Tips to Help Parents Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home

A Brief Overview

  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a strategy schools use to teach children expected behavior. Read on for PBIS strategies families can use at home.
  • A key PBIS principle is that punishment fails to teach what to do instead. Adults can direct children and youth toward better choices and interrupt escalation cycles by consistently teaching expected, skillful behaviors.
  • The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right. Remember this catchy phrase, “5-and-1 gets it done,” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction.
  • PAVE provides a video with key information to help families and schools analyze a child’s behavior and develop a positive behavior support plan: Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.
  • If you come up with some great behavior support strategies this summer, be sure to share them with the school in the fall!

Full Article

Changes in routine and seasonal transitions can cause emotional upheaval for families. A few strategies, described below, might help families keep things chill this summer and beyond.

These ideas come from education, where research has helped teachers see the benefits from using Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS has been implemented in more than 26,000 U.S. schools. The PBIS framework has been shown to decrease disciplinary removals and improve student outcomes, including grades and graduation rates. When done well, PBIS provides positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice,” (working it out instead of punishing) and may prevent 80-90 percent of problem behaviors.

Punishment does not teach

PBIS research highlights problems with punishments, which are called “aversive interventions.” Research shows that a punished child is likely to flip into an emotionally dysregulated state (fight/flight/freeze) that actually blocks learning. Chances are low that the child will know what to do next time because the punishment didn’t provide a learning opportunity.

PBIS teaches what to do instead—and how to do it. Adults who calmly direct a child toward a new way of problem-solving can interrupt or prevent an escalation and help the child make better and better choices moving forward.

Keep in mind that adults need to stay regulated to help children. PAVE provides resources to help adults work on their own self-control and support their children:

Behavior is a child’s attempt to communicate

Simple, consistent, predictable language is critical for teaching and reinforcing behavior, says Kelcey Schmitz, who works for the University of Washington School Mental Health Assessment, Research, and Training (SMART) Center.

“PBIS is a game changer for children and youth with behavior challenges and their teachers and caregivers,” Schmitz says. “In fact, everyone can benefit from PBIS. Behavior is a form of communication, and PBIS aims to reduce problem behavior by increasing appropriate behavior and ultimately improving quality of life for everyone. The same approaches used by schools to prevent problem behaviors and create positive, safe, consistent and predictable environments can be used by families at home.”

Schmitz, an MTSS training and technical assistance specialist, provides the following specific tips for creating a successful PBIS home environment.

Support Positive Behavior before there is a problem

PBIS is set up with three layers—called tiers—of support. The parent-child relationship is strengthened by loving and positive interactions at each tier.

Tier 1 support is about getting busy before there is a problem. Much like learning to wash hands to prevent getting sick, expected behavior is taught and modeled to prevent unexpected behaviors.  Parents can look at their own actions and choices and consider what children will see as examples of being respectful, responsible, and safe.

Tiers 2 and 3 are where adults provide more support for specific behaviors that are getting in the way of relationships or how the child or youth functions. In a school setting, Tier 2 is for students who need a social group or some extra teaching, practice, and reinforcement.

Tier 3 supports include a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to find out why the behavior is occurring, and an individualized Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). PAVE provides a video: Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.

Any student may access supports that include aspects of Social Emotional Learning at all three Tiers. At home, Tiers 2 and 3 naturally will be more blended and may include support from a community provider. Note that targeted interventions in Tiers 2-3 work best when Tier 1 is already well established.

Define, teach, and routinely acknowledge family expectations

  • Discuss how you want to live as a family and identify some “pillars” (important, building-block concepts) that represent what you value. Talk about what those pillars look and sound like in every-day routines. To help the family remember and be consistent, choose only 3-5 and create positive statements about them. Here are a few examples:
    • Speak in a respectful voice.
    • Be responsible for actions.
    • Be safe; keep hands, feet, and objects to self.
  • Identify a couple of “hot spots” to begin. Challenging behaviors often occur within routines.  Perhaps mornings or mealtimes create hot spots for the family. After discussing 1-2 ways to be respectful, responsible, and safe in the morning, teach what each looks like. Have fun with it! Set up “expectation stations” for practicing the plan and assign each family member one pillar to teach to the rest.
  • Behaviors that get attention get repeated. Notice when a child does the right thing and say something about each success: “I noticed you stopped to pick up your shoes in the hallway. Thanks for putting them away and keeping the walkway safe for others.” The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right!
  • Remember this catchy phrase, “5-and-1 gets it done” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction. When the expected behavior becomes routine, the reinforcement can fade away.

Create engaging and predictable routines

  • Children crave structure and routine. Adults may look forward to a relaxing evening or weekend, but kids often need regular activity and engagement. Consider that either the kids are busy, or the adults are busy managing bored kids!
  • Use visuals to create predictability. A visual schedule can display major routines of the day with pictures that are drawn, real photos or cut-outs from magazines. Create the schedule together, if possible.  Parents can ask a child to check the schedule – especially when moving from a preferred to non-preferred activity. It’s hard to argue with a picture!

Set the stage for positive behavior

  • Teach, pre-teach, and re-teach. Children need to learn behavior just like they learn colors and shapes. A quick reminder can help reinforce a developing skill: “When we get in the car, sit up, buckle up, and smile!”
  • Give transition warnings or cues to signal the end of one activity and the beginning of another: “In five minutes, it will be bath time.”
  • First/then statements set up a child for delayed gratification: “First take your bath; then we can play dolls.”
  • Focus on Go instead of Stop. Children often tune out words like NoDon’t and Stop and only hear the word that comes next, which is what an adult is trying to avoid. Tell a child what to do instead of what not to do: “Take your plate and put it in the sink.” Save Stop and No for dangerous circumstances that need a quick reaction.
  • Choices prevent power struggles: “Would you rather play for five more minutes or get in the bath now?”  “Feel free to choose the pink pajamas or the green ones.”

While these strategies may not eliminate all problem behaviors, they create consistency, predictability, and a more positive atmosphere. They teach new skills to help children get their needs met. The solid foundation will help even if challenging behaviors persist by creating a bedrock for additional layers of support.

Here are places to seek additional information:

Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Alarming statistics indicate the pandemic worsened many behavioral health outcomes for young people. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.
  • President Joe Biden issued a Fact Sheet about the nation’s mental health crisis on March 1, 2022, as part of his State of the Union message. This article includes some of what the president shared about youth impacts.
  • Washington State’s 2021 Healthy Youth Survey confirms that children and youth are struggling to maintain well-being.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for information and resources.
  • The emotional well-being of students may be served through Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), which provide a structure for schools to provide education and supports related to student well-being schoolwide.
  • Students with high levels of need may access mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Full Article

Alarming statistics indicate that children and young people are in crisis. Governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation for children’s mental health on March 14, 2021. Data from Washington’s 2021 Healthy Youth Survey confirm the distressing trends:

Seven out of ten students in tenth grade report feeling nervous, anxious, on edge, or cannot stop worrying. Eight percent said they tried suicide within the past year. Almost 40 percent said their feelings were disturbing enough to interrupt their regular activities, and more than 10 percent of students said they didn’t have anyone to talk to about their feelings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about half of young people who need behavioral health services get them.

According to the 2021 statewide survey, students with disabilities struggle more than most. Also over-represented are girls, students from lower income households, and students whose gender or sexuality is non-binary. Non-binary refers to more than two things; it’s a term often used when discussing people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, or questioning (LGBTQ+). LGBTQ+ youth can seek crisis help and more from The Trevor Project.

“Reports of our children suffering with mental health issues are a worrisome public health concern,” said Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, Washington’s Secretary of Health. “Mental health is a part of our children’s overall health and well-being. It is imperative that we all continue to work together to fully support the whole child by providing information and access to behavioral health resources to youth and the trusted adults in their lives.”

Concerns are nationwide. On March 1, 2022, President Joe Biden issued a Fact Sheet stating that grief, trauma, and physical isolation during the past two years have driven Americans to a breaking point:

“Our youth have been particularly impacted as losses from COVID and disruptions in routines and relationships have led to increased social isolation, anxiety, and learning loss.  More than half of parents express concern over their children’s mental well-being. An early study has found that students are about five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, compared with students prior to the pandemic.

“In 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40 percent from 2009. Emergency department visits for attempted suicide have risen 51 percent among adolescent girls.”

