Increasing the dialogue among stakeholders in New Jersey’s special education system

An argument for providing every student with a social-emotional and academic liaison.

By Maurice J. Elias

Imagine what might happen if every child entering a school were assigned a social-emotional and academic development (SEAD) liaison who would advocate for the needs and rights of that child? I think this could be a game changer. It would transform relationships between schools and parents/guardians, and I believe it would go a long way toward redressing the impact of inequities that affect children and their learning.

How Might This Look?

The role of the SEAD liaison could be filled by a number of existing at-school professionals: school social workers, counselors or psychologists, health educators, and school nurses come most immediately to mind. But it would not be feasible to simply add this role on to existing jobs—school and district leaders would need to consider other duties to remove from the plate of those professional staff members who serve as liaisons. Parents/guardians would participate regularly, having two monthly meetings or, check-ins with a liaison for pre-K through second grade.

What Concerns Would a SEAD Liaison Focus On?

The SEAD liaison would be knowledgeable about social-emotional development, health and physical development, and cognitive/brain development for the particular age groups for which he or she was responsible. In addition, he or she would need to know about the development of literacy skills and good learning habits. Relatedly, conversations with parents/guardians about creating home environments conducive to learning—including setting up daily routines and finding a time and place to do homework—would be a regular focus. Cultural sensitivity would be necessary, as some families have tremendous challenges in doing what might come much more easily to better-resourced and supported families.

What Would the SEAD Liaison Do?

There are four primary functions that SEAD liaisons would have: communication, accountability, early warning, and triage.

  1. Communication: Make sure that parents are aware of school (and relevant district) events, as well as specific important communications for the class and for a particular child.
  2. Accountability: Take specific responsibility for tracking the issues, progress, and needs of a particular child, to ensure no one would fall through the cracks or be lost from sight.
  3. Early Warning: Keeping track of students’ metrics and other developmental signs of difficulty in social-emotional and academic areas, as well as issues related to early reading, and promoting good health habits would be of particular importance.
  4. Triage: When additional resources are needed, the liaison would ensure that contact is made and follow through takes place with appropriate health, mental health, and education professionals. (This, of course, relates also to the above three areas.)

Is This Feasible?

Many of us educators know about the effectiveness of parent advocacy groups in the special education contexts. Whether it be an example like Virginia’s Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center or a broader group such as the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network in New Jersey, the focus of such groups is less on prevention and more on students with existing difficulties. These groups operate “outside” the school; the SEAD liaison would be bringing the child advocacy function inside the school, and this support would be provided for every child.

If this approach were tried, even in a limited way at first by assigning just youths in immediate need a SEAD liaison, schools would see benefits, including less instructional time lost and less stress on teachers. Teachers need support in reaching beyond the classroom to see that the individual emotional needs of all students are met. A school that chose to dedicate the role of one school social worker to fill this function would find its investment in resources would yield returns many times over, including reductions in need for highly specialized services and much more efficient progress with troubled youths and their families.

Looking to the future, there is no doubt that it will become increasingly important to engage parents and guardians in ongoing conversations about their children’s social-emotional and academic development. That cliché about it taking a village to raise a child is truer than ever today, and I would amend it to: Every village must be organized and committed to raising every child socially, emotionally, and academically.


This opinion piece first appeared in Edutopia, August 22, 2017. Maurice J. Elias, Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service. He blogs with Edutopia.

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