Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Approximately one in five youth experience a mental illness before age 25. About half of those with diagnosed conditions drop out of school.
  • Suicide kills two Washington students each week.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention.
  • A mom in Graham, WA, launched a program to improve education about mental health after her son died by suicide in 2010. The Jordan Binion Project has trained about 500 Washington teachers with an evidence-based curriculum from Teen Mental Health.
  • Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. To qualify, a disabling condition must significantly impact access to learning. An educational evaluation also must show a need for specialized instruction.
  • Parents can share these resources with school staff, who may be seeking more information about how to help youth struggling to maintain their mental health.

Full Article

The thousands of young people who send thank-you letters to Deb Binion didn’t always believe their lives were going to work out. One writer had attempted suicide and been hospitalized many times because of her bipolar disorder. Two years after finishing high school, she reported she was doing well and offered thanks for a course in mental health that helped her understand her illness, its impacts on her brain, and how to participate in her treatment. “It made a total difference in my life,” she said in her thank-you letter.

“Until she got the educational piece and understood her illness, nothing was helping,” Binion says. “No one had ever explained to her why she had this illness and what was occurring.”

The program, which Binion started after her son Jordan’s suicide in 2010, has trained about 500 school staff throughout Washington State to help young people understand mental illness and what to do to support themselves and others. Although the numbers are difficult to track, Binion estimates that about 100,000 Washington students receive education through the curriculum each year.

“My mission is to get this information to the kids,” says Binion, who runs the non-profit Jordan Binion Project from her home in Graham, WA. She says a short-term, limited pilot project with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) showed promising results, with 60 teachers throughout Washington informally reporting that about 85 percent of students showed improvement in their “mental health literacy,” a key feature of the program.

Teachers are specially trained to provide the Mental Health Curriculum

The curriculum, available through TeenMentalHealth.org, was developed by a world-renowned adolescent psychiatrist and researcher, Stan Kutcher. He observed that classrooms often struggle to provide an emotionally safe learning environment for students with psychiatric conditions. Some attempts to provide education about mental health have created confusing and triggering circumstances for students impacted by illness and/or trauma, he found.

Kutcher, professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, responded with a model for training school staff in how to teach sensitive topics of mental illness:

  • eating disorders
  • anxiety/depression
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • suicidal thinking

Deb Binion says the program was designed for students in grades 9-10, but middle-school and older students are also learning from it.  She says the program takes about 8-12 hours to teach and that teachers in regular health classes, psychology classes, family and consumer science classes and others have taught the lessons.

Binion suggest that staff receive in-person training to understand how to create a safe learning environment for students. For example, teachers learn to provide individualized help without disclosing a student’s disability or medical condition to the class.

The topics can be confusing or triggering to some learners. Some of the videos might be difficult to watch because they include personal stories of self-harm, hospitalization and people suffering from emotional stress. The program may need individualized modifications for students in special education programs because of intellectual or developmental disabilities.

For information about how to bring a training to your area, individuals can contact Deb Binion through the Jordan Binion Project website or directly through her email: deborah@jordanbinionproject.org.

Washington State recognizes a need for more education and direct support

OSPI, which oversees all school districts in Washington, provides an overview of Kutcher’s work and its connection to the Jordan Binion Project as part of the Mental Health & High School Curriculum Guide. Content in the guide was a collaboration between Kutcher and the Canadian Mental Health Association. At Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Kutcher serves as Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Mental Health Training and Policy Development.

Washington State is aware that a lack of mental health services is impacting students. Last year OSPI released data that two children enrolled in Washington schools die by suicide weekly.

According to a 2016 Washington Healthy Youth Survey, about 15 percent of teens in the state report that they have made a suicide plan. About the same percentage report that they don’t have adults to turn to when they feel depressed or anxious. The survey asked about sadness and hopelessness and whether the feelings could interrupt life for at least two weeks. About a third of the teenagers responded yes. The Centers for Disease Control reports that rates of completed suicide are rising in every region.

 

Two charts with the title, Students Experiencing Significant Mental Health Issues: 2016 Healthy Youth Survey Data

An OSPI survey in 2018 found that the number one concern statewide is that students don’t receive enough direct support in mental health, counseling and advising. Lawmakers are addressing a variety of bills during the 2019 legislative session related to mental healthcare and education. The public can contact lawmakers to participate in advocacy, and PAVE’s Washington Parent Training and Information Facebook page provides updates about some state actions that may impact families and students.

The Teen Mental Health website cites an international statistic that 1 in 5 youth experience a mental illness before age 25. Many of those illnesses lead to life challenges that require help, the agency concludes, and this makes adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, prevention, early identification, and intervention. The agency provides a School-Based Pathway Through Care that promotes linkages between schools and healthcare agencies, parent involvement and strong educational programs that reduce stigma through knowledge and timely treatment access.

One way that Washington State has responded to the crisis is through promotion of trainings in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Through Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) and other initiatives, Washington has grown a network of about 100 trainers for Youth Mental Health First Aid and about 4,000 first aid providers. These trained individuals can listen actively in order to offer immediate caring and can also refer youth to providers. OSPI reports that Project AWARE has led to 3,964 referrals for youth to connect with community- or school-based mental health services.  

Washington has a program for treatment response for youth experiencing psychosis. The New Journeys Program is designed for youth 15-25 who are early in their diagnoses, but there is some flexibility in who might be eligible to participate. Families can contact the program for additional information about how to apply.

Information about psychosis, early warning signs and places to seek help are available through the website of the Washington Health Care Authority (HCA). The website contains a link to information about the Wraparound with Intensive Services program (WISe), which provides community case management for children and youth experiencing a high-level of impact from a mental illness.

Special Education is one pathway toward more help

Students access some aspects of mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, the category is referred to as Emotional Behavior Disability (EBD). The IEP might list any set of these words or the initials EBD or ED.