Mental Health support to students is a statewide priority

Recognizing the unmet needs, Washington State’s 2022 legislature passed a variety of bills to increase support to children and youth with behavioral health conditions. Here are a few examples:

  • HB 1664: Provides funding and incentives for schools to increase numbers of staff who provide physical, social, and emotional support to students. Schools are responsible to report to the state how these funds were used for hiring staff that directly support students and not something else.
  • HB 1800: Requires Health Care Authority (HCA) to build and maintain a website (“parent portal”) to help families seek out behavioral health services. Also supports growth and training requirements for behavioral health ombuds serving youth through the Office of Behavioral Health Consumer Advocacy.
  • HB 1834: Establishes a student absence from school for mental health reasons as an excused absence.
  • HB 1890: Creates an advisory group under the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group (CYBHWG) to build a strategic plan for children, youth transitioning to adulthood, and their caregivers. Also establishes a $200/day stipend (up to 6 meetings per year) for members of the CYBHWG with lived experience who are not attending in a paid professional capacity.

TIP: Family caregivers can get involved in advocacy work!

Here’s another TIP: Families can ask their school who is on site to support students with their mental health needs. Some school districts seek support from an Educational Service District (ESD) to meet student behavioral health needs, so families can also ask whether ESD supports are available. Some ESDs are licensed as behavioral health providers—just ask.

What is MTSS, and why learn this acronym to ask the school about it?

A priority for agencies involved in statewide work is implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Through MTSS, schools support well-being for all students and offer higher levels of support based on student need. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is key to MTSS, which creates a structure for positive behavioral supports and trauma-informed interventions.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state educational agency for Washington schools. In its 2021 budget, OSPI prioritized MTSS as part of a plan to Empower all Schools to Support the Whole Child. In January, 2021, OSPI was awarded a five-year, $5.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education help districts implement MTSS. As a local control state, Washington districts determine their own specific policies and procedures.

TIP: Families can ask school and district staff to describe their MTSS work and how students are receiving support through the various levels/tiers.

Special Education is one pathway for more help

Students may access mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Appropriate support can be especially critical for these students: According to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), students eligible for school-based services under the ED category are twice as likely to drop out of high school before graduating.

How a student is supported in their life planning could have an impact. PAVE provides a toolkit of information about how to support a student in their preparations for graduation and beyond: School to Adulthood: Transition Planning Toolkit for High School, Life, and Work.

Note that a student with a mental health condition might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which captures needs related to various medical diagnoses. Other categories that often overlap with behavioral health are Autism and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). IEP eligibility categories are described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-01035).

In Washington State, the ED category is referred to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). If the student’s behavioral health is impaired to a degree that the student is struggling to access school, and the student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), then the student may be eligible for an IEP. Keep in mind that academic subjects are only a part of learning in school: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of the core curriculum. 

An educational evaluation determines whether a student has a disability that significantly impacts access to school and whether Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and related services are needed for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is the entitlement of a student eligible for special education services. An IEP team determines how FAPE/educational services are provided to an individual student.

Behavioral health counseling can be part of an IEP

Counseling can be written into an IEP as a related service. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for FAPE, a school district is responsible to provide and fund those services. School districts can receive reimbursement for most of the cost of behavioral health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP. The Health Care Authority provides information about school-based health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP.

A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might be eligible for a Section 504 Plan. A disability that impairs a major life activity triggers Section 504 protections, which include the right to appropriate and individualized accommodations at school. Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a Civil Rights law that protects against disability discrimination. Students with IEPs and 504 plans are protected by Section 504 rights.

Behavioral Health encompasses a wide range of disability conditions, including those related to substance use disorder, that impact a person’s ability to manage behavior. Sometimes students with behavioral health disabilities bump into disciplinary issues at school. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process: PAVE provides a detailed article about student and family rights related to school discipline.

Placement options for students who struggle with behavior

IEP teams determine the program and placement for a student. In accordance with federal law (IDEA), students have a right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate. That means educational services and supports are designed to help students access their general education classroom and curriculum first. If the student is unable to make meaningful progress there because of their individual circumstances and disability condition, then the IEP team considers more restrictive placement options. See PAVE’s article: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

If general education is not working, the IEP team is responsible to consider all placement options to find the right fit. There is not a requirement to rule out every “less restrictive” option before choosing a placement that the team agrees will best serve the student’s needs.

Sometimes the IEP team, which includes family, will determine that in order to receive FAPE a student needs to be placed in a Day Treatment or Residential school. OSPI maintains a list of Non-Public Agencies that districts might pay to support the educational needs of a student. Districts may also consider schools that are not listed. Washington State has almost no residential options for students. Schools almost always send students to other states when residential placement is needed.

On May 23, 2022, a Washington affiliate of National Public Radio (KUOW) provided a report about the lack of residential programs in the state and the challenges for families whose students go out of state for residential education: Washington is sending youth in crisis to out-of-state boarding schools; taxpayers pick up the tab.

Residential placement may be necessary because educational needs cannot be served unless medical needs are fully supported. School districts may be responsible in those situations to pay for a residential placement. A precedent-setting court ruling in 2017 was Edmonds v. A.T. The parents of a student with behavioral disabilities filed due process against the Edmonds School District for reimbursement of residential education. The administrative law judge ruled that the district must pay for the residential services because “students cannot be separated from their disabilities.”

Strategies and safety measures for families and teachers

The Healthy Youth Survey is conducted every other year and was delayed from 2020 to 2021 because of the pandemic. Over the years, results are shared along with tips for families and schools. Here are a few considerations built from various data points within the survey:

Hopeful students:

  • Are more interested in schoolwork: Is there a way to make every day at school more connected to what a child cares about?
  • See people who can help: Who are the adults at school that a student can trust and go to for encouragement or guidance?
  • Believe that school is relevant to life: Who is helping the student connect what they are learning now to who they want to become?
  • Are academically successful: Are supports in place to provide adequate help so the student can succeed in learning? Evidence-based instructional strategies are key when students struggle in reading, writing, or math because of learning disabilities, for example.

TIP: Make sure these four topics are part of a school/family discussion when a student is struggling with emotional well-being or behavior that may be impacted by hopelessness.

A 2018 handout includes tips for parents and other adults who support teens who feel anxious or depressed:

  • Bond with them: Unconditional love includes clear statements that you value them, and your actions show you want to stay involved in their lives.
  • Talk with teens about their feelings and show you care. Listen to their point of view. Suicidal thinking often comes from a wish to end psychological pain.
  • Help teens learn effective coping strategies and resiliency skills to deal with stress, expectations of others, relationship problems, and challenging life events.
  • Have an evening as a family where everyone creates their own mental health safety plan.
  • Learn about warning signs and where to get help
  • Ask: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Don’t be afraid that talking about it will give them the idea. If you’ve observed any warning signs, chances are they’re already thinking about it.
  • If you own a firearm, keep it secured where a teen could not access it.
  • Lock up medications children shouldn’t have access to.

A press for school-based services and mental health literacy

Advocacy for direct school-based mental health services and education about mental health topics comes from the University of Washington’s SMART Center. SMART stands for School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training. The SMART center in 2020 provided a report: The Case for School Mental Health. The document includes state and national data that strongly indicate school-based behavioral health services are effective:

“Increased access to mental health services and supports in schools is vital to improving the physical and psychological safety of our students and schools, as well as academic performance and problem-solving skills. Availability of comprehensive school mental health promotes a school culture in which students feel safe to report safety concerns, which is proven to be among the most effective school safety strategies.”

The SMART Center in partnership with the non-profit Chad’s Legacy Project in 2021 established an online Student/Youth Mental Health Literacy Library. Intended for staff at middle and high schools, the library provides resources to help schools choose curricula for mental health education on topics that include Social Emotional Learning, Substance Use Disorder, and Suicide Prevention.

Goals of mental health literacy are:

  • Understanding how to foster and maintain good mental health
  • Understanding mental disorders and their treatments
  • Decreasing Stigma
  • Understanding how to seek help effectively for self and others

TIP: Families can direct their schools to this resource to support development or growth of a mental health education program.

For information, help during a crisis, emotional support, and referrals:  

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK): After July 16, 2022, call 988
  • Text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor
  • Trevor Project Lifeline (LGBTQ) (1-866-488-7386)
  • The Washington Recovery Help Line (1-866-789-1511)
  • TeenLink (1-866-833-6546; 6pm-10pm PST)
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide

Further information on mental health and suicide:  

Family Support

  • PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center provides technical assistance to families navigating health systems related to disability. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368 for individualized assistance. Family Voices of Washington provides further information and resources.
  • A Facebook group called Healthy Minds Healthy Futures provides a place to connect with other families.
  • Family caregivers can request support and training from COPE (Center of Parent Excellence), which offers support group meetings and direct help from lead parent support specialists as part of a statewide program called A Common Voice.
  • Washington State Community Connectors (WSCC) sponsors an annual family training weekend, manages an SUD Family Navigator training, and offers ways for families to share their experiences and support one another. With passage of HB 1800 in 2022, WSCC is working with the Health Care Authority to build a statewide website to help families navigate behavioral health services.
  • Family, Youth, and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT) is a statewide hub for family networking and emotional support. Some regions have distinct groups for young people.

Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process

This training has information about how to support a child’s behavior at school. When behavior gets in the way of learning, schools are responsible to figure out what the child is trying to communicate and to teach the child what to do instead.

The process of figuring out why a child is acting out is called a Functional Behavioral Assessment—FBA for short. A Behavior Intervention Plan—BIP for short—is a working document that the school and family build together and review regularly to make sure the child is supported with positive reinforcement and encouragement for meeting behavioral expectations. This training will help you know how to participate in the FBA/BIP process.

Schools are guided by the state to use best practices when evaluating and serving students with special needs. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state educational agency in Washington State. OSPI’s website is k12.wa.us. A page called Model Forms for Services to Students in Special Education has links to downloadable forms schools use to develop IEPs, Section 504 Plans, and more.

Here are links to OSPI’s model forms for:

After you view the video, please take a quick moment to complete our survey. Your feedback is valuable!

Sample Letter to Request a Functional Behavioral Assessment

When a student’s behavior gets in the way of their learning and/or the learning of others, the school is responsible to figure out how to support behavioral expectations. One way to do that is to assess why the student might be acting out and use that information to consider how positive behavioral interventions might teach the student what to do instead.

The end of this article includes a sample letter to ask the school to begin a specific evaluation called a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). Data from the FBA is used to build a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).

PAVE provides a video training called Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.

Ideally a school will notice if a student’s behavior has patterns of disruption and begin the FBA/BIP process before a student with disabilities is disciplined. PAVE provides an article: What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.

A teacher or school administrator might alert parents and request consent to begin an FBA. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state agency for Washington schools. OSPI provides guidance about discipline in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP #2). Included are best practices for schools to follow when there are persistent behavioral concerns:

  • Develop behavioral goals in the Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Provide related services needed to achieve those behavioral IEP goals (specific therapies or counseling, for example)
  • Provide classroom accommodations, modifications and/or supplementary aids and supports (a 1:1 paraeducator, for example)
  • Provide support to the student’s teachers and service providers (staff training)
  • Conduct a reevaluation that includes a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)
  • Develop a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP), as defined in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A-01031

Manifestation Determination

If an FBA process begins after a student has been excluded from school through a disciplinary removal (suspension, expulsion, or emergency expulsion), families can review their procedural safeguards to understand rules related to a special education process called Manifestation Determination.

Here are the basics: When a behavior “manifests” (is directly caused by) a disability condition, then there is recognition that the student has limited fault for violating the student code of conduct. Management of behavior is part of the special education process. A Manifestation Determination meeting is to talk about how a student’s services can better serve their needs to prevent future behavioral episodes that are getting in the way of education.

Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) may not be excluded from their regular educational placement, due to discipline, for more than 10 days in a school year without the school and family holding a Manifestation Determination meeting. According to the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A-05146),thestudent’s behavior is considered a manifestation of disability if the conduct was:

  • Caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to, the student’s disability
  • The direct result of the school district’s failure to implement student’s IEP

When these criteria are met, the school is responsible to review and amend the student’s services to ensure that the behaviors are addressed to prevent future escalations. If there isn’t a BIP, the school is required to develop one by initiating an FBA. If there is a BIP, the school is required to review and amend it to better serve the student’s needs.

Request FBA formally, in writing

Family caregivers can request an FBA/BIP process any time there are concerns that a student’s behavior is a barrier to their education. Families have the right to participate in all educational decision making for their students. See PAVE’s article: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.

Make any request for an evaluation in writing. This is important because:

  1. There will be no confusion about how/when/why request was made.
  2. The letter provides critical initial information about what is going on with the student.
  3. The letter supports a written record of family/school interactions.

If the family wishes, they can attach information from outside providers with their request. For example, if an outside therapist or counselor has recommendations for behavioral interventions at school, the family has the option to share those. The school district is responsible to review all documents and respond with written rationale about how the information is incorporated into recommendations. Families may choose to disclose all, a portion, or none of a student’s medical information. Schools may not require disclosure of medical records.

Family caregivers/guardians must sign consent for any school evaluation to begin.

The FBA/BIP might prevent a shortened school day

According to OSPI, serving a student through a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) is a priority. OSPI discourages schools from reducing the student’s schedule because of behaviors:

“District authorities should not use a shortened school day as an automatic response to students with challenging behaviors at school or use a shortened day as a form of punishment or as a substitute for a BIP. An IEP team should consider developing an IEP that includes a BIP describing the use of positive behavioral interventions, supports, and strategies reasonably calculated to address the student’s behavioral needs and enable the student to participate in the full school day.”

Special Education is a service, not a location within the school

Please note that a request for behavioral support is NOT a recommendation to remove a student from the regular classroom and move them into an exclusive learning environment. Federal and state laws require that students eligible for special education services receive their education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate.

Special Education is a service, while LRE refers to placement. PAVE’s article provides further information: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

General education classrooms and spaces are the least restrictive. A child may be placed in a more restrictive setting if an IEP team, which includes family participants, determines that FAPE is not accessible even with specially designed instruction, accommodations, modifications, ancillary aids, behavioral interventions and supports, and other documented attempts to support a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) within the general education environment.

If the student was removed from their previous placement prior to a manifestation determination meeting, the school district is responsible to return the student to their placement unless the parent and school district agree to a different placement as part of the modification of the student’s services on their IEP and BIP.

Sample letter to request an FBA

Below is a sample letter family caregivers can use when requesting a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). You can cut and paste the text into your choice of word processing program to help you start a letter that you can print and mail or attach to an email. Or you can build your letter directly into an email format. Be sure to keep a record of all requests and correspondence with the school.

Your Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip
Date

Name (if known, otherwise use title)
Title/Director of Special Education/Special Services Program Coordinator
School District
Street Address
City, State, Zip

Dear Name (if known, otherwise use district person’s title):

I am requesting a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) for my [child, son, daughter], NAME, (BD: 00-00-0000).

I have concerns that (NAME) is not receiving full educational benefit from school because of their struggles to meet behavioral expectations due to their disability circumstances. Their condition includes [brief summary of any diagnoses], which makes it difficult to [brief summary of the challenges]. I believe this has become a pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed with a positive behavioral support plan so my child with special educational needs can receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

I understand that the FBA will look for triggers and seek to understand what is happening in the environment when my child’s behaviors become problematic. I have learned that these are “antecedents” that the school can identify through data tracking. I hope we can begin to understand how [name] may be trying to communicate their needs through these behaviors. Here are some of my thoughts about what might be going on:

  • Use bullet points if the list is long.
  • Use bullet points if the list is long.
  • Use bullet points if the list is long.

I look forward to discussing the results of the FBA and working with school staff on development of a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP). I hope we can choose a small number of target behaviors to focus on in the BIP. I understand that we will work together to identify replacement behaviors that the school can teach [name] to do instead. I hope these will be skills we can work on at home also. I look forward to learning how we can partner to encourage the learning that I know [name] is capable of.

I have attached documentation from [any outside providers/therapists/counselors who may have provided letters or reports or shared behavioral recommendations].

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development of educational services and that I will be involved in any meetings where decisions are made regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I will also expect a copy of the FBA and a draft of the BIP before our meeting.

I understand you must have my written permission for this assessment to be administered, and I will be happy to provide that upon receipt of the proper forms.

I appreciate your help in behalf of [child’s name]. If you have any questions please call me at [telephone number] or email me at [email address, optional].

Sincerely,

Your Name

CC: (Names and titles of anyone else you give copies to)

You can email this letter or send it by certified mail (keep your receipt), or hand carry it to the district office and get a date/time receipt. Remember to keep a copy of this letter and all school-related correspondence for your records. Get organized with a binder or a filing system that will help you keep track of all letters, meetings, conversations, etc. These documents will be important for you and your child for many years to come, including when your child transitions out of school.

Please Note: PAVE is a nonprofit organization that provides information, training, individual assistance, and resources. PAVE is not a legal firm or legal service agency, and the information contained in this handout is provided for informing the reviewer and should not be considered as a means of taking the place of legal advice that must be obtained through an attorney. PAVE may be able to assist you in identifying an attorney in your area but cannot provide direct referrals. The contents of this handout were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. The contents do not represent the policy of the US Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Government.

