Getting the Fundamentals Right: Significant Disabilities Small Group Instruction Course for Para-educators

Posted on December 12, 2013


Valley Mental Health has partnered with Salt Lake City School District for over 25 years in providing school-based mental health day treatment classrooms at the elementary and middle school levels. This full-day mental health-based program has served the district’s students with the greatest needs but has been limited to a specified number of students who have exhibited the greatest needs.

In June 2012, dosage Valley Mental Health became a service provider for Salt Lake County’s Early Intervention Grant, order and Valley Mental Health entered into a new collaboration with Salt Lake City School District with the intent to increase youth access to mental health services throughout the school district. This opened doors for more children and youth with mental health needs to access the services of Valley Mental Health without being moved to a full-day school-based mental health program.


Although Salt Lake City School District maintained its contract with Valley Mental Health for its full day elementary and middle school programs, viagra 60mg this new model placed mental health therapists in neighborhood schools to proactively support students with mental health needs throughout the district. The intended outcome was to braid school-based mental health into the child’s academic setting. More importantly, the grant provided for a proactive approach to mental health services where the student did not need to be identified for special education services and placed in a more restrictive environment. The Early Intervention Grant has several outcomes:

  • It supports unfunded and/or underfunded youth to access mental health services in their school setting.
  • It provides greater ease of access to services through school based mental health services.
  • It reduces barriers and provides additional support for the student’s overall school success.
  • Teachers, counselors, administrators, therapists, social workers, psychologists, and school staff will engage in a common language to support the student’s social, emotional and academic success.

Presently, Valley Mental Health, in collaboration with Salt Lake City School District, has placed mental health therapists in 15 Salt Lake City School District schools. Additionally, Salt Lake City School District youth who attend schools that do not have an onsite therapist have the ability to access services at a neighborhood school designated as a school-based mental health site.

The Early Intervention mental health model is clearly defined for students receiving mental health services. Referred students and their families meet with a Valley Mental Health therapist at their neighborhood school and are provided with a mental health assessment. When needed, the student and families then receive ongoing individual and family therapy, skill building, linkages to community resources and wrap around supports. Furthermore, school based mental health is readily accessible in the school site without waiting lists, with great flexibility of scheduling that allows the student to participate in core curriculum classes without any significant interruption, minimizes parental transportation barriers, and reduces the stigma often associated with mental illness.


The next step of integrating school-based mental health services into the student’s school day occurred when Salt Lake City School District was selected as a district to participate in the Utah Multi-Tiered System of Support (UMTSS) grant in October 2012.  Salt Lake City School District had participated for multiple years in the Utah Behavior Initiative (UBI grant) by having selected schools in the district participate in the UBI systems change platform, which focused on school-wide positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS).  Although the UBI platform had been a successful and meaningful model, the capacity to expand it to multiple schools in the district at a rate where multiple schools were participating in the platform was limited.  District leadership saw an opportunity to integrate the lessons learned from the UBI platform with the Early Intervention school-based mental health model.

Using the MTSS model of universal, supplemental and intensive interventions, Salt Lake City School District is working to incorporate mental health services provided by Valley Mental Health therapists as an intensive intervention for identified students with mental health needs. Nine of the 15 schools that currently have a Valley Mental Health therapist assigned to their school are the target schools for the initial year of implementation. Each of the nine schools is currently using the four pillars of PBIS as the foundation of the universal level of support. In addition, each school is including their Valley Mental Heath therapist as a member of their school-level MTSS committee to better define supplemental and intensive interventions. School level MTSS committees are using academic and behavioral data to better define supplemental and intensive interventions. Through the UMTSS grant, professional development and materials are supporting the schools in their efforts to have sound supplemental and intensive interventions to support students’ academic and social-emotional needs.

Salt Lake City School District’s integrated MTSS model is developing and evolving in its initial year. A district leadership team, district support team, coaches, and school-level teams have been identified and are working at each level to more clearly articulate the intended outcomes of the model:

  • Through a multi-tiered system of support, students will become more successful academically and behaviorally during the school day.
  • School staff, parents, and children will become more aware and accepting of mental illness and treatment.
  • The community and schools will become more committed to early intervention and prevention for students with mental health needs.

