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

A Brief Overview

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. Schools are required to address students’ behavioral health needs and limit use of punitive discipline.

Unfortunately, not all students are adequately supported. State data indicate that students with disabilities are 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 within Washington State and nationwide.

By many state and national measures, children’s behavioral health worsened during the pandemic and many children are developmentally behind in social, emotional, and behavioral skills. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis. At the same time, many schools and behavioral health agencies struggle to meet rising demand for services. PAVE provides a toolkit with further information about options for assisting children and young people with behavioral health conditions and ways to advocate for system change in Washington State.

This article provides information about school discipline. Keep in mind that disability rights protect individuals with all disabilities, including behavioral health disabilities. School policies and practices related to discipline may not discriminate against students, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability condition. Federal and state laws require that students with disabilities receive support and individualized instruction to help them meet behavioral expectations (WAC 392-172A-03110).

Federal and state guidance is written for schools and can help families too

This article includes links to various federal and state guidance documents that are written primarily to help school leaders follow laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities. Families and community members can refer to this guidance and work to help ensure that their local schools follow the law. When this does not happen, families and community members can use the dispute resolution process and incorporate federal and state guidance to support their advocacy efforts.

Dispute Resolution options related to IEP process are described in Procedural Safeguards. Dispute Resolution options when there are civil rights issues are described in the Section 504 Notice of Parent Rights. Both links connect to places where these documents are downloadable in various languages.

Key guidance and legal protections

Here are key state and national resources related to school discipline:

Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides information about Discipline Procedures for Students Eligible to Receive Special Education Services.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) within the US Department of Education issued a guidance letter July 19, 2022, that describes federal work underway to improve behavioral supports and reduce use of disciplinary removal nationwide. OSEP’s Dear Colleague Letter includes links to a Q and A document about disciplinary requirements and A Guide for Stakeholders, describing best practices to support behavior.

Also in July 2022, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance about the rights of students with behavioral health needs. Available in multiple languages, the downloadable booklet is titled: Supporting Students with Disabilities and Avoiding the Discriminatory Use of Student Discipline under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In a Dear Colleague letter published with OCR’s guidance on July 19, 2022, Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, calls out problems related to disability discrimination. “An important part of [OCR’s] mission is to ensure that students are not denied equal educational opportunity or subjected to discrimination based on their disabilities, including through the improper use of discipline,” Sec. Lhamon wrote.

Behavior support is part of FAPE

The right to appropriate behavioral supports is part of a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which requires services and supports designed to meet identified needs so students with disabilities can access what non-disabled students access without individualized services.

OCR’s guidance includes information about what schools must provide to serve FAPE, including the responsibility to offer regular and/or special education, and related aids and services, that “are designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met.”

Qualified personnel are required for FAPE: “Schools must take steps to ensure that any staff responsible for providing a student with the services necessary to receive FAPE understand the student’s needs and have the training and skills required to implement the services. A school’s failure to provide the requisite services is likely to result in a denial of FAPE.”

FAPE violations under Section 504 relate to fundamental disability rights. Denial of those rights is considered disability discrimination, which OCR defines as “excluding, denying benefits to, or otherwise discriminating against a student based on their disability, including by denying them equal educational opportunity in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

Federal framework for student rights

Families can empower themselves to understand these rights and resources and 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).
  • Section 504 protects all students with disabilities within the public school system, including those with Section 504 Plans, those with IEPs, and those with known or suspected disability conditions that make schools responsible to evaluate them. The right to a non-discriminatory evaluation is protected by Section 504 and by IDEA’s Child Find Mandate.
  • Section 504 applies to elementary and secondary public schools (including public charter schools and state-operated schools), public school districts, State Educational Agencies (OSPI is the SEA for WA State), and private schools and juvenile justice residential facilities that receive federal money directly or indirectly from the Department of Education. Private schools that do not receive federal funding are not bound by IDEA.
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. According to its July 2022 guidance, OCR can investigate complex complaints: “OCR is responsible for enforcing several laws that prohibit schools from discriminating based on disability; race, color, or national origin; sex; and age. A student may experience multiple forms of discrimination at once. In addition, a student may experience discrimination due to the combination of protected characteristics, a form of discrimination often called intersectional discrimination. Some instances of intersectional discrimination may stem from a decisionmaker acting upon stereotypes that are specific to a subgroup of individuals, such as stereotypes specific to Black girls that may not necessarily apply to all Black students or all girls. When OCR receives a complaint alleging discrimination in the use of discipline under more than one law, OCR has the authority to investigate and, where appropriate, find a violation under any law in its jurisdiction.” [emphasis added]
  • Contact the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at OCR@ed.gov or by calling 800-421-3481 (TDD: 800-877- 8339).

