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

A Brief Overview

  • Discussion about school-based discipline was pretty quiet during the pandemic. The topic is resurfacing as schools begin to reopen 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. If the action is a suspension, specific rules apply. Read on for more detail. PAVE also provides a video with information about what to do if the school wants to send a child home due to behavior.
  • Families can seek individualized assistance by clicking Get Help from PAVE’s website, wapave.org.
  • Read on for information about Procedural Safeguards, which are downloadable through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington’s lead educational agency.

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.

Although no one can predict what will happen as schools reopen for in-person services, research clearly indicates that children’s behavioral health has 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 requires schools to provide in-person learning options at least part of the week and directs 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 schools reopen, the topic of how to support expected behavior and avoid disciplinary removal from the classroom is resurfacing. Read on for foundational information about student and family rights in Washington.

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

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

Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Alarming statistics indicate the pandemic has worsened 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.
  • Students eligible for special education services through the federal category of Emotional Disturbance are more than twice as likely as other disabled peers to quit school before graduating.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for further information and resources.
  • 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.
  • Help is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
  • Text HEAL to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
  • For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Projectprovides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.
  • A place to connect with other families is a Facebook group called Youth Behavioral Healthcare Advocates (YBHA-WA).
  • Family caregivers can request support and training from A Common Voice, a statewide non-profit staffed with Parent Support Specialists who have lived experience parenting a child with mental illness or behavioral health challenges. Contact Jasmine@acommonvoice.org/253-732-4944.

Full Article

Alarming statistics indicate the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened circumstances for young people who were already struggling to maintain mental health. Washington’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey, from 2018, revealed that 10 percent of high-school students had attempted suicide within the year. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.

The governor’s order requires schools to provide in-person learning options and directs 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.”

The Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group (CYBHWG) 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.

A press for more school-based services

Advocacy for more school-based mental health services 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 the legislative work group with 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 statewide Student Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention advisory group has recommended widespread implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Through MTSS, schools support well-being for all students through school-wide programming and offer higher levels of support based on student need. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a key component of an MTSS framework, which also creates a structure for providing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at various levels of need.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the guidance agency for Washington schools, prioritized 2021 budget requests to Empower all Schools to Support the Whole Child, including through MTSS. In January, 2021, OSPI was awarded a five-year, $5.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to build regional coaching capacity to support districts in their MTSS implementation. 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 framework 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.

Note that a student with a mental health condition could qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which captures needs related to various medical diagnoses.

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 interventions, then the student may be eligible for an Individualized Education Program (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 and/or 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 and 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 70 percent of the cost of behavioral 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 first. If they are 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.

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.

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

With the release of the Healthy Youth Survey in Spring, 2019, the state issued a two-page Guide to Mental Health Information and Resources to provide more detail about the survey and to direct families and school staff toward resources for support.

Included is a list of factors that help youth remain resilient to mental health challenges:

  • Support and encouragement from parents/guardians and other family members, friends, school professionals, and other caring adults
  • Feeling that there are people who believe in them, care about them, and whom they can talk to about important matters
  • Safe communities and learning environments
  • Self-esteem, a sense of control and responsibility, and problem-solving and coping skills
  • Having an outlet for self-expression and participation in various activities

The handout includes tips for parents and other adults supporting 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 they shouldn’t have access to.

State options for behavioral health services and support

For Washington children and youth with Medicaid insurance, the highest level of community-based care in behavioral health is provided through Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe). The WISe program was begun as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit, TR v Dreyfus, in which a federal court found that Washington wasn’t providing adequate mental-health services to youth. WISe teams provide a wide range of therapies and supports with a goal to keep the young person out of the hospital.

Young people under 18 who need residential care to meet medical needs may be referred to the Children’s Long-Term Inpatient program: PAVE’s website provides an article about CLIP.

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.

The Family, Youth and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT) provides a meeting space for family members and professionals to talk about what’s working and what isn’t working in mental healthcare. FYSPRT groups provide informal networking and can provide ways for families to meet up and support one another under challenging circumstances.

