Educators talk about identifying disabilities among multilingual learners

January 2022

By Carrie Parker

Teachers collaborating

Many teachers struggle with identifying disabilities among multilingual learners. How can they determine whether a particular child’s learning difficulties stem from typical English language development or a diagnosable learning disability? From 2017 to 2020, SRI Education staff working with the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northeast & Islands joined with state and local partners to learn about the practices educators use to identify disabilities among multilingual learners. The conversations with 30 teachers and school leaders across four districts revealed examples of effective practices such as fostering cross-team collaboration, as well as challenges, as when multilingual learners don’t have access to targeted interventions. With each student story a teacher shared with us, we found a deep commitment to students and a few consistent trends associated with effective instruction for students and identification of disabilities when appropriate.

Opportunities for teachers to collaborate, especially with English language development teachers, may not be formally incorporated into the school day.

When the adults who interact with multilingual learners collaborate, they can align learning goals and share information on effective instructional strategies and provide a more complete picture of a student before making a referral for special education. Teachers we spoke with shared that English language development (ELD) teachers were rarely included in scheduled team time, making it hard for them to share their knowledge about students. School leaders can create a culture of collaboration by providing clear expectations for shared responsibility for all students and opportunities to collaborate. In one school, the principal scheduled regular professional learning meetings for ELD, special education, and general education teachers to discuss the progress of shared multilingual learners.

Teachers are aware of the need for cultural responsiveness but do not always know what it means in practice.

Teachers who implement culturally responsive practices value and use students’ culture, language, and experiences to facilitate relevant learning experiences. Teachers told us they wanted to implement culturally responsive practices but did not always know how. School leaders can be the drivers in building culturally responsive practices by guiding teachers and other school personnel toward practices such as:

  • Engaging in self-reflection and cultural humility to build awareness of existing cultural frames of reference.
  • Incorporating students’ cultural backgrounds and home language in classroom instruction.
  • Establishing authentic relationships with students’ families and involving them in their children’s school experiences.

Multi-tiered systems of support for multilingual learners may require different interventions and different responses.

Unfortunately, multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) are not always implemented with multilingual learners in mind, in part because the interventions may not account for varying levels of English proficiency and also because many data collection tools used to measure students’ progress are not valid measures of multilingual learners’ progress. Some teachers told us they were discouraged from providing MTSS services to a student until they improved their English proficiency, rather than designing interventions to address each student’s needs no matter their level of English. School leaders can help ensure that multilingual learners in their schools have access to appropriate interventions and that teachers have the right tools to measure multilingual learners’ progress by providing professional learning opportunities focused on using MTSS with multilingual learners.

Collaboration, cultural responsiveness, and targeted interventions are even more important today, with the inequities COVID has revealed and intensified.

This work with educators took place before COVID-19. The multiple challenges revealed by the pandemic make it even more imperative that school leaders and teachers consider the three recommendations described in this blog post: increasing collaboration, deepening culturally responsive practices, and expanding MTSS to all multilingual learners regardless of their English proficiency level.

Check out this brief summarizing what we found, this video including interviews with state and district leaders, and this infographic providing an overview of effective practices.

Topics: Research Students with disabilities Technical assistance

Tags: Qualitative