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Consider the whole child when disciplining students with disabilities at school

Children with disabilities may get into trouble every now and again, just like other children. When it comes to the discipline of students who have disabilities, public schools have a special obligation to consider the possible role of the child’s disability. There are federal and state laws that provide guidance in this area.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits any program that receives any federal funds from discriminating against an “otherwise qualified” individual based on their disability, when it comes to accessing, participating in, or benefiting from that program. If a student is punished for a behavior that is caused by his disability, that could be considered discrimination.  In order to be sure that such discrimination does not happen, schools should take a look at any possible connection between the behavior in question and the student’s disability when making decisions about discipline. Many school systems use a process that is similar to Manifestation Determination Review (MDR) that is described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA ’04). Each school system must develop its own Section 504 policy so you would need to check with your local school system to learn the details about how the discipline of students with disabilities is handled.

IDEA ’04 and state special education laws, allow school officials to consider the discipline of students who receive special education services on a case-by-case basis. This allows them to consider things like the nature of the child’s disability, the functioning level of the child, the intent of the behavior and other relevant factors. This flexibility is there to help make sure that schools respond to violations of the code of student conduct in an appropriate way, especially when a change in placement is being considered.

If a decision is made to change the placement of a child with a disability (as defined by IDEA), the school must hold an MDR meeting to determine whether the behavior in question was caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to the child’s disability. The group, which includes the parent,  a representative of the school district, and relevant members of the child’s IEP team, will also consider whether the behavior or violation was the direct result of a failure to properly implement the child’s IEP.  If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”, then the behavior is determined to be a manifestation of the child’s disability and the child is returned to his or her previous placement and provided with appropriate positive behavior intervention and supports.

Sometimes the team that conducts the MDR looks too narrowly at the child’s disability.  They may only consider the child’s category of eligibility for special education services.  Instead, the team should review all relevant information in the child’s special education record, including the child’s IEP, along with teacher observations and any relevant information provided by the parents. As an example, a child’s category of eligibility could be specific learning disability, but consideration of the child’s “disability” should also include possible impacts of  ADHD and anxiety disorder diagnoses. The team should look at the whole child as they make a decision about whether the behavior was a manifestation of the child’s disability, just as they should consider the whole child when determining eligibility for special education, or when developing the IEP.

Look beyond the school building for resources

We often have to remind parents of children who receive special education services that it is the school district as a whole that is responsible for providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for their child. They are not limited to the resources within their child’s specific school building. This would seem like a no-brainer, but it is surprising how often that detail is missed when an IEP team or other school staff are trying to address the needs of a student who has a disability.

School staff will sometimes only think about the personnel that is currently assigned to that school when they are considering instructional strategies, adult-to-child support, equipment and assistive technology, behavioral interventions and supports, etc. Sometimes good ideas are dismissed because “we don’t have the resources for that.” Lack of resources is not a legitimate reason to fail to meet a child’s educational needs, but it is also a reality that resources are not unlimited.

One of the qualifications to serve as the LEA Representative on an IEP team, is for that individual to have knowledge of the resources of the entire school district or Local Education Agency (LEA). The LEA Representaive should be able to tell the team about LEA staff with special expertise who can be brought in as consultants who can provide ideas, training or help create a plan of action. Behavior Specialists and Psychologists can lead the functional behavior assessment (FBA) process and help develop positive behavior support plans. Reading specialist can help identify which reading program might be a better fit for a particular student. Specialists can also help staff better understand a particular disability, how it may impact the child in question, and offer research-based interventions and strategies that have been proven to be effective. Many school systems have staff who can conduct assistive technology assessments and help identify devices or equipment that might be appropriate for a specific child. Other specialist have much to contribute as well.  Somebody just needs to invite them in!

There may also be specialized programs offered within a school system that not everyone knows about. In a worst-case example of that, there was child who received only very limited home bound services for months due to his behavior. The school had told the parent that they had tried “everything” before removing the child from the school.  After the parent sought help from the Parent Training and Information Center, an IEP meeting was held with several Exceptional Children’s Department central office staff members present.  It turned out that the school district had three different alternative education programs that could have provided this child with a full-time education in a less restrictive setting. These programs were not considered because the people in the school building were not aware of them.

Many state education agencies also offer consultants who can be called on for help, often at no cost to the school district. There may be centralized funds that can be used to meet a student’s disability-related needs. There may also be clinicians and programs available within the local community that can help either during or outside of school hours.

The bottom line is that school teams should keep looking and asking questions until they find something that will work for the child.  When they have tried everything in the school building tool box without success, they should go out and get more tools. Giving up or settling for anything less than true FAPE is not an option.

Social skills can help some “problem behaviors”

Sometimes we forget that, other than basic bodily functions, just about everything that we do is learned behavior.  In schools we learn obvious things like reading, writing and math.  At home we learn communication, self-help and independent living skills, as well as how to function as part of a family group.  Social skills can, and should be taught everywhere that children can possibly find themselves.https://i0.wp.com/www.myreadablefeast.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/j0410105.jpg

Years ago, entire communities understood their responsibility to socialize children.  By “socialize”, I mean the process of teaching a child the written and unwritten rules of our society.  These rules include things such as how to behave in various situations, how to communicate appropriately, and what to expect from others.  Some rules are a little different for members of specific ethnic, religious or other cultural groups, while other rules are understood by almost all Americans.  In this amazing diverse country of ours, it’s a wonder how so many people are able to figure out how to function with all of the different things to consider.

The key to successfully socializing children is to not assume that they have figured it all out.  In any group of children of the same age in a typical school or community gathering, there will be children who are at very different points on the social learning curve.  Some will be able to easily meet expectations, and others will be clueless about the many factors that should be influencing how they behave.  They may not know that, most of the time, children are expected to speak differently to adults than with other children.  They may not understand the difference between  “inside” and “outside” voices.  They may not understand that personal space boundaries vary depending on the nature of people’s relationships with each other.  They may not realize that what counts as physical play in one setting, can be seen as physically aggressive in another.  They may not understand why certain questions or comments may insult, embarrass or frighten someone else.  They may not have noticed that the rules for male:female interaction have changed as they have gotten older.

Children and young people who violate our social rules may have difficulty making and keeping friends.  They may also find themselves being disciplined and isolated for unknowingly violating social rules.  If the punishment happens without instruction as to what they should do differently in the future, the child may continue to behave in a way that is considered inappropriate.  They could develop low self-esteem and possibly be frustrated to the point of either acting out or withdrawing from social interaction because they can’t figure out how to prevent the missteps from happening.

Children need to be taught social skills just like they are taught other skills! If a child behaves inappropriately, the adult in the environment should always stop and consider whether the behavior in question could be the result of a social skill deficit.  Always use these occasions as teachable moments, rather than presume malice and intentional disobedience.  Help them understand the context of that situation and describe alternative ways to behave or interpret the behavior of others.  Even if the child does “know better”, it won’t hurt to remind him of what doing better looks like.

Social skills are taught over time, so there is no quick fix that will instantly eliminate all behavior issues.  Building those skills, however, is really the only way to give that child or young adult the best chance for the high quality of life experience that we want for them.