Adolescent Health Care Act Provides Options for Families Seeking Mental Health and Substance Use Help for Young People Resistant to Treatment

A Brief Overview

  • The Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act, passed into law by the Washington Legislature in 2019, gives parents and providers more leverage in treating a young person who will not or cannot independently seek medical help for a behavioral health condition.
  • The Washington State Health Care Authority (HCA) hosts website links with information about the law, which allows Family Initiated Treatment (FIT). The landing page includes an email address: hcafamilyinitiatedtreatment@hca.wa.gov.
  • Access to FIT is a topic of the state’s Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group. CYBHWG supports several sub-work groups, including one focused on school-based services and suicide prevention. Information about group membership, public meetings, resources, events and training is available on the HCA website.
  • If a person ages 15-40 is newly experiencing psychosis, Washington offers a wraparound-style program called New Journeys. This website link includes access to a referral form.

Full Article

Getting mental health help for a youth in crisis can be complicated, frustrating, and frightening.

Mental Health America ranks states based on the incidence of mental illness and access to services. The 2022 youth rankings list Washington 39th in the nation. Various measures indicate a high prevalence of major depression, substance use disorder, and/or emotional disturbance as a category of disability on the Individualized Education Program (IEP). Barriers to treatment consider insurance as well as availability of services.  

Sometimes a barrier to treatment involves a complicated balance of youth autonomy and parental responsibility. The most severe psychiatric conditions often include a symptom called anosognosia, which blocks the brain’s ability to see the impairment or understand why professional help could be of benefit. In youth whose brains are still forming, symptoms that impact insight and choice-making are particularly problematic.

New Journeys is an option when psychosis is present

Sometimes anosognosia co-occurs with psychosis, which indicates a person has lost touch with reality. Delusions and hallucinations may be present. If a person is newly experiencing psychosis, Washington offers a wraparound-style program called New Journeys: This link provides access to information for clients and families and includes an online referral form.

Causes of psychosis are the subject of ongoing research, but some theories suspect the brain is trying to make sense out of a world that does not make sense. Synapses fire errantly, and the brain tries to organize them into stories to calm itself. Synaptic loops get built during these firestorms of neural activity, and the stories that emerge become reality to the person whose brain is narrating the experience, even if they are untrue or grounded in false perceptions. Choice-making in the empirical world is often compromised.

Family education about psychosis is an aspect of New Journeys, which is for youth and adults ages 15-40 who have experienced psychotic symptoms for more than or equal to 1 week and less than or equal to 2 years. Staff from the University of the Washington contribute support to the state’s New Journeys program, which is offered in various but not all regions of the state.

University staff also support a program called Psychosis REACH, which provides evidence-based skill-building for relatives and friends of individuals with psychotic disorders. The practices are based in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The program’s website includes information about training opportunities and resources.

Age of Consent in Washington is 13

In Washington State, the age of medical consent is 13. That means that a person 13-17 years old can independently seek medical treatment, without the consent or knowledge of parents.

Age of consent laws also have meant that Washington youth could say no to behavioral health treatment, regardless of whether parents and providers agreed that such treatment was necessary to protect the safety and well-being of the adolescent. Exceptions are made when there is a threat of imminent danger or grave disability due to psychiatric deterioration. Read on for more information about involuntary treatment/commitment.

The Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act, passed by the Washington legislature in 2019, gives parents and providers more leverage when a young person is struggling with behavioral health and does not independently engage with treatment. The law allows parents/caregivers to bring a youth, ages 13-17, to a provider for evaluation without requiring consent from the youth.

The law includes elements introduced by the state Senate and House of Representatives, which originally titled the bill as HB 1874. In 2020, passage of HB 2883 added residential treatment as an additional option under Family Initiated Treatment (FIT).

The law does not limit an adolescent’s ability to initiate treatment on their own.

Parents have felt shut out of their teenager’s care

January 8, 2020, article in Crosscut profiles several families impacted by the new law. “Until the new law,” the article states, “parents often were shut out of their teenager’s care and treatment plans and couldn’t push a teen toward necessary outpatient or inpatient care without their consent.”

Passage of FIT marks a win for the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group, which studied and reviewed recommendations from a stakeholder advisory group authorized by the 2018 legislature. Final language in the law was impacted by family members, youth, clinicians, hospital staff and many others who met dozens of times.

“Parent” is broadly defined, and information sharing is more open

Under the law, the definition of parent is expanded to include a wide range of family caregivers, guardians and others who have authority to initiate treatment. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW 9A.72.085) provides standards for “subscribing to an unsworn statement” that can apply to a caregiver initiating treatment. 

The law enables providers to share information with parents without an adolescent’s consent, if the provider determines that information sharing with family is in the best interests of the adolescent patient. A list of information-sharing guidelines is included below.

Note that parents retain the right to make medical decisions for children younger than 13, and adults 18 and older are responsible for medical decision-making if there is no guardianship.

In accordance with RCW 71.34.375, providers are required to provide notice to parents of all available treatment options, including Family Initiated Treatment. The state Health Care Authority provides a fact sheet to clarify those requirements.

Family-Initiated Treatment (FIT)

The FIT law allows a parent/caregiver to escort their adolescent child to certain licensed behavioral health facilities and request that a professional person examine the adolescent to determine whether treatment is medically necessary. That treatment might include outpatient, inpatient, or residential care.

According to the Health Care Authority (HCA), FIT is not a guarantee of immediate services, and no provider is obligated to provide services under FIT. Each provider has processes, procedures, and requirements pertaining to evaluation and admission to services. However, the only reason for not providing services cannot be the youth’s lack of consent (RCW 71.34.600).

If a facility covered by this law does not have a professional person available to perform the examination, the facility is not required to make staff available on demand. Additionally, if the professional determines the adolescent needs in-patient treatment but the facility does not have a bed available, the facility is not required to make a bed available. Included are those facilities that house children and youth under the Children’s Long-term Inpatient Program (CLIP). CLIP beds are generally subject to a waiting list and a multi-step referral process.

According to staff at Washington’s Health Care Authority, staffing shortages and other limitations within the behavioral health system have slowed implementation of the law. Families are encouraged to contact providers before taking an adolescent to a facility to determine if the provider has the capacity or ability to perform an assessment.

FIT in a community setting

If medical necessity is found by an outpatient provider who evaluates a young person brought into care through FIT, the provider is limited to 12 sessions over 3 months to attempt to work with the adolescent. If the young person still refuses to engage with treatment, then the period of Family-Initiated Treatment with that provider ends. The family at that point could seek treatment elsewhere.

State laws continue to encourage autonomy for young people, despite recognition that family involvement is important. According to the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 71.34.010):

 “Mental health and chemical dependency professionals shall guard against needless hospitalization and deprivations of liberty, enable treatment decisions to be made in response to clinical needs in accordance with sound professional judgment, and encourage the use of voluntary services. Mental health and chemical dependency professionals shall, whenever clinically appropriate, offer less restrictive alternatives to inpatient treatment. Additionally, all mental health care and treatment providers shall assure that minors’ parents are given an opportunity to participate in the treatment decisions for their minor children.”

For children and youth eligible for Apple Health, Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe) is Washington’s most intensive outpatient treatment. PAVE provides an article: WISe Provides Team-Based Services for Washington Youth with Severe Behavioral Health Disorders.

The Health Care Authority (HCA) maintains a website page with information about WISe in multiple languages. Families can discuss their options for FIT with WISe staff and HCA leadership.

FIT in a hospital setting

An inpatient or residential facility can detain the adolescent under Family-Initiated Treatment (FIT) if medically necessary for a mental health condition. In these settings, FIT may last up to 30 days. Then the adolescent must be discharged, unless:

  • they agree to stay voluntarily, or
  • a designated crisis responder (DCR) initiates involuntary commitment proceedings

What is required for involuntary treatment?

The Involuntary Treatment Act (ITA) can apply to persons of any age who are determined to be gravely disabled or at imminent risk of harm to self, others, or property. Under Ricky’s Law, community members of any age who are a danger or gravely disabled due to a drug or alcohol problem may be involuntarily detained to a secure withdrawal management and stabilization facility—also known as secure detox.

For substance use disorder treatment, due to Federal Privacy Laws, a parent/caregiver can only provide consent for an assessment. The youth would have to consent to the results of the assessment being shared with their parent/caregiver and volunteer for ongoing treatment if it is deemed medically necessary.

Guidance for Information Sharing

Federal law, 42 CFR Part 2, restricts information sharing related to substance use, and clinicians cannot share that information without a patient’s written consent, regardless of whether the substance use co-occurs with mental illness.

Providers have discretion in determining what information about mental health diagnoses and treatment is clinically appropriate to share with parents of an adolescent 13-17. A provider retains discretion in withholding information from family/caregivers to protect an adolescent’s well-being. In general, however, the Adolescent Behavioral Healthcare Access Act encourages sharing information to support collaboration between the clinical setting and home. Specifically, providers and families are encouraged to discuss:

  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment Plan and Progress
  • Recommended medications, including risks, benefits, side effects, typical efficacy, dosages, and schedule
  • Education about the child’s mental health condition
  • Referrals to community resources
  • Coaching on parenting or behavioral management strategies
  • Crisis prevention planning and safety planning

To support family caregiving for individuals of all ages, the Washington State Hospital Association provides general guidance about exceptions to federal confidentiality laws (HIPAA): Permitted disclosures of mental health information and substance use disorder information without patient consent.