A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. A comprehensive educational evaluation can determine whether a student’s mental condition causes a significant disruption to the student’s ability to access school and learning and whether the student needs specialized instruction. Generally, that specialized instruction is provided through a category of education known as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL can be provided in multiple tiers that might include schoolwide education, small group training and individualized programming. OSPI provides recommendations from a 2016 Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks Workgroup.

A student with a mental health condition also might qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which can capture needs related to anxiety, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome or another specific diagnosis. Students with a mental health condition that co-occurs with another disability might qualify under another category, and Social Emotional Learning might be an aspect of a more comprehensive program. PAVE’s articles about the IDEA and the IEP provide further information about IEP process, the 14 categories of qualifying disabilities and access to special education services. A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might qualify for a Section 504 plan.

If a student, because of a disability, is not accessing school and learning, then the school district holds the responsibility for appropriately evaluating that student and determining the level of support needed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Questions about FAPE might arise if a student with a mental health condition is not accessing school because of “school refusal,” which sometimes leads to truancy, or because a student is being disciplined a lot. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process; PAVE provides an article about school discipline.

Help NOW can mean a lifetime of better opportunities

The Center for Parent Information and Resources (ParentCenterHub.org) has a variety of resources related to mental health awareness, including a link to a video that details results from a national study. The study showed that students who qualified for special education programming because of Emotional Disturbance experienced the highest drop-out rates when they went into higher education, work and vocational programs. Meaningful relationships with adults who cared about them in school provided a significant protective factor. Students were more likely to succeed in life-after-high-school plans if specific caring adults provided a soft hand-off into whatever came next after graduation.

Here are a few additional resources:

  • NBC featured the Binion family and the work of their foundation.
  • OSPI provides schools with resources related to mental health education, including information related to suicide awareness and prevention.
  • PAVE provides a 40-minute webinar about suicide awareness.
  • The state currently is considering a bill to improve funding for counseling services and other bills that would boost education around mental health.
  • PAVE provides additional information about Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and state actions related to SEL programming and staff development in a series of three articles.
  • A federal agency called the Child Mind Institute provides parents with guidance about getting good mental-health care for their children and has articles on specific diagnoses and what parents and schools might do.
  • For 1:1 assistance, families can reach out to PAVE’s Parent Training and Information Center through our online Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.

Here are some articles specifically about Bipolar Disorder in Youth:

Accommodations for Students with Bipolar Disorder and Related Disabilities

Educating the Child with Bipolar

Bipolar & Seasons: Fall Brings More Than Just a Change in Colors

 

What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School

A Brief Overview

  • Students with disabilities are disciplined twice as often as non-disabled peers. Washington is taking actions to remedy the inequities. Read on for examples of the new state rules and where to go for more information.  
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students are receiving the best-practice services they need and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.
  • Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction, says, “We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”
  • Concern is nationwide. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies in 2018 issued a state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect.”
  • If the school calls to send a child home, parents can ask whether the student is being suspended. If the school is not taking formal disciplinary action, parents are not required to take a child home. If the action is a formal suspension, specific rules apply. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some disabilities make it difficult for students to communicate distress or manage their behavior in ways that schools expect or require from typically developing students. Data clearly show that students with disabilities are disciplined more frequently than their non-disabled peers. By learning about state and federal guidelines, parents can advocate to ensure that students with disabilities are receiving the services they need to successfully access school and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.

Parents can empower themselves by learning the federal framework for special education protections. Students who receive services or accommodations through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are guaranteed access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Disciplinary actions that deny access to FAPE may be discriminatory. Schools follow specific procedures when they discipline students with special needs to avoid violations of FAPE.

For example, a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) cannot be excluded from school because of behavior that results from a disability: Read on for further information about Manifestation Determination Hearings. Also, schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their impairments.

Unexpected behavior may indicate that a student has a disability and needs services

Federal laws also can protect students who haven’t yet been identified as having disabilities. School districts have a duty to evaluate students to determine eligibility for special education if they exhibit behavior that may indicate a disability. Under IDEA, this responsibility is called the Child Find mandate. Suspension, expulsion, isolation or restraint due to unexpected behavior can initiate an evaluation process, and students who qualify for services can retroactively be afforded protections from the IDEA or Section 504.

The Office for Civil Rights within the United States Department of Education in December 2016 issued a two-page Fact Sheet on Restraint and Seclusion that succinctly describes some federal guidelines related to disciplinary action and disability:

“A student’s behavioral challenges, such as those that lead to an emergency situation in which a school believes restraint or seclusion is a justified response could be a sign that the student actually has a disability and needs special education or related aids and services in order to receive FAPE.”

Washington State has new rules for schools

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees all Washington school districts, in July 2018 adopted new state guidelines related to discipline. Priority is placed on positive interventions to avoid disciplinary actions that disrupt learning. A four-page Parent Guide is available from OSPI.

Also available is a Menu of Best Practices and Strategies. Restorative justice, behavioral health support and social skills instruction are on the menu for a more proactive, student-centered approach. The state includes requirements for parent notification and family engagement in the new rules, which are being implemented over two years, 2018-2020.

“The state discipline rules were created four decades ago,” says Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Our students and schools are vastly different today. The new rules provide more clarity and they allow for student, family, and community input in developing local discipline policies.

“While some students do occasionally need discipline, our approach must be different. We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”

Students with disabilities and students of color are disciplined more frequently

OSPI reports that 3.5 percent of all students were suspended or expelled during the 2016–17 school year. Among students receiving special education services, the percentage was 7.1 percent. For African-American students, the percentage was 7.4 percent. For Latino students, the rate was 4.1 percent. Students of color who also have disabilities are impacted at the highest rates. Seattle’s King 5 News on Oct. 25, 2018, broadcast a news report about the disparities in discipline for students with disabilities.

In 2016, the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1541 to help close opportunity gaps in learning. OSPI spent two years researching the statutes and guidance. In rewriting the rules that were adopted in July 2018, the agency gathered feedback from families, students, educators, and community members through three public comment periods and eight public hearings.