Federal parity laws require insurers to provide coverage for behavioral health services that are equitable to coverage for physical health conditions. The National Health Law Program (NHLP) provides information and advocacy related to behavioral healthcare access and offers handouts to help families know what to expect from their insurance coverage and what to do if they suspect a parity law violation:

Family Initiated Treatment (FIT) is an option in Washington

Youth older than 13 have the right to consent or not consent to any medical treatment in Washington State. Parents and lawmakers throughout 2018-2019 engaged in conversations about how that creates barriers to care for some teens struggling with behavioral health conditions. The Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act (HB 1874), became law in May 2019. PAVE provides an article about the law and its provision for Family Initiated Treatment.  

Places to seek referrals and information

Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2019 launched a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is for families statewide. In addition to helping to connect families with services, the hospital is gathering data to identify gaps in care.

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.

Key Resources

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

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK)
  • 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)

Further information on mental health and suicide:  

Home for the Holidays: The Gift of Positive Behavior Support

A Brief Overview

  • This article provides examples and simple guidance about how to be more strategic in parenting a child who struggles with behavior—during the weird winter of 2020 and beyond.
  • PAVE consulted with University of Washington positive behavior support expert Kelcey Schmitz for this article.
  • Anticipating trouble and making a best guess about the behavior’s “purpose” is a great place to start.
  • Listen and look for opportunities to praise expected behavior. It’s easy to forget to pay attention when things are going well, but keeping the peace is easier if praise is consistent while children are behaving as expected.
  • Read on to gift the family with a plan for improving holiday happiness.

Full Article

Holidays can be challenging for families impacted by disability, trauma, grief, economic struggles, and other stressors. Holiday season 2020 has its own flavors of confusion. Families with children who struggle with behavior may want to head into the winter with plans in place. Anticipating where trouble could bubble up and developing a strategy for working it out provides all family members with opportunities for social-emotional growth, mindfulness, and rich moments.

PAVE consulted with a University of Washington (UW) expert in positive behavior supports to provide insight and information for this article. Kelcey Schmitz is the school mental health lead for the Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, housed at the UW School Mental Health Research and Training (SMART) Center. An area of expertise for Schmitz is Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), a framework for schools to support children’s academic, social, emotional, and behavioral strengths and needs at multiple levels. An MTSS framework makes room for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). When done well, PBIS teaches and reinforces positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice” (working it out instead of punishing).

“This holiday season may present additional challenges given the pandemic,” Schmitz says. “Families, like educators, need to go back to the basics during times of stress and uncertainty. Remembering core features of PBIS at home, such as predictability, consistency, safety, and positive interactions are going to be key. In fact, lessons learned during stay-at-home orders during the pandemic can and will carry us through the holidays and beyond. Never before have routines, regulation, relationships, and reinforcement been more important for everyone in the family than they will be this winter.”

Schmitz has provided articles and content to support PAVE families over the years and offers the following tips for navigating the holidays by using PBIS strategies at home.

Make a list and check it twice to know what troubling behaviors are about

Whatever the holidays mean and include, family routines can shift. Food can look and taste different. The house may be decorated in a different way. School takes breaks. Weather changes, and sunrise and sunset are closer together.

Children may struggle with changes in routines, different food items on the menu, overstimulating environments, long periods of unstructured activities, or sensory issues that make long pants, socks, gloves, coats, and hats feel like shards of glass.

Keep in mind that all behaviors serve a purpose; they are a way for the child to solve a problem. Without appropriate social skills, children will do what is necessary to have their needs met in the quickest way possible. However, adults who can predict problem behaviors may also be able to prevent them.

TIP: Anticipate trouble and make a best guess about the motivation

Set your child (and family) up for holiday success by thinking ahead about the types of routines and situations that might be challenging. Craft a plan to intervene early, before a full-blown escalation.

Create a best guess statement to better understand the relationship between an unwanted behavior and the child’s environment. Summarize what usually happens by describing:

  • The behavior (tantrum, hitting, refusal)
  • Circumstances that set the stage (what’s going on right before the behavior?)
  • What happens after the behavior (time out, angry adults, something removed or given)
  • A best guess about the child’s motivation/the “purpose” of the behavior (to get something or get out of something)

Here is an example:

At Grandma’s holiday gathering, an adult encourages a child to try a food, demands a “please” or “thank you,” or scolds the child. Note if the child is tired, hungry, or uncomfortable in an unusual or unpredictable situation. These are the circumstances that set the stage.

The child cries and yells loud enough to be heard in another room (description of the behavior).

During the child’s outbursts, others leave her alone (what happens after the behavior).