Family Support

For individualized, non-emergency support, please click Get Help and someone from PAVE will contact you. Family Voices of Washington, PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center, is another place for information and resources.

In addition to PAVE, here are places for family support:

  • COPE (Center of Parent Excellence) offers support group meetings and direct help from lead parent support specialists as part of a statewide program called A Common Voice.
  • Family, Youth, and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT). Regional groups are a hub for family networking and emotional support. Some have distinct groups for young people.
  • Washington State Community Connectors (WSCC) sponsors an annual family training weekend, manages an SUD Family Navigator training, and offers ways for families to share their experiences and support one another. With passage of HB 1800 in 2022, WSCC is working with the Health Care Authority to build a statewide website (Parent Portal) to help families navigate behavioral health services.
  • Healthy Minds Healthy Futures is an informal network of family caregivers on Facebook. The group advocated for Family Initiated Treatment (FIT) and is part of the work to build the Parent Portal website.

Additional Resources

The  Health Care Authority (HCA) provides a range of information about behavioral health services for children and youth, including this downloadable resource: Parent’s Guide to Family Initiated Treatment.

Families can direct specific questions to: hcafamilyinitiatedtreatment@hca.wa.govPlease note that this business email is not intended for crisis response.

An agency called CaseText organizes links related to Family Initiated Treatment for direct access to various statutes.

WISe Provides Team-Based Services for Washington Youth with Severe Behavioral Health Disorders

A Brief Overview

  • WISe behavioral healthcare teams serve children and youth 20 or younger whose conditions are too severe to benefit appropriately from regular visits to a community clinician and/or therapist.
  • To qualify for WISe, the young person must be eligible for Apple Health, which is the public health program for Washington State. WAC 182-505-0210 describes Apple Health eligibility standards.
  • WISe was created as a response to the T.R. et al. lawsuit, settled in 2013.
  • Different agencies manage WISe programs in various regions of the state. The Health Care Authority manages a downloadable list of WISe agencies, organized by county. Families can contact their area agency by calling the phone number on this referral list.
  • Read on for various places families might seek solidarity and support. One option is Family, Youth, and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT), which is a network of groups that meet to discuss what’s working/not working in behavioral healthcare systems in their communities.

Full Article

Children and youth with intensive needs related to behavioral health may be eligible for services from a statewide program called WISe–Wraparound with Intensive Services. A WISe team includes various clinical and professional staff and certified peers, who may support the emotional needs of family members.  

WISe services are provided in the community—outpatient—for children and youth 20 or younger who are eligible for public insurance, called Apple Health in Washington State. To be assigned to a WISe team, the young person must demonstrate a need for services that are more intensive than what is provided from regular visits to a community clinician and/or therapist.

What does behavioral health mean?

Behavioral health is a broad term describing services for people with conditions based in the brain that impact their behavior. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance use disorder (SUD) are examples of severe behavioral health conditions impacting some adults and young people.

Other childhood conditions are many and varied, and not everyone uses the same terms for the same symptoms. The Child Mind Institute is a place for information about childhood symptoms, diagnoses, and options for treatment and support.

Some developmental conditions, such as autism, are considered behavioral health conditions when symptoms have a significant impact on behavior. A person with a complicated behavioral health condition may have impacts in multiple areas and may be given a “dual diagnosis.”

Who is eligible for WISe services?

WISe services are for children and youth until their 21st birthday. WISe is only approved if the patient has used other, less intensive therapies, with little to no improvement.  Once approved for services, a young person may spend time on an “interest list,” receiving limited support, before a full team is formed to serve them.

The young person is evaluated with a Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS) intensive mental health screening tool, called the CANS-SCREEN.

Five core areas are evaluated:

  1. Life functioning
  2. Behavioral and emotional needs
  3. Risk behaviors
  4. Caregiver resources and needs
  5. Diagnosis and prognosis

According to the CANS-SCREEN, “The care provider, along with the child/youth and family as well as other stakeholders, gives a number rating to each of these items. These ratings help the provider, child/youth and family understand where intensive or immediate action is most needed, and also where a child/youth has assets that could be a major part of the treatment or service plan.”

WISe requires public health insurance eligibility

In addition to meeting criteria based on their symptoms, a young person must be eligible for Apple Health, which is the name for public health insurance in Washington State. The Washington Administrative Code (WAC 182-505-0210) describes Apple Health eligibility standards for children.

Apple Health is most often administered by Managed Care Organizations (MCOs). In 2022, plans are provided by Amerigroup, Community Health Plan of Washington (CHPW), Coordinated Care, Molina, and United Healthcare. Families can request case management from their MCO to help them navigate and understand healthcare options available to them.

An MCO care coordinator/case manager commonly is the person who refers a young person into WISe, although referrals also can be made by the family, a provider, a county health agency, or someone else with knowledge of the circumstances.

Different agencies manage WISe programs in various regions of the state. The Health Care Authority manages a downloadable list of WISe agencies, organized by county. Families can contact their area agency by calling the phone number on this referral list.

Who is on the WISe team?

Team members include:

  • Natural supports (family, friends, religious leaders…)
  • A Care Coordinator (who oversees clinical aspects of the case)
  • Therapist
  • Professionals (clinicians/prescriber if needed, Child Protective Services, probation officers and others who are relevant)
  • Certified peer support specialist
  • Others upon request (youth peer, school staff…)

The clinical group creates a Team Vision Statement, explaining what they plan to achieve and how they will accomplish it through collaborative work. The family also creates a Vision Statement, showing what strengths they would like to build in their family and what tools they need to make their goals possible.

WISe requires family engagement

The time commitment for WISe is significant. Clinicians engage with the whole household on topics related to school, health, work, relationships, home organization, and more.

WISe publishes data about its service delivery. According to January 2021 Service Intensity Estimates, an average family spends 10 or more hours per week engaged with WISe services. This could be much higher, especially in the beginning. Parents/Caregivers are offered therapy sessions and opportunities to engage with parent peers. 

WISe clinicians are responsible to integrate their work to fit with a family’s schedule, often seeking creative ways to tuck sessions into already busy days. For example, a clinician describes a day when they picked up a child at school and conducted a session in the car while driving the child to their next activity. After work, parent met with the clinician while the adults watched the child swim.

Family experiences with WISe are varied. Some say WISe created a critical turning point that enabled family survival. Others cite high staff turnover as a barrier to ideal therapeutic outcomes. The program is most effective with buy-in from the young person and their caregivers and when services are provided to match family needs and schedules.

Does my child have to agree to WISe services?

WISe is a voluntary program. Families may be able to motivate their child to participate by getting services started through Family Initiated Treatment (FIT). FIT was established as a pathway to treatment for youth 13-17 when Washington passed the Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act in 2019. A parent/caregiver can initiate outpatient services to attempt to get the youth to engage. If after 12 visits (within 3 months) the youth is still unwilling to engage with the treatment, the family must end services. They have the option to engage a different provider to try FIT again.

What if WISe isn’t enough?

The WISe program is the most intensive outpatient program that the state offers. If services don’t seem to be working, the family might check the WISe Service Delivery, Policy, Procedure and Resource Manual to see whether there is more the program could be doing. The family also might check if the child could get additional services from another agency to complement the work with WISe. For example, service providers from a special education program at school or from the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) can collaborate with a WISe team.

If a child needs inpatient services, they may be eligible for a referral into the Children’s Long-term Inpatient Program (CLIP). Children placed on a waiting list for CLIP often receive ongoing services from WISe. PAVE provides an article: Children’s Long-Term Inpatient Program (CLIP) Provides Residential Psychiatric Treatment.

History, Advocacy, and Family Support

WISe was created as a response to the T.R. et al. lawsuit, settled in 2013. The class-action lawsuit named ten plaintiffs who were denied treatment for schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and other serious psychiatric conditions. Most were institutionalized repeatedly and for extended periods, despite recommendations by therapists and case workers that they return home and receive services in their homes and local communities.

Disability Rights Washington (DRW) provided attorney support for the settlement of the T.R. et al. lawsuit. DRW is monitoring current issues related to children being underserved through WISe and encourages families with concerns to contact attorney Susan Kas: susank@dr-wa.org.

