Impact Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities

Social-Emotional Well-Being of Students with Disabilities:
The Importance of Student Support Staff


Linda Taylor is Co-Director of the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools, University of California – Los Angeles

Howard Adelman is Professor of Psychology, and Co-Director at the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools

Among the wide range of personnel and programs that provide support to K-12 students with disabilities in our schools are student support staff. Known by a variety of titles – school psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, therapeutic recreation specialists, dropout prevention specialists, and others – they are key to the success of students with disabilities. When planning and implementing IEPs, student support staff partner with teachers, students, and students' families to increase the academic, social, and emotional functioning and well-being of students with disabilities. Such personnel can also play an important role in improving the school climate and enabling all students to have an equal opportunity for belonging and success.

As Congress considers the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there are calls for an expanded role for student support staff and a fundamental transformation of how student and learning supports are conceived (Adelman & Taylor, 2006a, 2006b, 2010; Skalski, 2011). The transformation would ensure that student support staff continue to provide a degree of targeted direct assistance and support to specific students, while expanding their participation and role in bringing about reform and improvement of schools and our educational system. This would include their involvement in carrying out an increasingly wide array of activities to promote academic achievement and healthy development for all students, address barriers to learning and teaching for all students, and re-engage disconnected students. New directions emphasize more attention to accomplishing desired outcomes through flexible and expanded roles and functions, and staff teaming together to develop a comprehensive system of student and learning supports for schools throughout a district. And the call is for redeploying existing school resources and reaching out to community resources with the aim of strategically weaving them into the school's agenda in ways that fill critical gaps and enhance a caring environment.

Increasing the Role of Support Staff in Creating a Caring School Climate

Lessons learned from efforts to improve schools underscore that high quality teaching, enhanced instruction aligned with assessment, collaborative staff development, and home involvement are necessary, but insufficient. Moreover, provision of specialized and clinically-oriented services are only one facet of any effort to develop a comprehensive system of student and learning supports. The unfortunate fact is that services alone cannot address the range of factors that cause poor academic performance, dropouts, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, racial conflict, and so forth, and they are too limited a response for the many students manifesting learning, behavior, and emotional problems.

The reality is that direct services for the discrete problems of a small number of students are only a small part of what a school and district need from student support staff. From a school improvement perspective, support staff must help develop a full continuum of student/learning supports that can effectively counter behavior problems, close the achievement gap, reduce dropouts (students and teachers), and promote personal and social well-being for the many. And they must do so in ways that create a caring school climate (Cohen & Geier, 2010).

In a caring school climate, learners care about learning; teachers care about teaching; and students, their families, and school staff all care about, and are engaged with, each other in support of a positive learning environment. Caring is maintained on an ongoing basis through use of a range of instructional strategies to support student growth and success, as well other types of strategies to sustain a caring and supportive environment in which staff can do their best work and families can be active participants in their child's education (Center for Mental Health in Schools, n.d.; School Mental Health Project, 1998). In addition:

A caring school culture pays special attention to those who have difficulty making friends. Some students need just a bit of support to overcome the problem (e.g., a few suggestions, a couple of special opportunities). Some, however, need more help. They may be very shy, lacking in social skills, or may even act in negative ways that lead to their rejection. Whatever the reason, it is clear they need help if they and the school are to reap the benefits produced when individuals feel positively connected to each other (School Mental Health Project, 1998, p. 1).

Analyses of practice and research suggest that a proactive agenda for developing positive school and classroom climates requires careful attention to the following (Adelman & Taylor, 2010; Cohen & Geier, 2010):

  • Enhancing the quality of life at school and especially in the classroom for students and staff (e.g., welcoming and social support mechanisms for students, families, and staff).
  • Pursuing a curriculum that promotes not only academic, but also social-emotional learning (e.g., fostering intrinsic motivation for learning through personalized programs, enhanced options, and meaningful participation in decision making).
  • Enabling teachers and other staff to be effective with a wide range of students (e.g., addressing barriers to learning and teaching, re-engaging disconnected students).

As will be clear in the next section, student support personnel are essential to accomplishing such a broad agenda.

Challenges and Opportunities

Each day there is another story in the news about how the troubled economy is hurting education. As has always been the case when education budgets tighten, the tendency is to trim student support efforts more severely than other budget items. This reflects the long-standing marginalization in policy and practice of efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching. Laying-off support staff increases the caseload for those still in place. It also has increased a policy trend to "contract out" to community providers for specific support services. And, it has exacerbated the counterproductive competition for sparse resources.