Best guess about the purpose? The child may want to avoid unpleasant people, food, or situations.

Making a good guess about what causes and maintains the behavior (crowded or overstimulating environment, being rushed, being told they can’t have or do something they want, different expectations, demands, exhaustion, hunger) can support a plan and potentially avoid worst-case scenarios.

Determining the purpose or function of a behavior may require a closer look at what typically happens (what others say or do) after the behavior occurs. The behavior may be inappropriate, but the reason for it usually is not.  Most of the time there is a logical explanation. Here are some questions to help think it through:

  • Does the child get something–or get out of something?
  • Does the child generally seek or avoid something, such as:
    • Attention (from adults or peers)?
    • Activity?
    • Tangibles (toys/other objects)?
    • Sensory stimulation?

Make a list and check it twice: Prevention is key

Many behaviors can be prevented using simple proactive strategies. Adults can use their best-guess statement to build a customized strategy. Here are some starter ideas that might help prevent or reduce the intensity, frequency, or duration of unwanted behaviors:

  • Make sure the child is well rested and has eaten before going out.
  • Bring food that is familiar and appealing.
  • Anticipate challenges, and plan accordingly.
  • Pre-teach family expectations (respectful, responsible, safe) and talk about how those expectations work at grandma’s house: “When someone gives you a present, say thank you and smile at the person who gave you the gift.” For information about developing family expectations, see PAVE’s article, Tips to Help Parents Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home.
  • Encourage the child to bring a comfort item (toy, book, blanket).
  • Give more “start” messages than “stop” messages.
  • Teach a signal the child can use to request a break.
  • Create a social story about family gatherings; review it regularly.
  • Rehearse! Practice/pretend having a meal at Grandma’s house, opening gifts, playing with cousins, and other likely scenarios.
  • Arrive early to get comfortable before the house gets crowded.
  • Create a visual schedule of events, and let the child keep track of what’s happening or cross off activities as they happen.

Respond quick as a wink: Reward replacement behavior

An essential prevention strategy is teaching what to do instead of the unwanted behavior. “What to do instead” is called replacement behavior. To be effective, the replacement behavior needs to get results just as quickly and effectively as the problem behavior.

For example, if a child learns a signal for taking a break, adults need to respond to the signal just as fast as they would if the child starts to scream and cry.

Responding quickly will strengthen the replacement behavior and help make sure that the unwanted behavior is no longer useful.

Here are steps to help teach replacement behaviors:

  1. Demonstrate/model the wanted behavior
  2. Provide many opportunities for practice
  3. Let the child know they got it right (as you would if they learned a skill like riding a bike, writing their name, or saying their colors)

Praise a silent night

Inspect what you expect. Listen and look for opportunities to praise expected behavior. It’s easy to forget to pay attention when things are going well, but keeping the peace is easier if praise is consistent while children are behaving as expected.

Evidence indicates that children’s behavior improves best with a 5:1 ratio of positive-to-negative feedback. Increasing positive remarks during difficult times—such as holidays and pandemics—might reduce escalations.

Provide frequent, genuine, and specific praise, with details that help encourage the specific behavior being noticed. For example, say, “You did a nice job sharing that toy truck with your cousin!”

All is calm: Intervene at the first sign of trouble

Be ready to prompt appropriate behavior, redirect, or offer a calming activity when there are early signs of agitation or frustration.

  • Provide early, clear instructions about “what to do instead,” using language and modeling consistent with what was pre-taught and practiced (see above).
  • For example, if a child is getting frustrated, say, “Remember, you can give me the peace signal if you need a break.”
  • Redirect the child to another activity or topic when appropriate and practical.
  • Hand the child a comfort item (stuffed animal, blanket).
  • Show empathy and listen actively: “It seems like you’re having some big feelings right now. Want to talk about it?” After listening, maybe say, “Wow, that’s a lot to feel.”

Do you hear what I hear? Heed alarm bells when plans need to shift

Not all challenging behaviors can be prevented, and adults may overestimate a child’s ability to control emotions. A child experiencing significant distress may be unable to process what is going on around them and follow what may seem like simple instructions.

If an adult’s best efforts are unable to prevent or diffuse a behavior escalation, a graceful exit may be the best strategy. It’s important for adults to remember that a child’s crisis isn’t their crisis. An adult’s ability to remain level-headed is critical, and children may ultimately learn from the behavior they see modeled.

