A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
MTSS from the youngest up
Adapting the system to meet every early learner’s needs
By Pam Cheng, Heather Elston and Rosanna Palomo | January | February 2024
Ten elementary principals at a leadership meeting asked crucial questions about a problem of practice at the top of their minds:
“What are our kindergarten toileting protocols? Do we have any?”
“Our team has spent hours chasing students who have run out of class and de-escalating their behaviors.”
“How do I support my teacher and students after they have had to leave the class because of a student’s escalated behaviors? What do I tell the parents of the other students?”
It was November 2022 and schools were welcoming younger cohorts of TK students in the midst of California’s Universal Prekindergarten (UPK) initiative. Meanwhile, many kindergarteners had arrived for their first ever school experience. These new cohorts of children entering our school system had spent their first and second years of life, a time of dramatic brain development when 1 million new neural connections are built every second (Nicholson et al., 2022), in the context of a global lockdown.
Self-regulation and cognitive-linguistic abilities are just a few of the critical skills that develop through young children’s opportunities to attain age-appropriate milestones through experiences and relationships as they explore and interact with their environment (Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, 2019). School leaders everywhere are witnessing the wide range of development as a reflection of our students’ varying experiences through a historic pandemic.
The honest discussion with our site principals surfaced concrete needs of our youngest students and brought our collective focus on understanding how our system needs to adapt in order to support accordingly.
Over the course of the following six months, we approached this pressing problem of practice with a systems view to better understand students’ learning needs so that we could design appropriate and integrated responses. Our district’s student services director, preschool director and director of teaching and learning teamed up to listen, analyze and problem solve our system’s discernable pain points. Through this improvement process we came to understand that the root of this challenge is one of adapting our system to meet every early learner’s needs.
We realized that the answers lie not in getting each student ready before coming through our doors. They lie in asking the right questions about how to get our system ready for every student, however they arrive.
Uncovering the problem to provide better support
We resisted the temptation to fall into “solutionitis” by rushing to fix the problems, partly because we weren’t really sure how. Our district’s focus on system improvement also calls us to understand problems from the point of view of those closest to the problem. So we asked the principals to identify the top readiness needs that were taking up administrative time, and we set up meetings with kindergarten teachers across our district’s elementary schools, site by site.
These listening sessions with kindergarten teachers affirmed principals’ concerns and uncovered urgency and compassion fatigue in the face of young children hitting, crying, kicking and running away: inappropriate coping behaviors as students faced new demands in their lives. The teachers’ initial solutions were to ask for fewer students, more aides, more counselors and just … more help. In the wake of having experienced this wave of new student needs, we were facing the limits of familiar tools and previous understandings. A review of our notes from the sessions led us to identify three major areas of need:

  1. Parent resources and outreach about age-appropriate milestones before students arrived at school.
  2. Avenues for early communication about students’ potential needs for extra support.
  3. Time and resources to support students’ connection and social-emotional learning at the start of the school year.
As we considered these needs, we (student services, teaching and learning and preschool) explored how to respond in ways that could build our system’s capacity to adapt to our students´ needs. Failure to do so might turn our extra supports into soggy Band-Aids stuck at the surface.
Could extra “hands on deck” translate into improved student behavior? Would our first outreach and interactions with families deepen our understanding of students’ contexts and improve preventative responses? Would mutual learning between educators and families help to shape more effective interventions? Asking these questions together led to a tentative path towards improvement. Reflecting from our different perspectives within the district’s system of support turned out to be a rich opportunity to collaborate and re-imagine what school could look like for our youngest students.
Leveraging our roles and areas of expertise, we answered the needs by balancing each response with a plan for how that support could build better community, collaboration and learning.
Two-way learning: Building capacity with reciprocal support
Extra “hands on deck” was the most frequently requested support. Our system doubled the number of Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) instructional aides, from one to two per site, and we asked principals to schedule them, along with our school counselors, to support kindergarten classrooms for the first three to four weeks of school.
We coupled these added resources with a Kindergarten Readiness Systems full-day training session that was designed to help teachers leverage the extra help by aligning routines, language and non-verbal hand signals to identify basic child-bodily needs (e.g., restroom, water, tissue).
These common practices, along with shared visuals of the expectations across classes, could allow MTSS aides to effectively teach, model and support the same expected behaviors. In fact, setting the aides up to teach whole class lessons on routines would even allow teachers to spend positive time with the students who need extra attention during those lessons. In addition, the workshop provided information and access to district phone translation services for positive calls home. The teachers who attended the training quickly shared these and other family communication tools with their colleagues who were unable to attend. Several sites used these communication tools to launch the school year.
In addition to extra bodies in the classroom, we responded to our system’s request for more parent outreach and education in several ways. The department directors, with input from district leadership, teachers and the enrollment department, created a district School Readiness Guide to share with parents upon enrollment. Over the summer our Student Services Department spearheaded two inaugural School Readiness Fairs with activities to help familiarize families with information in the guide. We invited community partners such as the library, First 5 and other nonprofit organizations to provide information about immunizations, child care, community services and parent education opportunities at both fairs. A total of 203 parents and caregivers, approximately 50 percent of our incoming families, attended the two fairs. They came from all 10 elementary schools and represented the whole range of school readiness as reported on a parent survey (not ready, somewhat ready, ready, very ready).
We came to realize that the answers lie not in getting each student ready before coming through our doors. They lie in asking the right questions about how to get our system ready for every student, however they arrive.
Finally, in order to open up an avenue of early intervention and support between families and schools, we offered each TK and K student’s guardian the opportunity to take an Ages and Stages Questionnaire within the first weeks of school. We reviewed all the survey responses and used the screening results to help teachers and staff proactively reach out to families of students whose survey results may indicate a need for early support. Our decision to facilitate this early communication tool has helped us to clarify and augment outreach protocols that include teachers, administrators and support staff. Each of the steps we’ve taken to respond to our system’s needs offers a potential pathway towards earlier partnership and intervention when necessary. How will we know we’re making a difference? Reviewing our findings and plans with elementary administrators involved them in collaboratively problem solving the need they raised. A pulse check survey of our school leaders at the end of September indicates some progress. While most indicated that they are spending about the same time supporting student behaviors that they did last year, none are spending more time than before, and 27.3 percent indicate spending less time this year. In addition, 64 percent reported seeing consistent evidence of aligned routines, language and signals across classrooms. While it’s still early in our change process, and we still have much to learn along the way, early feedback indicates teachers, parents and students making progress. Disruption is uncomfortable. Yet it can be an effective way to catalyze change. Adaptation may come through new interventions, techniques or tools. Developing and implementing these potential solutions also allows teachers and administrators to rethink our understanding of the problem. Making a shift in our perspective opens us to new learning. Building an integrated system of support challenged us to reconsider our traditional view of intervention by asking not how we can move students into outside supports, but how we can more effectively include and partner with the adults closest to the students to identify and integrate the supports they need. With shared participation, we hope to build consistent, caring and responsive relationships that can accelerate learning at this most opportune time. References Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. (2019, August 20). Brain architecture. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/ Nicholson, J., Erazo-Chavez, R., Ufoegbune, V., Williams, T., Yee, S., & Maniates, H. (2022). Principals as early learning leaders: Effectively supporting our youngest learners. Teachers College Press. Studer, Q., & Pilcher, J. (2015). Maximize performance: Creating a culture for educational excellence. Fire Starter Publishing. Pam Cheng, Ed.D., is director of Teaching and Learning at Campbell Union School District. Heather Elston is preschool director at Campbell Union School District. Rosanna Palomo is the former director of Student Services at Campbell Union School District.