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. Shortened school days and informal removals—like when the school calls parents to have a child taken home for their behavior—are forms of exclusionary discipline unless there is a school-and-family meeting in which an alternate placement or schedule is chosen to best meet the needs of the student. 

If such a meeting does take place, the school and family team are responsible to make decisions about program and placement that are individualized. Schools may not unilaterally decide, for example, that all students with certain behavioral characteristics should attend a specific school or program. According to OCR, “A school district would violate Section 504 if it had a one-size-fits-all policy that required students with a particular disability to attend a separate class, program, or school regardless of educational needs.”

Seclusion and restraint may not be used as punishment

Seclusion (also called isolation) and/or restraint are emergency responses when there is severe and imminent danger. Federal guidance emphasizes that these practices may never be used as punishment or discipline:

“OSEP is not aware of any evidence-based support for the view that the use of restraint or seclusion is an effective strategy in modifying a child’s behaviors that are related to their disability. The Department’s longstanding position is that every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint or seclusion and that behavioral interventions must be consistent with the child’s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse.”

More information about isolation and restraint is included later in this article.

Exclusionary discipline may violate FAPE, including for students not yet receiving services

A student with an identified disability may be suspended for a behavioral violation that is outlined in district policy. The student “code of conduct” usually explains what it takes to get into trouble.

Schools are limited in their ability to exclude students from school because of behaviors that “manifest” (arise or express) from disability. Federal and state guidance is for schools to suspend students only if there are significant safety concerns.

If a student with disabilities has unmet needs and is consistently sent home instead of helped, the school may be held accountable for not serving the needs. According to OCR, disability discrimination can include instances when there is reasonable suspicion that a disability condition is impacting behavior, but the student is not properly evaluated to see if they are eligible for services and what services they may need.

The right to evaluation is protected by Child Find, which is an aspect of the IDEA, as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. OCR guidance includes information that schools may need to train or hire experts to meet federal requirements: “To ensure effective implementation of its evaluation procedures, a school may need to provide training to school personnel on when a student’s behaviors, or other factors, indicate the need for an evaluation under Section 504.”

A student with a disability that impacts their learning is entitled to FAPE. Again, FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE is protected by Section 504 and by IDEA. FAPE is what a student with disabilities is entitled to receive and what schools are responsible to provide.

OCR provides these places to look for data demonstrating a need to evaluate and determine whether a student is entitled to the rights and protections of FAPE:  

  • Information or records shared during enrollment
  • Student behaviors that may harm the student or another person
  • Observations and data collected by school personnel
  • Information voluntarily provided by the student’s parents or guardians
  • The school’s own disciplinary or other actions indicating that school personnel have concerns about the student’s behavior, such as frequent office referrals, demerits, notes to parents or guardians, or use of restraints or seclusion
  • Information that a previous response to student behavior by school personnel resulted in repeated or extended removals from educational instruction or services, or that a previous response (such as a teacher’s use of restraints or seclusion) traumatized a student and resulted in academic or behavioral difficulties

Schools are required to take assertive action to evaluate a student and/or reconsider the services plan if the student is consistently missing school because of their behavior. OCR guidance clearly states that schools cannot use resource shortages as a reason to deny or delay an evaluation:

“OCR would likely find it unreasonable for a district to delay a student’s evaluation because it does not have sufficient personnel trained to perform the needed assessments and fails to secure private evaluators to meet the need. In addition, the fact that a student is doing well academically does not justify the school denying or delaying an evaluation when the district has reason to believe the student has a disability, including if the student has disability-based behavior resulting in removal from class or other discipline (e.g., afterschool detentions).”

Parents can request an evaluation any time

OCR’s guidance states that parents can request an evaluation at public expense any time. “Section 504 does not limit the number of evaluations a student may reasonably request or receive. The student’s parent or guardian is entitled to notice of the school’s decision and may challenge a denial of their request under Section 504’s procedural safeguards.”

Despite a parent’s right to request an evaluation, the school is responsible to evaluate a child if there is reason to believe a disability is disrupting education: “While parents or guardians may request an evaluation, and schools must respond to any such requests, the responsibility to timely identify students who may need an evaluation remains with the school.”