Wait for a child to calm down before addressing the issue: An overwhelmed brain is not able to problem solve or learn. Later, everyone can review what worked or did not work in order to adjust the strategy for next time.

Believe: Be a beacon for hope

Support a child to learn, practice, and perform behaviors that enable fun, rich family experiences. The work may feel challenging—and the scale of the project may be impacted by a unique set of tough circumstances—but expecting and accepting the challenge enables the whole family to move toward new opportunities. Trust that the work will pay off—and relish the moments of success, however large or small. Believe that consistency and predictability can make a big impact this holiday season and beyond.

Here are a few points to review:

  • What might seem fun and relaxing to adults, could be overwhelming and upsetting to children.
  • Children are more likely to exhibit the behavior that will most quickly get their needs met, regardless of the social appropriateness.
  • Acting out is typically a symptom of an underlying issue – it’s important to examine the root of the problem for long-term positive results.
  • Prevention strategies and intervening early can be very effective, but they are often underutilized. Plan ahead to eliminate, modify, or neutralize what might set off behavior.
  • Support wanted behaviors by teaching them, practicing them, modeling them, and making them consistent sources for praise and encouragement.

Resources:

COVID-19 Handbook and Family Binder (multiple language options) from the Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health (airbnetwork.org)

The Comprehensive, Integrated Three-Tiered Model of Prevention (ci3t.org) provides videos and other COVID-Related Resources for Families in English and Spanish

The Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS.org) provides a downloadable booklet (English and Spanish) for Supporting Families at Home with PBIS

Parent Training Modules from Vanderbilt University’s Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL), available in English and Spanish

YouTube video interview with Mark Durand, author of Optimistic Parenting: Hope and Help for You and Your Challenging Child

State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

A Brief Overview

  • Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a lifelong process through which children and adults effectively manage emotions, reach toward goals, experience empathy, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
  • In school, all students participate in SEL as part of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Specific SEL instruction can also be part of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Washington State adopted formal Social Emotional Learning Standards January 1, 2020. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides an SEL website page with resources for educators, families, and community members.
  • A 12-page SEL equity brief focuses specifically on issues of equity as they relate to race, culture, and economic status.
  • A state law that took effect June 11, 2020, further compels work related to SEL. HB 2816, which was inspired and supported by activist parents, requires the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) to develop a model policy “for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

Full Article

A child’s ability to understand, communicate, and manage emotions is critical to learning. So are skills that enable a child to socialize, self-motivate, empathize, and work collaboratively. Schools call this area of education Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

SEL is not just for children. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Students with disabilities may qualify for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in social and/or emotional areas of learning as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Eligibility for SDI is determined through evaluation, and schools use various instruments to assess whether a student has a disability affecting social or emotional skills to an extent that education is significantly impacted. If so, the student’s IEP will support learning in those social/emotional areas, and goal-monitoring will track skill growth.

Students with IEPs are not the only ones who receive SEL instruction, however. Schools may use curricula to promote emotional understanding, social stories, mindfulness programs, communication circles or other strategies as part of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is a framework for improving school-wide social, emotional, and cultural climate. Schools that adopt an MTSS framework deliver SEL to all students (Tier 1) and generally offer Tier 2 and Tier 3 programming to targeted groups or individual students.

Parenting Tip: Ask whether your school uses an MTSS framework

Family caregivers can ask school staff and administrators whether the district operates within an MTSS framework.

  • If the answer is no, ask how school climate is addressed and how SEL is integrated into school-wide programming.
  • If the answer is yes, ask what SEL instruction looks like in the general education classroom (Tier 1) and how specialized lessons are provided to students with higher levels of need (Tiers 2-3). Note that a student who does not qualify for an IEP could demonstrate the need for social/emotional instruction beyond what is provided to most students. Family caregivers can ask for detail about how the school’s MTSS system supports any specific student.

State adopts six SEL standards

Washington State adopted formal Social Emotional Learning Standards January 1, 2020. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which provides guidance to all public and non-public educational agencies in the state, provides an SEL website page with resources for educators, families, and community members. Included is a link to the official letter in which State Superintendent Chris Reykdal adopted the standards, and a collection of resources to support SEL implementation and to further understanding about how families and communities can participate.