New state policies are designed to discourage disciplinary actions that take a child out of the learning environment and encourage family engagement and positive behavior supports and other evidence-based practices. OSPI’s one-page introductory handout for parents outlines the new guidance.

According to OSPI, the new rules aim to make policies fair statewide. They require districts to include parents and guardians when updating discipline policies. The overarching goal is to keep children in school and learning and avoid severe or exclusionary disciplinary measures. 

In general, Washington’s new state rules:

Encourage schools to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions and focus instead on evidence-based, best-practice educational strategies

Prohibit schools from excluding students from school for absences or tardiness

Further limit use of exclusionary discipline (suspension, expulsion) for behaviors that do not present a safety threat

Prohibit the use of expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range already cannot be excluded from their classroom placements for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)

Clarify expectations for how school districts must provide students access to educational services during a suspension or expulsion

When are students entitled to a Manifestation Determination Hearing?

In Washington, a student with an identified disability may be suspended for a short period of time if there are safety concerns or if other interventions are failing to control behaviors that cause a significant disruption. However, if a suspension or an accumulation of in- or out-of-school suspensions within a semester or trimester totals 10 days, the school holds a Manifestation Determination Hearing to determine whether the behavior resulted—or “manifested”—from the disability. This hearing is a distinct process for students with IEPS or Section 504 accommodation plans and is separate from any other general education disciplinary hearings or procedures. Removal for more than 10 days is considered a change in placement and could violate the school district’s responsibility to provide the special education student with FAPE.

If a student’s behavior manifested from disability, the school and parents meet to discuss program or placement changes likely to help. A Manifestation Determination hearing can also initiate an evaluation process for students not yet identified as needing special education services or disability-related accommodations. Regardless of whether the student has qualified for services, the hearing can trigger a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), which can be done for students with or without IEPs or Section 504 plans. Keep reading for more detail about the FBA and how it’s used to generate positive behavior interventions and supports.

The IDEA guarantees parent participation in the IEP process, which includes disciplinary hearings and any other formal meetings in which a student’s educational program or placement is reviewed or amended.  

If the conduct is determined to be unrelated to a disability, then school personnel may use general education discipline procedures. In that case, the school must still provide any special education services that the student has already been found to need. The IEP team decides the appropriate alternative setting and special education services to meet the student’s needs during the suspension.

The school district is required to provide educational services during a suspension

State law requires that all suspended and expelled students have an opportunity to receive educational services (RCW 28A.600.015). OSPI issued a bulletin September 8, 2016, that states, “When educational services are provided in an alternative setting, the alternative setting should be comparable, equitable and appropriate to the regular education services a student would have received without the exclusionary discipline.” The bulletin mentions alternative schools, 1:1 tutoring and online learning as examples of alternative settings.

Note: If a student’s conduct involves Special Circumstances – weapons, illegal drugs, or serious bodily injury—a student may be removed for up to 45 school days regardless of whether the student’s behavior was a manifestation of disability. However, a manifestation determination hearing still is required within the first 10 days of removal from school and educational services still are provided.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington provides a free, downloadable Parents’ Guide to Public School Discipline in Washington. Part III includes information about laws and procedures that are specific to students in special education. The ACLU guidebook encourages parents to gather as much information as possible when a student is disciplined:

“It is important to fully understand the type of proposed discipline, the underlying behavior, how the behavior relates to the student’s disability, and what additional supports may be available in order to fully advocate for your student.”

Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?

The ACLU booklet commits a page to addressing the question, “Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?” A parent can ask whether the student is being suspended.  “If your student has not been officially suspended,” ACLU advises, “The school cannot force you to pick up the student.

“If you choose to pick up your student when he or she has not been suspended, the school may not record the removal from class and may not trigger additional protections (such as Manifestation Determination Hearings) that apply when students with disabilities are removed from school for 10 days or more.”

The ACLU points out that without formal paperwork that describes a disciplinary action and its specific start and end times, a school may not be accountable to specific rules that govern special education: “Any time your student misses class time because of a behavior problem, it may be considered a discipline and should be considered as counting towards the 10 days that would be a ‘change of placement’ under the law and trigger additional protections. If your student is having behavioral problems that do not lead to suspension, you may suggest that the IEP team should consider holding an IEP meeting to reevaluate your student’s behavior supports, or that the 504 team meet to consider changes to the accommodation plan.”

The ACLU guidebook includes a list of supports parents can ask for: “The law requires behavior supports to be based on evidence, and so you can ask for additional expert evaluation to determine whether the behavior supports offered to your student are appropriate.”

Schools teach skills for expected behavior

Specialized instruction designed to meet a student’s unique needs can include education in social communication, self-regulation, choice-making and other areas of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) that may impact behavior. These strategies are well recognized as best-practice for keeping children engaged in school and avoiding problems that might lead to discipline.

In addition, schools can conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP is developed to proactively help a child learn expected behaviors and shift away from circumstances that might lead to escalations. The BIP identifies target behaviors that are disrupting education and determines “antecedents,” which means conditions or events that occur before the targeted behavior. A BIP is intended to support “replacement” behavior so a student can develop skills that prevent escalations and keep the student in school and learning.  

A BIP can be a stand-alone plan or can work with an IEP or a Section 504 accommodations plan. OSPI offers guidance to schools and families about FBA/BIP process. Another place to find valuable information is through the Parent Center Hub, a website operated by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR).

School discipline is a national topic of concern

On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education published a Dear Colleague Letter for public-school staff: “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs.” The letter included data that 10 percent of all children with disabilities, ages 3-21, were subject to a disciplinary removal from school. Children of color with disabilities faced an even higher rate.

The letter encourages all schools to develop robust programs for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and provides specific guidance for IEP teams. “In the case of a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, the IEP Team must consider – and, when necessary to provide FAPE, include in the IEP – the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior.”

The federal guidance includes statements about staff development: “School personnel may need training, coaching, and tools to appropriately address the behavioral needs of a particular child. Supports for school personnel may be designed, as appropriate, to better implement effective instructional and behavior management strategies and specific behavioral interventions that are included in the child’s IEP.”

