Behavior Supports For Students With Disabilities

Behavior Supports For Students With Disabilities

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Ever since I can remember I‘ve always been curious about kids. As a teacher I’ve wondered what they were thinking, how to best get them engaged, to know which ways were best for me to teach them new things and how they could show me what they learned. This is what made teaching fun for me and I think learning fun for my students.


In this post, we’re talking about making sure students who need behavior supports get them so they can be more successful and see learning as fun at school.


I remember a new second grader starting in my class, and when it was time for lunch he cautiously walked down the hall, entered the chaotic lunchroom, immediately put his hands over his ears, started crying and running from corner to corner as if he was searching for a way out.  I tried talking to him and reassuring him that everything was alright.  His bright eyes darted back and forth as he looked in my direction as if to say, “What are you doing to me?”  Those were moments of self-doubt for me, how was I going to help David feel safe and trust us? 


Thankfully, his dad was very helpful when I made a home visit that evening.  He explained that David had always been in a self-contained class for students with behavior challenges, the class only ate lunch in their classroom, how loud noises, and confusing activity was very difficult for his son.  David’s dad showed me some “behavior sheets” from his last school where he was on a behavior plan with a level system.  To be honest, whenever I hear a behavior plan has a “Level System” I am cautious. I’ve never seen a Level System model that provides positive behavior supports for students.  In David’s case, he hardly ever earned his way off of Level 1 so he had no “privileges” of going to lunch with peers, playing at recess, or getting any free time like other students had during the day.


Here was this little eight year old boy that had a so called behavior plan in his IEP from his previous school, but it was so punitive that the only effect was to make him a scared boy with no trust of adults or other students at school.


I wondered if David had ever experienced a meaningful education.  Did he have positive behavior supports in place during his first few years at school?  It seemed his previous teachers believed it was all of this his fault, after all he didn’t speak, he wasn’t toilet trained, his parents had dropped out of school… They had very low expectations of David.


Another boy I often think of is a kindergartener.   His mom called me one year after winter break to help her advocate. Her son had already been suspended for nine days. Yes, a kindergartner suspended for nine days. The staff was so frustrated and told me they were so tired of him choosing to misbehave.  They had colorful behavior data charts to share at IEP meetings to “prove” that it was necessary for him to be sent to an alternative school.  They had already had given up on this kindergartener!  How incredibly sad.


Both of these boys and the countless other students I’ve had as a teacher and ones I advocated for since retiring from teaching, remind me of why we HAVE to look at what we are doing to kids in our schools.


As a matter of fact, the federal Department of Education recently released a 16 page letter to school districts around our country reminding them of their obligations to students who need behavior supports.   Most letters of guidance on special education topics from the Department of Education are 2 pages long.  This one released on August 1, 2016 was 16 pages long.  Do you think the federal Department of Education is sending us a message of the critical importance of what we are and aren’t doing for students with behavior challenges?


In last week’s post I talked about the part in this letter, that reminded school districts of what the federal regulations say about providing training for staff and how it can be written in children’s IEP.  If you missed that post,  go see it, Click here. 


Writing in staff training in an IEP is not new – but how many parents ever knew that could happen? For that matter, many teachers and administrators don’t know it’s possible.


This week I want to echo the federal Department of Education’s concern with the number of students with disabilities that do not receive appropriate behavioral interventions, supports and strategies in our schools.  We need to recognize these red flags and know this is a time to request an IEP meeting.


A specific concern is how many students with disabilities are suspended. Yes, students with disabilities can be suspended for up to 10 school days before a manifestation determination meeting is required.  However, the concern arises when the staff don’t recognize a suspension should be a trigger that maybe something else needs to be done to support the student. 


It was interesting in this recent letter of guidance the federal Department of Education points out many “legal memos and technical assistance documents that have circulated around many school districts with inaccurate information.  Some of these so called legal memos have wrongly interpreted the ability of a school to suspend a child with disabilities for up to 10 days, as “free days”.  So, there have been schools that have chosen not to be proactive, in fact not to even react much, but to suspend a student with disabilities, repeatedly because they thought they didn’t have to worry unless the student was going to be suspended for more than 10 days.


I want to remind you I’m not an attorney and can’t give any legal advice or legal interpretations.  So, please download a copy of this 16 page letter from the Department of Education, look at page 12 and you will see what I’m referring to. Click here.


If your district is using suspension as a behavior strategy, or calling up parents and asking them to take their child home early, read on. If they are also thinking they can keep suspending a student for up to 10 days, without deciding if the child needs different behavior supports, I would print out this letter from the federal Department of Education and share it with the staff.


Do you want to know how David did the rest of they year?  We found a classmate that just took to being David’s friend.  He was the star that helped David learn to negotiate the lunch line and sit down at a table with lots of other kids and eat his lunch. Sometimes, natural supports are the best strategy!  And do you know one of the many things I found out about David that year?  He loved using those Dollar Store magnetic letters!  One of the first things I saw him spell was CBS Evening News with Dan Rather (I know I’m showing my age).  David may not have had verbal speech, but he could read and write!


And my little kindergarten friend, he’s swimming his heart out at the Y, taking all day hikes with his mom, loving rough and tumble football, and spends almost the whole day in his sixth grade general education classes, with minimal special education support.


I know good things happen in schools and there are incredible people who are passionate about helping our children learn new things.  We just need to make sure that is happening in your child’s class.


Our Advocacy Action Steps for this week are: 1) Check if behavior supports are being implemented 2) If needed request an IEP meeting and 3) Appreciate positive efforts by the staff.


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Keep speaking up for your child and helping others see the gifts he brings.  You can do this!


Take care,
Charmaine Thaner