A primary document is the 24-page Social Emotional Learning Standards, Benchmarks, and Indicators, which defines the six SEL learning standards and various benchmarks under each. An extensive chart offers practical guidance for assessing each standard for students in Early Elementary, Late Elementary, Middle School, and High School/Adult. The SEL learning standards include:

  1. SELF-AWARENESS – Individuals have the ability to identify their emotions, personal assets, areas for growth, and potential external resources and supports.
  2. SELF-MANAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
  3. SELF-EFFICACY – Individuals have the ability to motivate themselves, persevere, and see themselves as capable.
  4. SOCIAL AWARENESS – Individuals have the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  5. SOCIAL MANAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to make safe and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions.
  6. SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to consider others and show a desire to contribute to the well-being of the school and community.

Developmental milestones are charted with a variety of statements that might demonstrate the skill or disposition within an age range.  

  • For example, a late elementary age student might show self-awareness this way: “I can identify and describe physical symptoms and thoughts related to my emotions and feelings (e.g., hot, shoulders tight).”
  • A middle-school student might demonstrate self-efficacy this way: “I can identify specific human and civil rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled and can understand how to advocate for myself in healthy ways.”

Tip for Parents: Promote SEL at home

Included on the SEL website page is a list of learning activities for families and educators. The eight-page guide includes links to videos, websites, and ready-to-use resources to encourage positive behavior support and helpful communication at home and at school.  Resources are sorted by age and marked to indicate whether they are best suited for family caregivers, teachers, or both.

  • For example, parents of children K-5 might want to click on SEL Games to Play With Your Child to find a resource from Understood.org. One game, Starfish and Tornadoes, helps kids notice how much energy they are feeling inside and when they might need to use their calming skills or ask for help from a trusted adult.
  • A suggestion for grades 5-12 is to Practice Loving-Kindness for Someone you Care About. That exercise from Greater Good in Education provides adaptations for students with disabilities and suggests ways to make the project culturally responsive.

Another document accessible through OSPI’s website is a three-page guide for parents and families, which includes resource linkages to free online training, parenting cue cards with quick answers to typical concerns, and access to other websites with tools and advice specific for various stages of child development. Also included are tips to promote SEL at home by encouraging a child to:

  • Identify and name their emotions, feelings, and thoughts.
  • Identify positive and negative consequences of actions.
  • Demonstrate the ability to follow routines and generate ideas to solve problems.
  • Create a goal and track progress toward achieving that goal.
  • Identify feelings expressed by others.
  • Identify ways that people and groups are similar and different.
  • Demonstrate attentive listening skills without distraction.
  • Identify and take steps to resolve interpersonal conflicts in constructive ways.
  • Demonstrate a sense of community responsibility

SEL guidance supports equity and inclusion

  • Principles listed throughout the state SEL guidance include:
  • Equity: Each child receives what he or she needs to develop his or her full potential.
  • Cultural responsiveness: Culture is viewed as a resource for learning, not a barrier.
  • Universal design: Learning differences are planned for and accommodated.
  • Trauma-informed: Knowledge of the effects of trauma is integrated into policy and practice.

State guidance that describes the SEL standards and benchmarks includes this statement: “Social emotional learning (SEL) happens over the course of a day, a lifetime, and in every setting in which students and adults spend their time.… Effectively supporting social emotional development in schools requires collaboration among families and communities. It also involves building adult capacity to support a school climate and culture that recognizes, respects, and supports differences in abilities, experiences, and ethnic and cultural differences, and celebrates diversity.”

A 12-page SEL equity brief focuses specifically on issues of equity as they relate to race, culture, and economic status. “A white, middle-class model of self that values independence dominates schools,” the brief states. “Students of color and students in low-income communities often experience ‘cultural mismatch’ in education settings that expect forms of expression and participation not aligned with their culture.

“Without explicit attention to equity and cultural diversity, prevalent SEL frameworks, models, and curricula may not adequately reflect the diverse worldviews of students and families.”

Parenting Tip: Attend your local school board meeting to influence decisions

The state’s SEL implementation guide is intended for local districts to use in developing their own school- or community-specific plan to meet the needs of all learners. Because Washington is a local control state, each district is responsible for policy development.

Families have the option of making public comment at meetings to share thoughts or concerns. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington). Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. The Washington State School Directors’ Association provides a guidebook about the rules for Open Public Meetings. The rules apply in any meeting space or platform.