In 2014, the federal government issued guidance to discourage disciplinary actions that discriminate against students with disabilities, particularly students of color. A variety of federal sources have highlighted disparities, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice in April 2018 issued the first state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities. The data include a finding that children of color who also have disabilities lost 77 more days of instruction because of disciplinary actions than peers who are Caucasian.

“These data on lost instruction are rarely reported,” the report concludes in its executive summary. “Although many could guess that the racially disparate impact is large, these dramatic disparities were derived from reliable publicly reported federal data, and they should be cause for alarm. Students with disabilities receive much more than classroom instruction when they are in school. For example, they often receive related counseling services, occupational and physical therapy as well as additional small group or one-on-one tutoring. Therefore, they lose much more when they are removed from school.”

Inappropriate discipline may be a denial of FAPE

The full report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies includes this statement in its introduction: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect. To suspend a student because of behavior that is a result of their disability is the equivalent of denying that student access to education.”

However, in December 2018, a federal school safety commission recommended that the U.S. Department of Education rescind the 2014 guidance intended to prevent discriminatory practices. OSPI responded by stating that Washington State’s policies and updated guidance would be unaffected. “Rescinding the 2014 guidelines will have no effect on Washington’s laws and rules related to student discipline…and will have no effect on OSPI’s enforcement of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the administration of student discipline,” OSPI stated.

Washington discipline laws include statutes in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) and rules in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC). Washington State student discipline laws apply to all K–12 students. Students with disabilities are subject to both general education and special education rules and statutes. For the most up-to-date information about general education discipline procedures and the rules changes underway, visit OSPI’s Student Discipline page. For more information about special education discipline procedures, visit OSPI’s Special Education Behavior and Discipline page.

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

The state has specific rules related to the use of isolation and restraint, which are implemented only when a student’s behavior poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm and are discontinued when the likelihood of serious harm has passed. Isolation and restraint are not used as a form of standard discipline or aversive intervention.

When severe disciplinary actions become frequent, schools might ask the parent/guardian to sign an Emergency Response Protocol (ERP) for an individual student. Families are not required to sign this. The ERP specifically explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff who are authorized to provide isolation and restraint. Parents can request a copy of the district’s general education policies on this topic. The ERP can include a statement about how parents are contacted if the school uses isolation or restraint. Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian any time formal disciplinary actions are taken and any time that their child experiences isolation or restraint.

Where to find the state laws

For a link to the complete Washington Administrative Codes (WACs) that describe the Final Rules for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, visit OSPI’s website and click on links for the downloadable PDF documents: www.k12.wa.us/studentdiscipline

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

A Brief Overview

  • Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the United States Office of Civil Rights.
  • This law protects access rights to public places and programs for individuals with disabilities. Accommodations that support access are guaranteed, and not providing access is a form of discrimination.
  • All students with qualifying disabilities are part of a protected class under Section 504, including those on 504 Plans and those on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
  • Section 504 protects a person with disabilities throughout life and covers individuals at work and in any public facility or program.
  • Key terms are equity and access to opportunity. A government-funded place or program provides whatever is needed so the person with a disability can benefit from the place or program. The opportunity is equitable when supports provide a way for the person to overcome the barrier of disability (to the maximum extent possible) to access the place or program that everyone else has the right to access.
  • Section 504 defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. If a student in school meets criteria, then the school provides what a student needs to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the general education setting. ​
  • A Section 504 Plan determines what a student needs to receive equitable benefit from school.

Full Article

Section 504 is part of a law called the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the United States Office of Civil Rights. This law is about access–to a public place or program. Section 504 protects a person for life and allows every student, employee or guest in a public institution to ask for and expect supports and productivity enhancers–what they need to succeed.

All children with disabilities who qualify for special services in school are protected by the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act. Students who qualify for Special Education are protected by Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Children protected by IDEA have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and children who qualify for some support but do not meet the IDEA’s specific criteria may have Section 504 Plans. This article is primarily about Section 504 Plans. For more detailed information about the IEP, PAVE provides an article, Get Ready for School with IEP Essentials.

Education rights are like a pyramid: At the top of the pyramid is the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which provides a full menu of special education programming and services for qualifying students.  Children at the top of the pyramid have all the protections of each of these laws.

At the center of the pyramid is Section 504, part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees non-discriminatory rights to equitable access for individuals with disabilities.

ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) is at the bottom, providing all children in the United States the right to a free public education “to ensure that every child achieves.”

Schools are bound by Section 504 as “covered entities,” places or programs that receive money from the U.S. government. Schools provide access to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) by helping students with 504 Plans to succeed in regular classrooms and school settings. The goal is to meet the student’s needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students to offer equity and access to opportunities. Keep reading to learn more about what equity truly means.

Section 504 defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. A school team considers a variety of information to consider whether a student qualifies for a Section 504 Plan. A formal evaluation is not required, and parent involvement is voluntary. The team asks:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment limit one or more major life activities?

The law is intentionally broad, so it doesn’t limit the possible ways that a student who needs help can qualify for that help. ​A list of possible impairments is, therefore, unlimited. Here are a few examples:

  • Physical disability that might affect mobility, speech, toileting or a human function: Spina Bifida, deafness, dwarfism, loss of a limb
  • Cognitive, psychiatric, or emotional disorder: intellectual disability (Down Syndrome), a specific learning disability (Dyslexia), a brain illness or injury (bipolar disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury), an emotional disturbance (anxiety, depression) ​
  • Major bodily functions: disease of the immune system, digestive or urinary issues, an impairment of the nervous system or heart

​A list of major life activities is also endless. Whether an impairment “substantially” limits a major life activity is determined individually. Some impairments affect the ability to practice self-care, and challenges in basic life tasks like walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working are captured. Someone with sensory challenges might struggle to concentrate, think and communicate—all of those can qualify as major life activities. ​Really, any system in the body might have a challenge that creates a barrier for an individual and therefore can qualify as a disability.

