For multilingual learners struggling academically or with social–emotional learning, it can be difficult for educators to identify whether the primary challenge is language acquisition or an underlying learning disability. Proper identification of the actual challenge that is getting in the way is critical to providing them with the appropriate interventions to support improved outcomes. Unfortunately, this difficulty in accurately assessing whether a multilingual learner (MLL) is struggling with language acquisition or another learning challenge has led to both over-identification and under-identification of these students in special education, representing a misallocation of district resources and, for far too many MLLs, an education that fails to meet their academic and social–emotional learning needs.
Connecting the Dots Can Be Complicated
Multilingual learners in the US represent a diverse tapestry of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds and over 400 different primary languages. Moreover, they are served in different types of language programs, which impacts the rate of language acquisition as well as the quality of literacy and reading instruction. As a result, it can be particularly complex to accurately assess their academic and SEL needs, and this often requires a constellation of data and insights to inform decision-making.
There is a well-supported research base of best practices in distinguishing between learning acquisition and language-based learning disabilities, but implementation of these best practices is often problematic and inconsistent. In order to make the implementation of best practices for MLLs actually practicable, districts and schools need a responsive system that meets the unique needs of these students and the educators who serve them.
Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) is a system-level framework for supporting all students holistically—academically, behaviorally, and social–emotionally. The MTSS framework comprises four core components: screening, progress monitoring, a multilevel prevention system, and data-based decision-making.
Typically, MTSS frameworks include three levels—or tiers—of support for instruction and intervention: Tier 1 includes school-wide core curriculum designed to meet the academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all students. At Tier 2, schools provide small-group, consistent academic interventions or targeted behavioral supports using evidence-based interventions to support students. For students who are not responding to instruction and intervention at Tier 2, more intensive and individualized interventions are offered by a specialist at Tier 3. At all levels, it is crucially important that interventions offered are evidence based and culturally and linguistically responsive to students’ unique strengths and challenges.
Four Key Components of a Culturally and Linguistically Responsive MTSS
- Use of a culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum
Content should be student centered, valuing and utilizing the cultural and language experiences that MLLs bring to the classroom. This is also known as a strengths-based approach because it treats students’ multilingual backgrounds as assets in their education, rather than disadvantages or deficits.
Teachers can make academic or social–emotional learning lessons more culturally responsive by using examples that are relevant to their students’ lives and experiences. This may require educators to modify the curriculum they are currently using or to find programs that are appropriate given their students’ language and cultural backgrounds, but the positive impact of doing so is well documented. Studies have shown that when students can see themselves in the materials, it can lead to higher levels of engagement and improved outcomes. When teaching SEL and setting behavior expectations, it is important for educators to be aware of the different cultural norms of their students and how that might impact their social and emotional behaviors or expectations. Giving students the opportunity to express their emotions and feelings in their first language might also help them with certain social–emotional skills, such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and their social problem-solving—often through translanguaging.
- Provide ESL support across all levels of instruction
For multilanguage learners, English as a second language (ESL) support should be provided in Tier 1, and not be restricted to the Tier 2 and 3 levels of instruction. This provides students consistent opportunities to practice their oral language skills, which supports and accelerates progress with language acquisition. It is especially important that ESL instruction is part of Tier 1 in schools and districts with high proportions of multilingual learners to ensure that the academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs of these students are fully integrated into the core curriculum.
One way teachers can incorporate ESL into core curricula is by offering more opportunities for small-group student discussions on topics of instruction—whether on academic or social–emotional learning topics. Another way that teachers can provide ESL support at Tier 1 is by exposing MLLs to grade-level reading materials and not just leveled readers. At the Tier 2 and 3 levels, MLLs should receive more targeted, small-group or one-on-one instruction to help bridge any gaps in language acquisition and literacy skills.
- Use data to drive decision-making
Universal screening is a critical component to any effective MTSS framework and should be done three times a year to measure progress. In order to accurately assess multilingual students, screening should be done in both English and their first language to get a clearer picture of whether students are struggling with language acquisition or whether an underlying learning need is impacting progress.
For MLLs receiving Tier 2 or 3 support, regular progress monitoring should also be conducted in both English and the student’s first language. This will help ensure that students are progressing at the same rate in both languages. In order for this data to be actionable for educators, they need to be able to easily access the results from both language assessments as well as track students’ progress over time, and then make plans that support continued, differentiated intervention planning. In addition, district and school leaders need to be able to disaggregate these data by campus and grade level, as well as by different student demographics, to ensure that resources are being allocated equitably to support all students.
The way in which data is collected and interpreted at the student, school, and district levels is key to successful implementation of culturally and linguistically responsive MTSS, but research shows that many schools do not have the necessary tools to view student data over time or to disaggregate it to look for trends across groups or schools.
Here again, a system-level technology platform can turn this constellation of data points into manageable and actionable insights for educators and administrators.
- Support collaboration across multiple stakeholders
To provide MLLs with the academic, behavioral, and social–emotional learning support they need requires effective collaboration among a broad group of stakeholders including general education, special education, and ESL teachers, academic and behavioral specialists, students, and families. Achieving the kind of collaboration needed requires that all involved stakeholders have visibility into students’ strengths and needs, across all academic, behavioral, and SEL areas.
In order to effectively collaborate, stakeholders need to be able to easily see which strategies are being used by other members of the team and to share observations on challenges and progress. Achieving the degree of multifaceted, multi-stakeholder collaboration needed to best support MLLs will be significantly streamlined and improved with an effective technology platform.
Systems-Level Technology Platforms Support Fidelity and Efficiency
When implemented with fidelity, a culturally and linguistically responsive MTSS program can ensure equitable and appropriate interventions for multilingual students struggling academically or with SEL. However, the promise of MTSS for MLLs is often limited by ineffective implementation due to incomplete or disconnected assessment data; lack of visibility at the student, classroom, school, or district level to see where progress is being made (or not) for groups of students; or cumbersome and noncollaborative approaches to selecting evidence-based and culturally appropriate interventions.
Fortunately, technology solutions exist that reduce or eliminate these obstacles for schools.
It is critical that all districts implementing MTSS identify a technology platform that streamlines data collection and visibility across stakeholders, supports educator and family communication and collaboration, and provides easy access to evidence-based interventions. For districts serving a high percentage of MLLs, it is particularly important to use a technology platform that fully integrates these components in a culturally and linguistically responsive framework.
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Dr. Essie Sutton is an applied developmental psychologist and the director of learning science at Branching Minds (www.branchingminds.com), a system-level K–12 education platform that connects data, systems, interventions, and stakeholders so that educators, administrators, and families can work together to support students’ holistic needs. Follow on Twitter @BranchingMinds.