HB 2816 promotes positive school climate

A state law that took effect June 11, 2020, further compels work related to SEL. HB 2816, which was inspired and supported by activist parents, requires the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) to develop a model policy “for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

The model policy and procedures for its implementation includes specific elements to “recognize the important role that students’ families play in collaborating with the school and school district in creating, maintaining, and nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.” In addition, districts “must provide information to the parents and guardians of enrolled students regarding students’ rights to a free public education, regardless of immigration status or religious beliefs; and school districts must provide meaningful access to this information for families with limited English proficiency.”

In accordance with HB 2816, the WSSDA website will post the model policy and procedure by March 1, 2021. School districts are responsible to incorporate the guidance by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year: “School districts may periodically review policies and procedures for consistency with updated versions of the model policy for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

SEL is linked to research about Adverse Childhood Experiences

A national movement to incorporate Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is informed by knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first report about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Dr. Vincent Felitti, then the CDC’s chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.

The data inspired researchers and educators to seek new ways to help children cope so they can manage themselves at school—and in life. A variety of new evidence-based practices were developed to support childhood resiliency. The National Research Council issued this statement in 2012: “There is broad agreement that today’s schools must offer more than academic instruction to prepare students for life and work.”

The 2015 Washington State Legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and Senate Bill 6620 in 2016 authorized development of a free online training module in SEL for school staff. The bill states that, “In order to foster a school climate that promotes safety and security, school district staff should receive proper training in developing students’ social and emotional skills.” Development of the state SEL Standards furthers that work.

Parenting tip: Work on your own SEL skills

Family caregivers play an important role in fostering SEL by working on their own self-regulation skills. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) provides a wide array of resources, including some related to stressors from COVID-19. “We need to pay close attention to our own social emotional needs in order to be the community of adults who best serve our young people,” CASEL advises. “Practice continued self-care strategies, including eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, and finding time to take breaks.” CASEL provides a checklist to reframe your thinking, including ideas about “all-or-nothing” or overgeneralization, for example.

PAVE provides a series of short mindfulness videos for all ages and abilities and offers additional mindfulness and parenting ideas in an article, Stay Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

Parents are a child’s primary SEL teachers

Family caregivers can help foster SEL skills by collaborating with the school. OSPI’s guidance includes this statement: “Parents and families are a child’s first teachers of SEL. As children grow, parents and families continue to support the social emotional lives of their children in the home.”

Here are a few questions parents might ask school staff to collaborate on SEL skill development:

  • How are you helping my child learn from mistakes?
  • If behavior is keeping my child from learning, what skill is lacking?
  • What is a best-practice strategy for teaching the skill that my child needs to learn?
  • Do you have a tool for understanding and regulating emotions that we can use at home also?
  • How is my child learning to “name and tame” emotions? (Dan Siegel, neurobiologist and author of Mindsight, suggests that recognizing and naming a feeling gives a person power to regulate the emotion.)
  • What positive reinforcement is being provided when my child demonstrates a new skill? How are those positive reinforcers tracked through data collection?
  • What is the plan to help my child calm down when dysregulation makes problem-solving inaccessible?
  • Would a Functional Behavior Assessment help us understand what my child is trying to communicate through this unexpected behavior?
  • Can we collaborate to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan so that we are using the same cues and language to support expected behavior?
  • What adult at the school is a “champion” for my child? (Dr. Bruce Perry, whose research supports trauma-informed initiatives, says, “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”)

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 children and youth what they should do instead. Adults can direct a child toward a better choice or interrupt an escalation cycle.
  • The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right. Remember this catchy phrase, “5:1 gets it done,” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction.
  • Parents might find success with strategies they can share with school staff eventually.
  • For additional strategies unique to COVID-19, the Office of Superintendent of Public instruction (OSPI) offers a series of 3 webinars for family caregivers. For information and links to the videos, see PAVE’s article: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

Full Article

Schedule changes and seasonal transitions cause emotional upheaval for some families in typical years. Summer 2020 includes unique conditions, with families moving into a summer with fewer-than-usual options to keep children busy after months of learning from home due to the COVID-19 building closures. A few strategies, described below, might help families keep things chill this summer.

Experts in education use a framework for creating a positive environment called 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 requires an understanding that punishment fails to help a child know what to do instead. Researchers have learned that a child who is being punished enters an emotionally dysregulated state (fight/flight/freeze) that blocks learning. Adults who calmly direct a child toward a new way of problem-solving can interrupt or prevent an escalation.