A photo of a slide that states that a Major Life Activity Includes: walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, digesting, toileting, eating, sleeping, standing, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and lifting

What the Law Says

The law states: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States…shall solely, by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

The goal of a Section 504 Plan in school is to figure out what a student needs to be fully included and to receive equitable benefit from the government-funded program or service.

Equity doesn’t mean Equal

Supports and services for a student with a disability seek to provide equity. Equal opportunity would mean that all students get the same help. Getting the same help doesn’t give all students the same opportunity. In this picture, on the left, the little guy in the light blue shirt can’s see the game, even though he’s got the same platform as the taller guy. ​He needs a different platform to have the same opportunity to see the game.

The depiction of equality through the illustration of three children on a box and then justice is shown by making the boxes different sizes to serve the needs of each individual

The help that makes access to learning equitable puts the word Appropriate in FAPE– Free Appropriate Public Education.

Students with known disabilities get help and productivity enhancers to access the opportunities for success that all students have. If they need a taller crate—or an extra teacher, or a special swing on the playground, or training in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) or something else specific that gives them the same opportunity to learn, grow and benefit from school, then their civil right is to get the boost they need to have an equitable opportunity. ​

Accommodations and services create equity in order to give people a fair opportunity to succeed. This level of fairness can be called justice. 

Under Section 504, individuals with impairments have a right to get into public places—with ramps, elevators, braille labels on doors…whatever is needed for physical access. Other aspects of access are less obvious. Individuals with unseen disabilities have the right to accommodations that will make a program or service as effective for them as it is for the general population.

Positive behavior supports through a are an example of an accommodation that can help a student with a disability access the major life activity of learning. A BIP can be a stand-alone plan or can accompany a Section 504 Plan or an IEP. A BIP is developed after the school conducts a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). Parents sign consent for the school to conduct an FBA.

Section 504 Supports Inclusion and Bars Discrimination

Section 504 includes elements of inclusion. A person with a disability has the right to access the regular program unless special help and different options cannot work to provide that person with benefit from the program or service.

This is important in education: Students have the right to get help so they receive an equitable benefit from learning in the general education classroom. They move to a more specialized setting only if those supports fail to provide appropriate and equitable access. ​This is true for students on 504 Plans and IEPs.

Under Section 504, any alternative space or program must be “comparable.” Clearly, that’s subjective, but it’s important language to include in any discussion with the school if parents have concern that a child is not receiving an education that is equitable or comparable to that being offered to typically developing students. ​

According to the Office of Civil Rights, as an institution that receives government funding, a school is bound to avoid policies that might on purpose or accidentally exclude persons with disabilities. ​In other words, if a school’s policy or action creates a barrier to access for a student with a disability, the school might be cited for discrimination if the Office of Civil Rights did an investigation.

Here are examples of how Section 504 might impact a student:

  • The school helps a student succeed with other students in the regular classroom, which is the most integrated setting.​
  • If the student needs extra help or technology or a special place to sit, he/she gets that because the school is ensuring accessibility. ​
  • If the student needs to take a different test or get a homework deadline changed, then the school makes those reasonable modifications, which don’t fundamentally alter the program. ​
  • An auxiliary aid might be a 1:1 para, and the school district provides that. ​

Section 504 Protects Students Everywhere at School
Access rights are not limited to the classroom but include all aspects of school and learning. This is just a short list of school settings that are governed by Section 504:​

  • Classrooms​
  • School bus/transportation​
  • Lunch​
  • Recess​
  • PE (Physical Education)​
  • After-school Clubs​
  • Sports​
  • Field Trips

Are Parents Part of the Section 504 Team?

The Rehabilitation Act doesn’t require schools to involve family members in the administration of a 504 plan. However, the plan is managed by a responsible school staff member who notifies parents before a student is evaluated or placed on a 504 Plan and provides parents/guardians with a copy of the plan.

The school also provides written notification to parents about their rights to disagree through grievance procedures. The document that describes these procedures is called “procedural safeguards.” ​If a parent requests a formal evaluation for special education services, and the school district refuses, the school district must provide the parent with a written copy of the procedural safeguards.

How is a 504 Plan Different from an IEP?
The decision to include parents in 504 team meetings is determined by each school district. ​However, parents may contribute information such as doctor reports, outside testing reports and personal reflections and concerns. Schools are expected to make sound educational decisions about what the child needs to be successful.​

The fact that parent participation is not a guarantee of the law makes Section 504 different from the IDEA, which requires parental involvement in the IEP process. Here are a few other differences between these two laws:

  • A 504 Plan is nearly always implemented within the general education setting, whereas an IEP may include placement in a variety of inclusive and specialized settings.​
  • A 504 will NOT include academic goals, benchmarks, or measurements, which are key features of an IEP. ​
  • Under Section 504, a qualified student with a disability is protected regardless of whether the student needs special education. ​
  • An IEP is an educational program that follows a student through high school; a 504 Plan is a Civil Rights protection that follows a person throughout the lifespan.​
  • Remember, Section 504 is about equity and access, and the protections of the Rehabilitation Act cover students on Section 504 Plans and IEPs. ​

How are Discipline and Behavior addressed by Section 504?

​Students with disabilities are a protected class when schools administer disciplinary actions. If a student with a disability is suspended for multiple days within a school term, the school is required to have a meeting called a Manifestation Determination meeting. This requirement specifically states that schools hold this meeting by the 10th day of suspension.​

The school and family will go through a specific set of questions to determine whether the behavior that led to the suspension was caused by some aspect of the student’s disability. In other words, did the behavior manifest from the disability? ​

At that meeting, the team will decide whether the school followed the 504 Plan, the IEP, the specific behavior plan and/or its own disciplinary policies in making the decisions about what to do. If the team determines that the student’s disability was the cause of the behavior and/or that the school didn’t follow procedure, then the student may qualify for Compensatory Services—additional learning time—to make up for missed education during the suspension. ​

For a student with a Section 504 Plan, this meeting can also direct the school to conduct a comprehensive educational evaluation to see if the student’s disability qualifies that student for the full menu of special education options available under the IDEA—including an IEP.​  A website called School Psychologist Files has an article and a chart comparing Section 504 and IEP.