Given dwindling budgets, the necessity is to meet high priority intervention needs in new and more cost-effective ways. At the same time, the long-term aim must remain to move toward a comprehensive system to provide student and learning supports. Indeed, available evidence suggests that a caring school climate depends on the creation of a comprehensive system of supports that embraces not only students with disabilities, but all students, to ensure equity of opportunity and enhance the well-being of all involved (Adelman & Taylor, 2010; Cohen & Geier, 2010). Thus, at this critical juncture in the history of public education, schools must adopt and keep the following set of support staff roles and functions in balance (Adelman & Taylor, 2010):

  • Planning, implementing, and evaluating direct interventions for students and families. For students this includes programs and services that equitably address barriers to learning, re-engage disconnected students, and promote healthy development (e.g., developmental and motivational assessments, including response-to-intervention strategies; regular and specialized assistance in and outside the classroom; universal and targeted group interventions; safe and caring school interventions; academic and personal counseling; support for transitions). For families this includes providing information, referrals, and support for referral follow-through; instruction; counseling; and home involvement.
  • Planning, implementing, and evaluating ways to enhance systems within schools. This includes coordination and integration of programs/services/systems, establishing mechanisms for collaborating with colleagues to ensure activities are carried out in the most equitable and cost-effective manner consistent with legal and ethical standards for practice (examples of mechanisms include case-oriented and resource-oriented teams; consultation, coaching, and mentoring mechanisms; triage, referral, and care monitoring systems; crisis teams). It also includes development of a comprehensive, multifaceted, and integrated system of student and learning supports. For example, collaborating to improve existing interventions and develop ways to fill gaps related to needed prevention programs, early-after-onset interventions, and assistance for students with severe and/or chronic problems; and incorporating an understanding of legal and ethical standards for practice.
  • Planning, implementing, and evaluating ways to enhance school-community linkages and partnerships. This includes establishing mechanisms for collaborating with community entities to coordinate, integrate, and weave together school and community resources and systems to enhance both current activity and development of a comprehensive approach for systemically and equitably addressing barriers to learning and promoting healthy development.

With a view to ensuring an appropriate balance, school planners must recognize underlying commonalities among a variety of school concerns and intervention strategies and foster increased interest in cross-disciplinary training and interprofessional education. And, given the pressing need for learning supports to ensure all students have an equal opportunity to succeed at school, it is time for everyone to recognize that current cutbacks are so unbalanced that essential efforts to address factors that interfere with learning at school will be subverted. While all cuts are harmful, the extreme cuts related to student and learning supports will undermine the hope of ensuring equity of opportunity. The focus in balancing budget cuts and redeploying resources should be on ensuring there is a critical mass of school resources allocated for student and learning supports to enable schools to redeploy, and then outreach to leverage and braid with a wide range of community resources.

How does all this enhance the social-emotional well-being of students with disabilities? A school climate that includes and comprehensively supports success for all provides the nurturing context and enhanced range of natural opportunities for social-emotional development and learning.

Concluding Comments

From our perspective, caring schools that support the participation, valuing, and success of students with and without disabilities are not something that can be created in the absence of comprehensive, multifaceted, and cohesive efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching and promote healthy development. Currently, support staff mainly focus on developing good relationships with the relatively few students, families, and staff with whom they work directly. As such personnel expand their focus to enhance school improvement policy and practice, they are well positioned to help to create a caring schoolwide climate that is fundamental to social and emotional development, as well as academic success and future well-being, of students with and without disabilities.


  • Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (2006a). Reorganizing student supports to enhance equity. In E. Lopez, G. Esquivel, & S. Nahari (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural school psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  • Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (2006b). The school leader’s guide to student learning supports: New directions for addressing barriers to learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

  • Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (2010). Mental health in schools: Engaging learners, preventing problems, and improving schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

  • Center for Mental Health in Schools. (n.d.). Creating a caring context for learning and healthy development – Practice notes. Retrieved from

  • Cohen, J., & Geier, V. (2010). School climate research summary: January 2010. School Climate Brief, 1(1).

  • School Mental Health Project. (1998). Toward a caring school culture. Addressing Barriers to Learning, 3(2).

  • Skalski, A. K. (2011). Promoting the critical role of learning supports in policy, practice, and school improvement. NASP Communique, 39(5).