Another result of the legal settlement was a statewide network of stakeholders who meet regularly to discuss what works/doesn’t work within the behavioral health system for youth. That network is called Family, Youth, and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT). Regional FYSPRTs report to a statewide FYSPRT to share input for system improvement. Regional groups are a hub for family networking and emotional support in addition to serving as a place to engage with community health providers, insurance case managers, and other professionals. Some FYSPRTs have distinct groups for young people to meet and support one another. Many FYSPRT groups use online meeting platforms due to the pandemic.

Another place for families engaged in behavioral health services to network is Washington State Community Connections (WSCC), which sponsors an annual family training weekend, manages an SUD Family Navigator training, and offers a variety of ways for families to share their experiences and support one another. WSCC in 2022 is engaged in work to help build a statewide website to help families navigate behavioral health services across systems. Stay tuned!

Families can get direct support from A Common Voice, a statewide non-profit staffed with Parent Support Specialists who have lived experience parenting a child with challenging behavioral health conditions. The program offers virtual support groups and 1:1 help. A Common Voice is part of the Center of Parent Excellence (COPE), managed by the state’s Health Care Authority. The COPE project website provides a schedule of support group meetings and contact information for regional lead parent support specialists.

An informal place to connect with other families is a Facebook group called Healthy Minds Healthy Futures. Advocates in this group initiated work for an interactive website for parents and are engaged in a push for HB 1800 to expand behavioral health services for minors statewide.

Families wanting to advocate for system change can participate in meetings of the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group (CYBHWG). The work group was created in 2016 by the Legislature (HB 2439) to promote system improvement. CYBHWG supports several advisory groups, including one for Student Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention. The work groups include representatives from the Legislature, state agencies, health care providers, tribal governments, community health services, and other organizations, as well as parents of children and youth who have received services. Meetings include opportunities for public comment. Meeting schedules and reports are posted on the Health Care Authority (HCA) website.

Parity laws, thoughtful language, stopping stigma

Keep in mind that a healthy mind is part of a healthy body, and U.S. laws protect parity for all illness conditions. Despite those protections, discrimination and stigma are commonly discussed within behavioral healthcare systems. Here are a few tips and considerations to help reduce stigma:

  • All behaviors start in the brain, so an impairment that impacts the brain is going to affect behavior. Some behaviors are not a person’s fault; that’s why they need treatment, support, and services.
  • Specific person-first language can help reduce stigma. For example, instead of calling someone bipolar or schizophrenic, say they are a person with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
  • An exception to person-first language is in the autism community, which has collectively agreed to use the term “autistic” to describe someone on the spectrum.
  • Saying that someone has “behavioral health,” or “mental health” does not describe their condition or what they need help with. Everyone has mental health! A better choice is to describe the condition/concern and the need for help: “This youth’s schizophrenia is impacting every aspect of life, and they need a range of services and treatments to recover and move forward with their life plans.”
  • A person who dies from suicide did not commit a crime, so the word “commit” is inappropriate to use when discussing suicide.

For additional information on related topics, including areas where behavioral health impacts school, see PAVE’s article: Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

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

A Brief Overview

  • School discipline is resurfacing as a concern for many families as schools have reopened for in-person instruction. Read on for information about student rights in Washington and what families need to know when behavior impedes learning and disability may be a factor.
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students receive best-practice services and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.
  • If the school calls to send a child home due to behavior, 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. PAVE provides a video with information about what to do if the school wants to send a child home due to behavior.
  • If a student is excluded from school through suspension or expulsion, or if a student is isolated or restrained at school, specific reports are required. Read on for more detail.
  • Read on for information about Procedural Safeguards, which are downloadable through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington’s lead educational agency.
  • PAVE provided a training about student rights, with some information specifically related to mental health, for the statewide NAMI conference Oct. 16, 2021. The recording is available through PAVE’s website: How to Navigate School for Youth with Mental Health Concerns.
  • Families can seek individualized assistance by clicking Get Help from PAVE’s website, wapave.org.

Full Article

Behavior is a form of communication, and children often try to express their needs and wants more through behavior than words. When a young person has a disability or has experienced trauma or other distress, adults and authorities may need to put in extra effort to understand. Missed cues and unmet needs can result in unexpected and sometimes explosive behaviors, which may lead schools to suspend or expel students. Best practice is to meet behavioral health needs and support students before disciplinary action is necessary.

Unfortunately, not all students are adequately supported. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, state data indicated that students with disabilities were disciplined at least 2.5 times more often than non-disabled peers (See WA State Report Card). For students with disabilities who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), the numbers are consistently higher.

Research clearly indicates that children’s behavioral health worsened during the pandemic. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.

The governor’s order directed the Health Care Authority and Department of Health to “immediately begin work on recommendations on how to support the behavioral health needs of our children and youth over the next 6 to 12 months and to address and triage the full spectrum of rising pediatric behavioral health needs.”

As most schools reopened for in person instruction in 2021, a range of federal and state guidance documents encouraged schools to prioritize the psychological needs of students. The U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) on September 30, 2021, released a Return to School Roadmap that highlights considerations for students with disabilities. Included are recommendations to increase support for students who are struggling to maintain expected behavior and access their right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) because of trauma and disruptions to learning:

“A child whose behavior impedes their learning may need new or increased services and supports for the child to receive FAPE. These increased services and supports may include new or adjusted specially designed instruction, academic supports, positive behavioral interventions, and other supports such as counseling, psychological services, school health services, and social work services.

“IEP Teams are encouraged to review the pre-pandemic services required to provide FAPE to the child and determine if the child did or did not receive them during the school closure and other disruptions in service. IEP Teams are also encouraged to make general observations about the child’s attendance, engagement, attention, behavior, progress, and home experience during the COVID‑19 pandemic.”

What is exclusionary discipline?

Any school disciplinary action that takes a student away from their regularly scheduled placement at school is called exclusionary discipline. Out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and in-school suspensions count. Another element is isolation/restraint, which is an emergency response to imminent danger and not disciplinary. See below for more detail.

Families can empower themselves to advocate for their students by learning the federal framework for school-based services. Students who receive accommodations and supports through a Section 504 Plan have anti-discrimination protections from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) have Section 504 protections and specific rights and protections from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Exclusionary discipline may violate FAPE

A student with an identified disability may be suspended for a behavioral violation that is outlined in district policy. State guidance is for schools to suspend students only if there are significant safety concerns. Schools are limited in their ability to exclude students from school because of behaviors that “manifest” (arise or express) from disability.

Students with identified disabilities supported through either an IEP or a 504 Plan are afforded access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Disciplinary actions that deny access to FAPE may be discriminatory. In other words, if a student with disabilities has unmet needs and is consistently sent home instead of helped, the school may be held accountable.

Read on for information about Procedural Safeguards, which are downloadable through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington’s lead educational agency.

Unexpected behavior may indicate a disability and need for services

School districts have a duty to evaluate students to determine eligibility for special education if they have learning challenges or exhibit behavior that may indicate a disability. Under IDEA, this responsibility is called Child Find.

The Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education in December 2016 issued a two-page Fact Sheet that includes this statement: “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.”

Manifestation Determination

To avoid FAPE violations, schools are required to document missed educational time and meet with family to review the student’s circumstances if the time a student has been suspended or otherwise removed from their academic placement for discipline adds up to 10 days. That meeting is called a Manifestation Determination. Manifestation Determination is a distinct process for students with known or suspected disabilities and is separate from general education disciplinary hearings or procedures.

Under Section 504, schools are bound to consider disability-related factors through Manifestation Determination if the disciplinary removal is for more than 10 consecutive school days or when the child is sub­jected to a series of removals that constitute a pattern. OSPI provides a guidance form for Section 504 circumstances.

For a student with an IEP, removal from regularly scheduled classes for more than 10 days per school year constitutes a “change of placement” and a Manifestation Determination meeting is held to determine whether the disciplinary removals resulted from the school’s failure to implement the IEP. OSPI provides a guidance form for IEP circumstances.

During a Manifestation Determination meeting, a student’s circumstances and services are reviewed. An IEP can be amended to provide additional support. For students not yet identified for special education services, this meeting can initiate or expedite an evaluation if the school district knew or should have known that the student needed special education services. 

Family members are included in this process. According to WAC 392-172A-05146, “If the school district, the parent, and relevant members of the student’s IEP team determine the conduct was a manifestation of the student’s disability, the school district must take immediate steps to remedy those deficiencies.”

If the conduct is determined to be unrelated to disability, then school personnel may use general education discipline procedures. 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 while suspended.

Note: With the exception of a firearm violation under federal law, school districts are not required to suspend or expel students for any behavioral violation. State law explicitly encourages school districts to consider alternative actions before administering suspension or expulsion. If a student’s conduct involves 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 meeting still is required within the first 10 days of removal from school and educational services are provided.