Here are a few points related to Section 504, discipline and behavior:

  • Students with disabilities can be disciplined. ​
  • Students with disabilities have special protectionsregarding discipline. ​
  • Schools cannot change a student’s “placement” without following the rules. Placement is where the student receives learning.  If the school disciplines a student with a 504 Plan in a way that changes the location where the student receives education, this may constitute a change in placement. The Office of Civil Rights has specific laws that govern what constitutes a change in placement and how schools respond. ​
  • ​Students with disabilities are a protected class. Schools have the right to discipline students to keep everybody safe, but the schools are bound by specific rules and regulations to make sure that their disciplinary actions aren’t discriminatory. ​
  • ​If a student with a disability keeps getting taken out of class because of behaviors, then the disciplinary actions might add up to a significant change in placement. The law states that this change is placement triggers a re-evaluation and opens the possibility that a higher level of special education service might be needed to support and protect this student with a disability. ​

Rules for Schools

Some parents are anxious about questioning actions taken by the school. It’s important to remember that parents also have protections under the law. The Office of Civil Rights maintains specific guidelines that do not allow schools to retaliate against parents for asserting their rights to participate in a student’s education. ​

Parents can reach out directly to the Office of Civil Rights:

  • OCR Seattle Regional Office at: 206-607-1600​
  • National: 800-877-8339 (TTY) or Federal Relay Service (FRS) at 1-800-877-8339 ​

Here are some additional resources for information about Section 504:

The United States Department of Health and Human Services: HHS.Gov

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights:  www2.ed.gov
Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR): parentcenterhub.org
Parent Guide to Section 504: GreatSchools.org
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us
For legal interpretations of Special Education and Section 504 Law: Wrightslaw.com

 

 

Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start when a Student Needs Special Help at School

A Brief Overview

  • Special Education is provided through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student with a qualifying disability. The first step is to determine eligibility through evaluation. This article describes that process.
  • An article about IEP essentials is also available on PAVE’s website.
  • Parents can request an evaluation by submitting a written letter to the school district. PAVE offers a template to help with letter writing.
  • An educational evaluation collects information in all areas of suspected disability, including non-academic areas such as Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Read PAVE’s three-part series on SEL for more information.
  • See PAVE’s Part 2 article about what to do if the school says no to your request for a special education evaluation.

Full Article
If a student is having a hard time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. If eligible, the student receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Information collected during the evaluation is critical for building the IEP, which provides specialized instruction and other supports in a unique way for each student.

A parent/guardian, teacher or school administrator can request an evaluation. A variety of tests and questionnaires are included. The evaluation looks for strengths and difficulties in many different areas, so input from parents, teachers and providers is critical. 

Generally, the evaluation reviews developmental history and assesses cognition, academic achievement and “functional” skills. Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up in unexpected behaviors, unskilled social interactions or struggles with emotional regulation. Strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details for a robust program.  

Evaluation is part of special education law

Nondiscriminatory Evaluation is a key principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is the federal law that governs special education. The IDEA includes a mandate called Child Find, which requires school districts to seek out, evaluate and serve students ages Birth-21 who may have disabilities that impact school success or access. The mandate applies to all children, including those who go to public or private schools. Children who are homeless or wards of the state are included, as are children who move a lot. Children who are “advancing from grade to grade” are included in the mandate, if they may have disabilities that impact learning in non-academic areas of school.

When a student is formally referred for an evaluation, the school follows a schedule of deadlines. Districts have 25 school days to respond to a written request for evaluation. Some schools will invite parents to a meeting to discuss concerns. Being prepared with a written statement can help. Parents can also share information from doctors, therapists or other outside providers. Parents can mark a calendar to track these timelines.

Before a school evaluates a student, the parent/guardian signs consent. If school staff recommend an evaluation and parents do not agree or sign consent, then the school does not conduct the evaluation. Please note that parents are consenting to the evaluation, so that parents and schools can make an informed decision about what to do next. Parents can choose at the next step whether to sign consent for a special education program to begin.

If a parent initiated the referral and the school doesn’t respond or denies the request for an evaluation, the parent can request an answer in writing. PAVE provides an article about what to do if the school says no to your evaluation request.

Considerations:

  • Child Find mandates evaluation if there is reason to suspect a disability. 
  • Students who are failing or behind their peers might have challenges related to language or access to school that don’t indicate a disability.
  • Parents who don’t understand the school’s reason can request a written explanation.
  • Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. They also cannot refuse because they want to try different teaching strategies. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although the school might benefit from a review of its methods, RTI is not a basis for refusing to evaluate a child for a suspected disability.

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?
If all agree that an evaluation is needed, and a parent/guardian signs a formal document giving permission, then the school completes the evaluation within 35 school days.

In compliance with the IDEA, an evaluation for special education is non-discriminatory. If the child cannot read, for example, the testing uses verbal instructions or pictures. The child’s native language is honored. Schools have a variety of tools available to eliminate bias. Parents can ask for clarification if they suspect that the testing missed its mark because of methodology.

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means that the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests properly. The IDEA is clear that a singular measure, such as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, does not meet the standard for an appropriate evaluation.

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

The formal language of the IDEA and the evaluation process can feel intimidating, but parents need to remember that they have a critical role as the experts and long-term investors in their child. If the evaluation data is confusing, parents can ask the school to provide charts or graphs to make it clear. Parents have the right to ask questions until they understand the evaluation process and what the results mean.

If the evaluation indicates that a student has a qualifying disability, the impairment will meet criteria in one of 14 categories defined by the IDEA. A place to get more information about each of these categories is the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR), which manages a website called the Parent Center Hub. These are the categories:

A primary goal of evaluation is to identify a child’s strengths and needs in the general education environment. Regular classrooms are the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) unless a student is unable to succeed there. The evaluation determines whether a student needs extra help in the general education setting, and the IEP team uses information gathered through evaluation to recommend an initial program.

