Addressing Behavior Challenges at School: Part 1

September 11, 2019 by DRO Special Education Attorney John Price / special education

Students with disabilities are more likely than their nondisabled peers to have behavioral challenges in school. As a parent, you may find yourself getting calls or communications about your child's behavior -- or worse, you may find out that they are facing more serious discipline, like a suspension or expulsion. Fortunately, the law provides kids with disabilities with special protections from the typical discipline that a school may impose on students.

The purpose of this three-part blog series is to help you better understand this process as a parent. This week, we will focus on the school's obligation to provide positive behavioral interventions for students with disabilities to support them in their classrooms. We will also cover some steps that you may want to take when you realize your child may be having behavioral challenges at school.

Understanding Positive Behavioral Interventions

Every public school serving students with disabilities is required to provide them with the behavioral supports necessary to make progress in the classroom. The school needs to be implementing interventions that are positive and educational -- not punitive -- in nature. For instance, if your child is struggling to stay on task in the classroom, a possible positive intervention may be to reward him or her with points that he or she could use to get a reward, like access to a toy or playtime in the gym. The intervention should also help the child build a particular skill, like asking for a break when needed. Contrast this with a more punitive approach, like assigning detention or taking away recess.

Early Signs of Behavioral Challenges

If your child starts to have behavioral challenges in school, you should find out fairly quickly. In most cases, you should receive some communication from your child's teacher, particularly if you have already worked out a communication plan. School personnel are usually eager to involve parents if their child is disrupting the educational environment. In more serious cases, you may start to get calls to come and pick up your child from school or to keep him or her home. You also may get notified that school staff have used some kind of restraint on your child for more explosive outbursts. These are all signs that something may need to be changed in your child's education programming.

What You Should Do

If you are noticing that your child is having persistent behavioral challenges, don't wait for things to get worse. Be proactive. Request an IEP meeting right away. The IEP Team has a responsibility to meet your child's behavioral needs, just as it must address his or her academic needs. This is also your opportunity to ask questions about the behavior. You may want to ask whether there is a specific trigger or environment in which your child is having struggles. Maybe they're struggling when a teacher gives work. Or perhaps unstructured times like lunch or recess are where the problem lies. This may give the Team a good idea of what supports may help the child.

If the behaviors are particularly challenging or if the Team is not able to get a handle on the behaviors, you should ask the District to do a functional behavior assessment (FBA). An FBA is a systematic process by which the school team gathers data about a child's behavior to try to determine the purpose or function of the child's behavior. The Team then uses data from this assessment to create a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which should outline the necessary interventions and supports that child will receive and list the skills the child needs to build to succeed in the school environment.

You may also want to consider asking the school to bring in a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to help with completing the FBA and BIP. These are professionals who have been trained in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to modify behavior in a systematic and positive way. Check if the District has a BCBA on staff. If not, you can request that they bring one in from an outside organization.

It is important for you and the Team to understand that behavior is almost never random. Behavior is communication. It is the IEP Team's job to understand what your child is trying to say through his or her behavior. Once you understand what the message is, you can start the process of teaching the child more adaptive ways of getting the message across and hopefully avoid larger issues with the school. But sometimes those issues still happen. In Part 2, we will discuss what happens when your child gets caught up in discipline situations and will explore the manifestation determination review process. In the meantime, you can always contact DRO with your questions.

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