Schools are required to support behavior and work with families

Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their impairments. Under the IDEA, when behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, the IEP Team is required to consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior. When necessary (for FAPE), the team must include those supports in the IEP.

These requirements are described in a federal Dear Colleague letter from August 1, 2016: “We are issuing this guidance to clarify that the failure to consider and provide for needed behavioral supports through the IEP process is likely to result in a child not receiving a meaningful educational benefit or FAPE.”

The letter, provided by the U.S. Department of Education, recommends specific alternatives to disciplinary removal and includes detail about the rights of families when there are behavioral concerns: “In general, IEP Team meetings provide parents (who are required members of the team) critical opportunities to participate in the decision-making process, raise questions and concerns regarding their child’s behavior, and provide input on the types of behavioral supports their children may need.”

When a student is suspended, the school is required to submit a report to the family and the state. That report must include an explanation of how school staff attempted to de-escalate a situation before resorting to disciplinary removal. OSPI provides information for schools and families related to state guidance and requirements. A one-page introductory handout for parents is a place to begin.

As a local control state, individual school districts determine their specific policies related to disciplinary criteria and actions. According to OSPI, school districts are required to engage with community members and families when updating their discipline policies, which must align with state and federal regulations.

In general, Washington 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 due to absences or tardiness
  • Limit use of exclusionary discipline for behaviors that do not present a safety threat
  • Prohibit expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range cannot be excluded from their classroom placements/suspended for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)
  • Require schools to provide educational access while a student is suspended or expelled

Schools must 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). According to the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-400-610) educational services provided in an alternative setting must enable the student to:

  • Continue to participate in the general education curriculum
  • Meet the educational standards established within the district
  • Complete subject, grade-level, and graduation requirements

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.”

Schools can assess the behavior (FBA) to make a plan (BIP)

Regardless of whether the student has qualified for services, best practice is for the school to conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) following a significant disciplinary action. An FBA can be done for students with or without IEPs or Section 504 Plans.

The FBA is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which helps a child learn expected behaviors and prevent escalations. The BIP identifies target behaviors that disrupt learning and calls out “antecedents,” conditions or events that occur first—before the targeted behavior. A BIP supports “replacement” behavior so a student can develop skills for expected learning behaviors.  

In addition to a BIP, a student receiving special education services whose behavior impedes their learning may need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) to support skill-development in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL). If targeted SEL instruction is needed, the student will have specific IEP goals to support the learning.

Another way that an IEP can support students with behavioral disabilities is through related services. Counseling can be written into an IEP as a related service. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for FAPE, a school district is responsible to provide and fund those services. School districts can receive reimbursement for 70 percent of the cost of behavioral health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP.

All students access behavioral supports when schools use Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Families can ask school staff to describe their MTSS structure and how students receive support through Tier 1 (all students), Tier 2 (targeted groups), and Tier 3 (individualized support). An element of MTSS is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which also supports students across levels of need.

PAVE provides an article with more information about MTSS/PBIS and how to support expected behaviors at school.

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

In its guidance booklet, ACLU addresses 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 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.”

PAVE provides additional information about what to do if the school calls in a video.

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 bodily 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.

The Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) offers an online resource page that details state guidance related to isolation and restraint. Included is this statement:

“Schools in Washington State are not allowed to use restraint or isolation as a form of discipline or punishment, or as a way to try to correct a child’s behavior. Restraint and isolation are only allowed as emergency measures, to be used if necessary, to keep a student or others safe from serious harm. They can continue only as long as the emergency continues.”

School districts are required to collect and report data on the use of restraint and isolation. That data is posted on OSPI’s website as part of the School Safety Resource Library. 

Emergency Response Protocol (ERP)

If emergency responses and/or 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 explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff authorized to conduct 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.

Reporting requirements for disciplinary removal

Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian and to the state any time formal disciplinary or emergency actions are taken.

The Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-400-455) describes what is required in a notice to students and parents when a student is suspended or expelled from school:

  • Initial notice. Before administering any suspension or expulsion, a school district must attempt to notify the student’s parents, as soon as reasonably possible, regarding the behavioral violation.
  • Written notice. No later than one school business day following the initial hearing with the student in WAC 392-400-450, a school district must provide written notice of the suspension or expulsion to the student and parents in person, by mail, or by email. The written notice must include:
    • A description of the student’s behavior and how the behavior violated the school district’s policy adopted under WAC 392-400-110;
    • The duration and conditions of the suspension or expulsion, including the dates on which the suspension or expulsion will begin and end;
    • The other forms of discipline that the school district considered or attempted, and an explanation of the district’s decision to administer the suspension or expulsion;
    • The opportunity to receive educational services during the suspension or expulsion under WAC 392-400-610;
    • The student’s and parents’ right to an informal conference with the principal or designee under WAC 392-400-460;
    • The student’s and parents’ right to appeal the suspension or expulsion under WAC 392-400-465, including where and to whom the appeal must be requested; and
    • For a long-term suspension or expulsion, the opportunity for the student and parents to participate in a reengagement meeting under WAC 392-400-710.
  • Language assistance. The school district must ensure the initial and written notices required under this section are provided in a language the student and parents understand, which may require language assistance for students and parents with limited-English proficiency under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Reporting requirements for isolation/restraint

The state has similar reporting requirements when a student is isolated or restrained at school. Following are statements from the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.600.485):

“Any school employee, resource officer, or school security officer who uses isolation or restraint on a student during school-sponsored instruction or activities must inform the building administrator or building administrator’s designee as soon as possible, and within two business days submit a written report of the incident to the district office. The written report must include, at a minimum, the following information:

  • The date and time of the incident
  • The name and job title of the individual who administered the restraint or isolation
  • A description of the activity that led to the restraint or isolation
  • The type of restraint or isolation used on the student, including the duration
  • Whether the student or staff was physically injured during the restraint or isolation incident and any medical care provided
  • Any recommendations for changing the nature or amount of resources available to the student and staff members in order to avoid similar incidents”

The RCW also states that school staff “must make a reasonable effort to verbally inform the student’s parent or guardian within 24 hours of the incident and must send written notification as soon as practical but postmarked no later than five business days after the restraint or isolation occurred. If the school or school district customarily provides the parent or guardian with school-related information in a language other than English, the written report under this section must be provided to the parent or guardian in that language.”

Equity work in student discipline is ongoing

A graph that shows disparity in discipline is provided on OSPI’s website, which includes training and materials for schools to support improvements. “Like other states, Washington has experienced significant and persistent disparities in the discipline of students based upon race/ethnicity, disability status, language, sex and other factors,” OSPI’s website states. “While overall rates of exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion) have declined over the last decade, significant disparities persist. These trends warrant serious attention from school districts, as well as OSPI, to work toward equitable opportunities and outcomes for each and every student.”

How to Navigate School for Youth with Mental Health Concerns

Staff from PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) program provided a workshop as part of the statewide virtual conference hosted by NAMI Washington October 16, 2021.

This recorded training provides a general overview of student rights in education. Some information is specific to students impacted by mental health conditions.

The formal content begins about four minutes into the video and ends at about 46 minutes.

Here are a few examples of topics addressed:

  • Does my student have the right to be evaluated for special education if they refuse to go to school because of anxiety?
  • What accommodations are reasonable to ask for?
  • What services might be possible for my student who struggles with emotional regulation?
  • Can counseling be a related service?
  • Are there protections for a student because of suicidal thoughts or attempts?
  • What support is available for a student with a disability condition who isn’t prepared for adulthood because high school got interrupted by the pandemic?

Additional information about mental health education and services at school, the overall layout of youth behavioral health in Washington State, and where to find family support is included in a PAVE article: Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical.

To seek education, training, and support from the National Alliance on Mental illness, look for a virtual training or information about a local affiliate near you, listed on the NAMI WA website.

One place to access behavioral health services for children and youth anywhere in Washington is through the Seattle Children’s Hospital Mental Health Referral Service: 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Families and young people can reach out for individualized assistance from PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff at PAVE. Click Get Help or call 800-572-7368.

After you view the video, please take a quick moment to complete our survey. Your feedback is valuable!

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.
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is the “special” in special education. The evaluation determines whether SDI is needed to help a student overcome barriers of disability to appropriately access education. Learning to ask questions about SDI can help families participate in IEP development. Read on to learn more.
  • Parents can request an evaluation by submitting a written letter to the school district. PAVE offers a template to help with letter writing.
  • For more detail about what happens when a student qualifies for special education, PAVE’s website includes a short video, Overview of IEP Process; a more detailed on-demand webinar, Introduction to Special Education; and an article about IEP Essentials.

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.