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

The IEP shifts and changes with the needs of the student, so the initial evaluation is only the beginning. A new evaluation is required by the IDEA at least every 3 years, but a new evaluation can be initiated earlier if there’s a question about whether the program is working. The school and family are always collecting new information and insights, and the IEP adapts in real time with new information.

For example, the school might document that a student is failing to access learning in general education despite help that was carefully designed to make the setting accessible. Then the IEP team, which includes a parent or guardian, might discuss placement in a more restrictive setting.

What if I don’t agree with the school?

Parents can always ask school staff to describe their decisions in writing, and parents have rights guaranteed by the IDEA to informally or formally dispute any decision made by the school. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) offers a variety of guidebooks that describe these options. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides state-specific guidelines for dispute resolution

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The evaluation asks 3 primary questions: 

  1. Does the student have a qualifying disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Do the student’s unique needs require specially designed instruction?

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP and the protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Eligible students are entitled to an education designed just for them. That entitlement is for a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Every student in the United States has access to a public education for free. An educational evaluation determines whether a student is also entitled to an education that is “appropriate,” with unique help so the individual can make meaningful progress toward goals despite the circumstances of disability.

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

  • Make your request in writing.
  • Address your letter to the district’s special education director or program coordinator.
  • You can deliver your request by email, certified mail, or in person. If you hand-deliver the letter, make sure to have your copy date/time stamped so you have a receipt.
  • You can track the days the district takes to respond. The district has 25 school days (weekends and holidays excluded) to respond.

Items that can be included in your letter:

  • The student’s full name and birthdate.
  • A clear statement of request, such as “I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for my son/daughter.”
  • A statement that “all areas of suspected disability”  be evaluated.
  • A complete description of your concerns, which can include details about homework struggles, meltdowns, grades, failed or incomplete assignments, and any other mitigating factors.
  • Attached letters from doctors, therapists, or any other providers who have relevant information, insights, or diagnoses.
  • Your complete contact information and a statement that you will provide consent for the evaluation upon notification.

You can follow up if you don’t hear back from the district within 25 school days. When you provide consent for the evaluation, please note that you are not giving consent for your student to be placed in a special education program. You are consenting to the evaluation so that you and the school can make an informed decision about how to help your child succeed.

After receiving a letter of request for evaluation the school district has the responsibility to:

  • Document the referral.
  • Notify you, in writing, that the student has been referred for evaluation.
  • Examine relevant documents from you, the school, medical providers, and other involved agencies.
  • Tell parents/guardians in writing about the decision to evaluate or not. This formal letter is called “prior written notice” and is provided within 25 school days of the evaluation request.
  • Request your formal written consent for the evaluation.
  • Complete the evaluation within 35 school days after you sign consent.
  • Schedule a meeting to share the evaluation results with you and determine next steps.
  • Initiate development of an IEP, if the student qualifies.

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

Sometimes a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) is conducted alongside an educational evaluation when behavior is a primary feature of a child’s difficulty at school. The FBA uses tools and observation to identify triggers and unskilled coping strategies that can help explain areas of need for learning. The FBA provides the foundation for a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which supports positive choices. BIP goals and strategies prioritize social skill development and emotional regulation tools. The BIP can be a stand-alone document or can be used with an IEP or a Section 504 Plan (see below).

A student may qualify for a Section 504 Plan, if not an IEP

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and provides for accommodations for individuals with disabilities that severely impact their ability to access a public building or a service, such as school. Sometimes students who don’t qualify for an IEP will qualify for special supports through a 504 Plan. Disability is more broadly defined under this Civil Rights law, and a disability that impacts a “major life activity,” such as learning, can qualify a student for accommodations and modifications in school.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If you disagree with the evaluation and/or the school declines to offer any support services, parents can pursue a request for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). While a request for an IEE is not required to be in writing, a written request is encouraged because it documents the request (see letter guidelines above). When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. If the school district denies an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate.

Here are some additional resources:

Washington laws regarding evaluation are in sections 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC)

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us

Center for Parent Information and Resources (English and Spanish): Parentcenterhub.org

Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: smartkidswithld.org

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team can provide you with 1:1 support and additional resources. Here are two ways to Get Help:

Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

OR

Go online to fill out a form to Get Help! Use the Google translate to make it to the language you use the best! 

Social Emotional Learning, Part 3: Tools for Regulation and Resiliency

A Brief Overview

Behavior is a form of communication. So-called “bad” behavior might mean that a child doesn’t know how to cope with an overwhelming, confusing situation.

Research shows that children who are taught self-regulation learn better at school. This article describes a few practical tools and techniques to help children manage their emotions and provides links and resources where you can find out more.

Children who attend schools that make positive behavior supports a priority get disciplined and suspended less often.

See PAVE’s Part 1 and Part 2 articles about Social Emotional Learning (SEL), with more information about the importance of compassionate schools and trauma-informed instruction.

Full Article

When a child throws a chair, kicks, screams or intentionally hits his head, what does the teacher do? The answer depends on the discipline policies of the school, but many districts are turning away from traditional punishments and toward trauma-informed techniques. These new methods of “restorative discipline” or “positive behavior interventions” are helping children maintain dignity as they recover from poor choices and learn self-regulation.

Heather T. Forbes, author of Help for Billy, is among professionals who are designing new ways to help children cope and learn. Emotional instruction is crucial, argues Forbes, whose website, Beyond Consequences, shares this advice:

“It is in the moments when your child or student is most ‘raw’ and the most dysregulated [out of control] that you are being presented with an opportunity to create change and healing. It takes interacting from not just a new perspective but from an entirely new paradigm centered in the heart.”