Keep in mind that adults need to stay regulated to help children. For strategies related to mindfulness, see PAVE’s article: Stay Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short videos with mindfulness and breath practices for all ages and abilities: Mindfulness Videos.

Within a PBIS framework, de-escalation strategies might include:

  • Remove what is causing the behavior
  • Get down to eye level
  • Offer empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
  • Provide choices
  • Re-teach expectations
  • Reinforce desired behaviors
  • Communicate care instead of control

Behavior is a child’s attempt to communicate

Simple, consistent, predictable language is a critical component. Insights about these strategies and more were shared in a webinar by Change Lab Solutions on April 30, 2019.

Among experts talking about PBIS are staff at the University of Washington’s School of Mental Health Assessment, Research and Training (SMART) Center. Staff from the SMART center lead the School Mental Health supplement of the Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (NWMHTTC). These agencies, in collaboration with the League of Education Voters, in June 2019 hosted a webinar: How to Implement Mental Health Supports in Schools, focused on the importance of blending school and community supports with PBIS.

A University of Washington (UW) expert who participated in the webinar is Kelcey Schmitz, a former OSPI staff member who has written articles for PAVE about positive behavior supports and state initiatives and has experience helping families and schools implement PBIS.

“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).

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 like 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, “5:1 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:

Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior 

Home and Community Based Positive Behavior Support Facebook Page

Home and Community PBS Website

Parent Center Hub Positive Behavior Supports Resource Collection

Intensive Intervention: An Overview for Parents and Families

The Association for Positive Behavior Support

Getting Behavior in Shape at Home

Family Resources for Challenging Behavior

The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) Resource Library, articles in multiple languages

Response to Intervention (RTI) – Support for Struggling Students

Brief overview

  • Students struggle in school for different reasons.
  • RTI is an acceptable way of identifying students with learning disabilities.
  • RTI isn’t a specific program or type of teaching.
  • RTI works on a tier system with three levels of intervention.

Full Article

Students struggle in school for different reasons. Response to Intervention (RTI)  can help by combining high quality, culturally responsive instructions with assessments and interventions that are proven to work by evidence from research.

RTI was originally recognized in the 1970s as a system for helping students with potential learning problems early, instead of waiting until they fail. With the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, RTI was noted as an acceptable way to identify students with learning disabilities. RTI can help students who haven’t yet been identified as eligible for special education or those who struggle but don’t qualify for special education services.

At any time during the RTI process, parents or teachers can request an evaluation for special education services.  The evaluation can determine whether a student qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or accommodations through a Section 504 Plan. RTI does not replace a school’s responsibility to evaluate students who might qualify for special education services. See PAVE’s article on Child Find, a mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

RTI’s goal is for schools to intervene before a student falls too far behind. RTI is not a specific program or type of teaching, but rather a proactive way to check in with a student to see how things are going. Data help school staff decide which types of targeted teaching would work best for the student. If a student’s progress is slow or stagnant, then teachers adjust based on the student’s needs. 

RTI has three levels, or tiers, for intervention:

  • In the general education classroom
  • In a special education classroom, resource room, or small group
  • For an individual student

RTI works best when parents are involved

Parents can monitor their child’s progress and participate in the process. Parents can talk to the school about which instructions or reinforcements are working and boost the benefit by being consistent with the same strategies at home.

As military families move from one location to another, they may notice that each school uses different techniques to implement RTI programs.  Schools will format their programs to best fit the needs of their students by using a variety of tools to improve learning for all students. Keeping up with what’s happening at school might be challenging but can help the student find success.

RTI is part of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework.  MTSS provides a method for intervention in academic and non-academic areas, including Social Emotional Learning or behavior support. MTSS is used to support adult students and professionals as well. In this video, a researcher from the American Institutes for Research, Rebecca Zumeta Edmonds, Ph.D., discusses differences between MTSS and RTI.

PAVE has an article that describes MTSS and how it can provide a larger framework for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), when a child’s behavior becomes a barrier to learning.

For more information on RTI, MTSS, and PBIS:

The Three RTI Tiers

Center on Response to Intervention

Response to Intervention (RTI)

 What is the Difference Between RTI and MTSS?

MTSS: What You Need to Know

Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) in Schools