The school follows specific deadlines for an evaluation process, which are described in the state laws provided in the links connected to each of these bullet points:

  • The district must document a formal request for evaluation and make a decision about whether to evaluate within 25 school days (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • After consent is signed, the school has 35 school days to complete the evaluation (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • If a student is eligible, the school has 30 calendar days to hold a meeting to develop an initial IEP (WAC 392-172A-03105).

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The school district’s evaluation asks 3 primary questions in each area of learning that is evaluated:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP. After the evaluation is reviewed, the IEP team meets to talk about how to build a program to meet the needs that were identified in the evaluation. Each area of disability that meets these three criteria is included as a goal area on the IEP.

The needs and how the school plans to serve those needs gets written into the section of the IEP document called the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance—sometimes shortened to Present Levels of Performance (PLOP). Becoming familiar with the PLOP section of the IEP is important for family members who participate on IEP teams. IEP goals flop without good PLOP!

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

After an initial evaluation is finished, the school arranges a meeting to review the results and determine whether the student qualifies for services. The evaluation review meeting can include time for family members, students and outside service providers to share ideas about what’s going on and what might help. PAVE provides a tool to help parents and students get ready for this and other important meetings by creating a Handout for Meetings.

Read on for ideas about what to do if the school determines that a student doesn’t qualify for IEP services and parents/caregivers disagree or want to pursue other types of school support.

If a student qualifies for special education, new input can be added to information from the evaluation that is automatically included in the PLOP. The present levels section of the IEP is important because it provides space to document the creative ideas that will support the student at school. This section can provide answers to this question: How will the school support the student in meeting annual goals?

Remember that the 3-part evaluation determines whether the student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). SDI is the “special” in special education. SDI is provided through individualized teaching methods, and its success is tracked and measured through progress on the IEP goals.

Progress monitoring is required annually but can be done throughout the year with a communication strategy designed by the school and family. That communication strategy can be written into the IEP document. PAVE’s article about SMART Goals and Progress Tracking can help families better understand how to participate in follow-through to make sure that the special education program is helping the student make meaningful progress.

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

Whether the student makes meaningful progress is also a measure of whether the school district is meeting its obligation to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), the primary entitlement of a student who qualifies for special education under criteria established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

PAVE provides an article about the history of special education with more detail about how FAPE became the standard for special education service delivery.

When a student is evaluated, the results are reviewed by a team that includes school staff and the family. The team discusses whether the student qualifies for special education. If yes, then the IEP process begins to determine how best to deliver FAPE. In other words, how will the school district provide an appropriate education to meet a student’s unique needs, in light of the circumstances of disability?

PAVE provides an article describing the IDEA and its six primary principles as the Foundation of Special Education. In addition to FAPE, the primary principles include: appropriate evaluation, IEP, parent and student involvement, education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and Procedural Safeguards, which provide dispute options and protections to make sure schools follow federal and state rules.

A referral starts the evaluation process

A parent/guardian, teacher, school administrator, service provider or other concerned adult can refer a student for evaluation. PAVE’s recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation in writing are included later in this article.

Depending on a student’s suspected areas of disability (see categories listed below), the district may need medical information. However, the school cannot delay the evaluation while requiring parents to get that medical information. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination, the district must pay for the outside evaluation. OSPI includes more detail about these requirements in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP No. 5).

If the school agrees to evaluate, 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. Listed below are some common skill areas to evaluate:

  • Functional: Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up with tasks such as eating, handling common classroom tools or using the restroom.
  • Academic: Testing in specific academic areas can seek information about whether the student might have a Specific Learning Disability, such as dyslexia.
  • OT and Speech: Occupational Therapy and Speech/Language can be included as specific areas for evaluation, if there is reason to suspect that deficits are impacting education.
  • Social-Emotional Learning: Many evaluations collect data in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which can highlight disabilities related to behavior, social interactions, mental health or emotional regulation. It’s common for parents to fill out an at-home survey as part of an SEL evaluation process.
  • Autism Spectrum: Testing can look for disability related to autism spectrum issues, such as sensory processing or social difficulties. Testing in this area can be done regardless of whether there is a medical diagnosis.
  • Adaptive: How a student transitions from class-to-class or organizes materials are examples of adaptive skills that might impact learning.

Please note that strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details for a robust program. The first part of a present levels statement can always include statements about what the student does well.

Eligibility Categories of Disability

Areas of evaluation are associated with the 14 categories of disability that are defined as “eligibility categories” under the IDEA. These are broad categories, and sometimes there is discussion about which is the best fit to capture information about a student’s unique situation. Please note that there is no such thing as a “behavior IEP” or an “academic IEP.” After a student qualifies, the school is responsible to address all areas of need and design programming, services and a placement to meet those needs. An IEP is an individualized program, built to support a unique person and is not a cut-and-paste project based on the category of disability.

This list includes some common diagnoses and/or issues that come up within each of the IDEA’s 14 categories.

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features of autism may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs. See PAVE’s  article about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and resources for families.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination and not already available, the school district must pay for the outside evaluation.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 9. By age 10, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

Appropriate evaluation is a key principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA includes a mandate called Child Find, which requires school districts to seek out, evaluate and serve students ages Birth-21 who have known or suspected disabilities that may impact school success or access. PAVE has an article about the Child Find Mandate, which 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.

Here are some 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.

Deadlines start when a referral is made

When a student is referred for an evaluation, the school follows a schedule of deadlines. Parents can mark a calendar to track these timelines. To make sure deadlines are followed, PAVE recommends that formal requests and communications are made and stored in written form. Parents can always request a written response from the school or write down a response made verbally and send a “reflective” email that includes detail about what was discussed or decided. That reflective email creates a written record of a conversation.

Districts have 25 school days to respond to a request for evaluation. Some schools invite parents to a meeting to discuss concerns. Being prepared with a written statement can help. Parents can also share information from doctors or outside providers.

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.

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 take action if they disagree with the way testing was done or the way it was interpreted.

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests. 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.

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 and develop 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. PAVE provides an on-demand webinar about conflict engagement: Parents as Partners with the School.

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

Make the request in writing! PAVE provides a sample letter to help.

  • Address the letter to the district’s special education director or program coordinator.
  • Deliver the request by email, certified mail, or in person. To hand-deliver, request a date/time stamp or signature at the front office to serve as a receipt.
  • Track the days the district takes to respond. The district has 25 school days (weekends and holidays excluded) to respond.

Items to include in the referral letter:

  • The student’s full name and birthdate.
  • A clear statement of request, such as “I am requesting a full and individual educational evaluation for [the student].”
  • A statement that “all areas of suspected disability” be evaluated.
  • A description of concerns. Include any details provided by the student about what is working or not working at school, during transportation or related to homework. Consider all areas of school, not just academic ones.
  • Include any detail about past requests for evaluation that may have been denied.
  • Attach letters from doctors, therapists, or other providers who have relevant information, insights, or diagnoses (NOTE: medical information is offered voluntarily and not required to be shared).
  • Parent/legal caregiver contact information and a statement that consent for the evaluation will be provided upon notification.

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

  • Document the referral.
  • Notify parent/caregiver, in writing, that the student has been referred for evaluation.
  • Examine relevant documents from family, the school, medical providers, and other involved agencies.
  • Tell parents/caregivers in writing, within 25 days, about the decision to evaluate or not. This formal letter is called “Prior Written Notice.”
  • Request formal written consent for an evaluation.
  • Complete the evaluation within 35 school days after consent is signed.
  • Schedule a meeting to share evaluation results with a team that includes family to determine next steps.
  • Initiate development of an IEP, if the student qualifies.

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

Sometimes a Functional Behavior Assessment (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 Behavioral 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). PAVE provides a variety of articles about Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

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

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This Civil Rights law protects individuals with disabilities that severely impact “major life activities,” such as learning, breathing, walking, paying attention, making friends… The law is intentionally broad to capture a wide range of disability conditions and how they might impact a person’s life circumstances.

Sometimes students who don’t qualify for the IEP will qualify for accommodations and other support through a Section 504 Plan. PAVE has an article about Section 504, which provides an individual with protections throughout the lifespan. Note that Section 504 anti-discrimination protections apply to students with IEPs and Section 504 Plans. Key protections provide for equitable opportunities, access and non-discriminatory policies and practices. These protections might be part of the discussion if a student, because of disability, is denied access to a field trip, extracurricular opportunities, a unique learning environment or something else that is generally available to all students.

Section 504 includes specific provisions to protect students from bullying related to disability conditions: A US Department of Education Dear Colleague letter about bullying describes those protections as an aspect of a school district’s responsibility to provide FAPE.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If families disagree with the school district’s evaluation, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. To deny an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate. PAVE provides an article with more information and a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Here are additional resources:

Washington laws regarding evaluation are in 392-172A, 03005-03080, of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC)

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

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team provides 1:1 support and additional resources. Here are 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!