Forbes’ work is part of an emerging conversation about how “bad” (or unexpected) behavior can create teachable moments. Research shows that struggling children often don’t improve their behavior because of traditional punishments or even rewards.  In an article, Teaching Trauma in the Classroom, Forbes concludes:

“These children’s issues are not behavioral. They are regulatory. Working at the level of regulation, relationship, and emotional safety addresses more deeply critical forces within these children that go far beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars and sticker charts.”

This area of education is now referred to as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Washington school staff can access training and information about SEL through the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the agency that oversees the state’s school districts. In the fall of 2018 OSPI released the Social-Emotional Learning Module. All staff—from teachers and principals to bus drivers and lunch servers—can use the training to help students learn self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.

OSPI offers other tools as part of its ongoing Compassionate Schools Initiative. A free e-book, The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success, includes this comment from Ray Wolpow, a project collaborator from Western Washington University:

“You cannot teach the mind until you reach the heart.”

Unexpected Behavior Can be a Cry for Help

Trauma and how it impacts learning and life has been studied since the late 1990s, when the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coined the term Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Childhood trauma was recognized as an important factor in physical and mental health conditions. In 2000, Congress established the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to offer free online courses and toolkits with continuing education credits for teachers. Among the offerings: “psychological first aid.”

This approach includes Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)—sometimes called PBI or PBS. A 2016 Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute describes PBIS as part of an array of programs that serve students from general education through special education. Educators call this type of multi-part programming a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). PBIS can fit into MTSS programming this way:

  • Tier 1: All students and classrooms participate. These “universal interventions” integrate academics, discipline and social/emotional skill-building schoolwide.
  • Tier 2: Students who are “at risk” get more targeted interventions.
  • Tier 3: Students with significant academic, behavioral or emotional problems are supported uniquely through their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

According to the research, about 17,000 schools (17 percent of US schools), have PBIS. Children in PBIS schools were 33 percent less likely to receive office discipline reports and were suspended 10 percent less often than children in non-PBIS schools. The universal, school-wide interventions had significant positive effects on:

  • Disruptive behaviors
  • Concentration
  • Emotional regulation
  • Prosocial behavior

Despite these positive outcomes, the report identifies a need for more outreach and development in the third tier, related to IEP supports. According to Child Mind, more than 77,000 children who qualify for special education are suspended or expelled for more than 10 cumulative days in any given school year. Children with emotional disturbance are the most likely to be disciplined, with children who struggle with autism, anxiety and learning disorders also high on the list.

Many schools want to do better, and new supports are informed by brain science. Chapter One in OSPI’s handbook, “The Heart of Learning,” includes a list of the brain regions affected by trauma. Understanding the amygdala as a center for fear, for example, can be critical for designing strategies to manage melt-downs. “Overstimulation of the amygdala…activates fear centers in the brain and results in behaviors consistent with anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance,” the page informs.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation sponsors a website called Edutopia that also offers articles that teach about neuroscience. A contributing editor on the website, Rebecca Alber, recommends that teachers “get curious, not furious” when children act out:

“When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking, it’s nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.”

Use Your Words

Some teachers are turning directly to scientists for advice. Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author, offers tips through his agency, Mindsight. Mindsight teaches how to “name and tame” emotions to keep from getting overwhelmed. For example, Siegel suggests learning the difference between these two sentences:

  1. I am sad.
  2. I feel sad.

The first statement “is a kind of limited self-definition,” Siegel argues, while the second statement “suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it.”

Word choice can be critical in trauma-informed instruction. Jody McVittie, a pediatrician who started Sound Discipline, based in Seattle, gives workshops for parents and teachers. She talks about the difference between praise and encouragement in a training called Building Resiliency. Instead of saying “Great Job!” a teacher or parent might say:

  • “I noticed that you wrote all of the letters of your name on the line and it was really easy to read.”
  • “I appreciate that you asked some insightful questions during our discussion about the Constitution today.”
  • “I know you can write a creative description of the book you read.”

The more specific the encouragement, McVittie says, the more the student will be encouraged to keep working on that “good,” or expected behavior. Another of McVittie’s key concepts is “connection before correction” to help teachers create helpful relationships with students. An example she uses in her trainings:

A teenaged student tossed a soda can from across the room during class. A trauma-trained teacher pointed to the hallway, and the boy joined her there. Instead of directing him to the office, the teacher explained that she really enjoyed having him in class. She said that he contributed valuable questions. Then she asked why he thought he was in the hallway. He said it was because he threw the soda can. She asked, “What’s your plan?” His answer included apologies and decision-making about how to avoid the mistake again.

This story certainly could have ended differently, and McVittie encourages educators and parents to avoid a “Dignity Double-Bind,” where children experience shame instead of problem-solving:

“Make the child think,” she says, “by showing respect instead of giving orders to obey.”

McVittie and others hope these lessons create a new model of education where Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of every school day. “Let’s create a learning community,” McVittie encourages, “by showing grace.”

A Self-Regulation Strategy for Right Now

Sometimes grace starts with self-care. Following is a breathing practice you can use right now to help your nervous system regulate. You will be breathing deeply as you trace the outline of your hand, giving your eyes and your mind something to focus on while you control your breath.

  • Hold up one hand, with your palm facing you.
  • Place the first finger of your other hand onto the bottom of your thumb.
  • As you breathe in, slide your finger up to the top of your thumb.
  • Breathing out, slide your finger into the valley between your thumb and first finger.
  • Breathing in, slide up your first finger. Breathing out, slide down the other side.
  • Continue following your breath up and down all your fingers.
  • When you breathe out down the outside edge of your pinkie, continue to exhale until you reach your elbow.
  • Notice how you feel. Allow your breath to find a natural pattern.

Now that you’ve learned this technique, you can share it with your children!

The following are resources for further information and inspiration:

Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, a film by KPJR
Edutopia: Getting Curious Not Furious
Beyond Consequences
Massachusetts Advocates free e-book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn
CDC ACE Report
Sound Discipline
2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
OSPI: The Heart of Learning and Teaching, Compassionate Schools
Aces Too High
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
Why Schools Need to be Trauma Informed
Center for Parent Information and Resources article bank on SEL, Behavior and School