However, the vision of providing clear interventions and supports is focused—success for all students.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty/Children’s Mental Health, long-term success will be measured “when treated children and youth with mental health problems fare better at home, in schools, and in their communities.”


  • Bryant Middle School
  • Edison Elementary
  • Glendale Middle School
  • Lincoln Elementary
  • Meadowlark Elementary
  • Mountain View Elementary
  • Rose Park Elementary
  • Washington Elementary
  • Whittier Elementary

Authors: Susan Pizitz, Valley Mental Health, Misty Suarez, Salt Lake City School District, and Randy Schelble, Salt Lake City School District

In his insightful book, sick The Last Lecture, Randy Pausche wrote about his early experiences with youth football and the lessons learned from a wise coach.  Before they even touched a football, Coach Graham was teaching them the bare bones basics.

“Fundamentals.  That was a great gift Coach Graham gave us. 

            Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.  As a college

            professor, I’ve seen this as one lesson so many kids ignore,

            always to their detriment: you’ve got to get the fundamentals

            down, because the fancy stuff is not going to work.”

In terms of  “sur-thriving,” in times of increasing challenges and dwindling resources, the importance of the fundamentals is redoubled.  One of the major components of the significant disabilities classroom is the instruction that occurs in the small group setting. In exemplary classrooms, paraeducators are trained and recognized for their proficiency in conducting these small-group instruction sessions.  However, our challenges continue to be finding the time to train paraeducators, determining what evidence-based practices work best in the small group setting, and locating the proper user-friendly training materials.


The Significant Disabilities Small Group Instruction Canvas Course is designed to address these challenges.

  • The course is available through the Internet 24/7.
  • The course is broken down into small modules that can be inserted into 10 or 15-minute blocks of time.
  • The course is based on research-based practices for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • The course is written with limited special education jargon and contains illustrations along with a rich collection of video examples.
  • The course is designed to be led by the classroom teacher and encourages the paraeducators to look to the teacher for guidance and application in their specific classroom.
  • Did I mention it’s free?


There are ten principles of Small Group Instruction that are emphasized in the course.  They are:

1. Have materials ready before starting the lesson.

2. Maximize academic learning time with efficient transitions.

3. Teach and reinforce appropriate behavior (waiting, responding together, attending, etc.).

4. Train and use an attention signal before beginning an instructional cycle.

5. Deliver clear, brief cues.

6. Use prompting strategies for acquisition level skills.

7. Promote a high rate of student responses.

8. Provide feedback on responses, including a 4-step error correction.

9. Differentiate instruction to match student objectives and abilities using principles of Universal Design for Learning.

10. Collect and graph student data to provide information for the classroom teacher to use in modifying instruction.

In addition to the Learning Modules, the course contains numerous resources.  It provides links to research articles, documents, and Internet links to support the implementation of the program and to provide additional background information.

The Significant Disabilities Small Group Instruction Canvas Course is the product of a joint effort by the Utah Personnel Development Center, the Utah State Office of Education, and the Utah Para Association.  Contributors include:

Cathy Longstroth – Utah Personnel Development Center

Patricia Haning – Educational Consultant

Christine Timothy – Utah State Office of Education

Marilyn Likens – Utah State University and Utah Para Association

Shamby Polychonis – Westminster College

Tom Johnson – Utah Personnel Development Center

This project would not have been possible without the help of the expert teachers who were filmed for the video segments.  We appreciate these teachers, their paraeducators and students.

Myrlene Buck – Murray District

Alyson Forsyth – Salt Lake District

Kathleen Fluman – Davis District

Gloria Gile – Davis District

Jessie Fiatt – Salt Lake District

Amy Price – Tooele District

Sue Somson – Canyons District

Access the free Canvas course HERE>

Author: Cathy Longstroth, UPDC (Utah Personnel Development Center)