP represents school psychologists throughout the State who work with students, educators, and families to support the academic achievement, positive behavior, and mental wellness of all students. School psychologists work with parents and educators to help shape individual and system wide supports that provide the necessary prevention and intervention services to ensure that all students have access to academic, social-emotional, behavioral, and mental health supports they need to be successful at school.
As you continue your study in the four priority areas, we urge the Task Force to consider the following information, particularly as it pertains to the availability of behavioral, emotional, social, and academic supports. These supports impact all students, as well as the role of special education in our public schools. This written testimony will address the practices for classifying students who are eligible for special education, strategies to reduce the costs associated with special education programming, and development of best practices for education professionals. Our focus of recommendations will revolve around the following three points which impact the climate of schools and, subsequently, the performance of students academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. These services in turn impact the rate of classification and the effectiveness of special education programs:
All students possess a great deal of potential and they deserve access to comprehensive, rigorous curricula, and high quality instruction. However, students often come to school struggling with life challenges which can create barriers to learning as well as undermine school climate. When unaddressed, issues such as learning difficulties, poor mental and physical health, socioeconomic/family problems can significantly impede student and school success. Despite these challenges, there are proven strategies to address such barriers that are appropriate and supportive of the purpose of schools. There are studies that provide strong evidence that interventions that strengthen students’ social, emotional, and decision-making skills also positively impact their academic achievement. The outcomes are higher standardized test scores and better grades (Fleming, Haggerty, Brown, Catalano, et al., 2005). The NCLB Commission (2007) cites the research indicating that students struggling with mental health concerns achieve at higher rates when schools identify and intervene with these problems early.
NJASP maintains that the coordination of services to address students’ social, emotional, mental, and physical health needs is necessary at every school. These are critical prevention and intervention services that will ensure that all students achieve to their highest potential. We urge you to include as a recommendation that schools address how they will meet students’ academic, behavioral, social, emotional, and mental health needs in school improvement plans. Effective student supports include mental health services, emphasize prevention and early intervention, engage families, and incorporate approaches, such as positive behavior supports, social-emotional learning, and response to intervention.
The use of positive behavioral interventions and supports through an implementation of a multi-tiered system of support and interventions for all students has been shown to improve school climate, decrease negative behavior, and improve student academic achievement. NJASP encourages the Task Force to include a recommendation to implement positive behavioral supports and interventions. Even the best teachers will face barriers to teaching if school climate is not supportive and students are not ready to learn. Positive learning environments – a cohesive school community and student wellness – are integral to connectedness, safety, behavior, attendance, socialization, and learning; all of which directly impact achievement. As academic achievement increases and behavioral difficulties decrease, fewer students are referred for special education services.
NJASP urges the Task Force to include the recommendation of best practices that include early identification and intervention that will help students achieve to the best of their potential. One of these practices is a comprehensive system of differentiated supports that include four essential components:
The most effective multi-tiered systems of support involve a comprehensive and inclusive approach to helping students who are struggling to meet academic standards. Subsequently this system impacts classifying and educating students as eligible for special education programming.
The provision of mental health services within a school also provides an opportunity to educationally program for students who have emotional and behavioral difficulties within the least restrictive environment in public school settings. School psychologists are trained to provide mental health services, to develop appropriate behavioral plans, and to monitor students’ progress, as well as collecting data to evaluate the effectiveness of programs.
The provision of mental health services in our public schools, the implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and the adoption of a multi-tiered system of support will reduce costs through improving academic performance, thereby educating students in public school settings. This will reduce the need to place students in out-of-district settings.
We appreciate your dedication to students and your efforts toward improving special education in our New Jersey public schools.
Debra A. Keeney