Procedural Safeguards include detail about the evaluation process and the right to an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) if the district’s evaluation is incomplete or if parents disagree with its conclusions or recommendations.

Manifestation Determination

Schools are required to document missed educational time and meet with family to review the student’s circumstances. These requirements are related to the provision of FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) for students with disabilities. If the time a student with disabilities is removed from their academic placement for discipline adds up to 10 days, the school is required to host a specific meeting called a Manifestation Determination.

OCR guidance states that discussion about what happened and what to do next must be made by a team of people knowledgeable about the student’s needs and disability: “If a single person, such as a principal who is in charge of the school’s general disciplinary process for all students, alone determined whether a student’s behavior was based on the student’s disability, such a unilateral decision would not comply with Section 504.”

The Manifestation Determination requirement includes informal or “off book” removals from school. For example, if the school calls and directs parents to take a child home because of behavior, that missed educational time counts toward the 10 days. Parents can request paperwork to document the missed time to ensure compliance with this requirement. OCR guidance includes this statement:

“OCR is aware that some schools informally exclude students, or impose unreasonable conditions or limitations on a student’s continued school participation, as a result of a student’s disability-based behaviors in many ways, such as:

  • Requiring a parent or guardian not to send their child to, or to pick up their child early from, school or a school-sponsored activity, such as a field trip;
  • Placing a student on a shortened school-day schedule without first convening the Section 504 team to determine whether such a schedule is necessary to meet the student’s disability-specific needs;
  • Requiring a student to participate in a virtual learning program when other students are receiving in-person instruction;
  • Excluding a student from accessing a virtual learning platform that all other students are using for their instruction;
  • Informing a parent or guardian that the school will formally suspend or expel the student, or refer the student to law enforcement, if the parent or guardian does not: pick up the student from school; agree to transfer the student to another school, which may be an alternative school or part of a residential treatment program; agree to a shortened school day schedule; or agree to the use of restraint or seclusion; and
  • Informing a parent or guardian that the student may not attend school for a specific period of time or indefinitely due to their disability-based behavior unless the parent or guardian is present in the classroom or otherwise helps manage the behavior (e.g., through administering medication to the child).

“Depending on the facts and circumstances, OCR could find that one or more of these practices violate Section 504.”

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. For state-specific information, 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.

Note that Manifestation Determination is a distinct process for students with known or suspected disabilities and is separate from general education disciplinary hearings or procedures. Under federal requirements (IDEA Sec. 300.530 (e)), the behavior must be determined to manifest from disability if the IEP Team determine that the behavior was:

  1. Caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to, the student’s disability
  2. The direct result of the school’s failure to implement the IEP, including situations where the child did not consistently receive all services required by their IEP

A behavior support plan is best practice

During a Manifestation Determination meeting, a student’s circumstances and services are reviewed. An IEP can be amended to provide additional support and a Functional Behavioral Assessment is planned to gather information for a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). If the student has a BIP that isn’t working, the plan can be changed. See PAVE’s video: Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.

For students without IEP services, a Manifestation Determination meeting can initiate or expedite an educational evaluation in addition to an FBA. If the school district knew or should have known that the student needed special education services and did not initiate an evaluation, Child Find violations may apply.

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.

A shortened school day may be a suspension

If the school reduces a student’s schedule because of difficult-to-manage behaviors, the change could be considered a suspension and the missed educational time could count toward a Manifestation Determination process. OSPI provides this information in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP #2):

“A decision to shorten a student’s school day in response to a behavioral violation would constitute a suspension under general state discipline regulations (WAC 392-400-025).

“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 [Behavior Intervention Plan]. 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.”

OSEP’s federal guidance explains that a shortened school day is a disciplinary removal unless the IEP team has explored all options to serve the student with a full day and agreed that a shortened day is the only adequate option so the student can benefit from their Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE):

“[The] practice of shortening a child’s school day as a disciplinary measure could be considered a denial of FAPE if the child’s IEP Team does not also consider other options such as additional or different services and supports that could enable a child to remain in school for the full school day.”

OCR’s guidance points out that a shortened school day is an example of a significant change of placement, and that placement changes require a re-evaluation process: “Section 504 requires reevaluations on a periodic basis, in addition to a subsequent evaluation before any significant change in placement.”

A school’s decision to keep a student out of school is separate from a student or family decision for the student to stay home to care for their mental health. In 2022, the Washington Legislature passed HB 1834, which establishes a student absence from school for mental health reasons as an excused absence.

Alternative learning options for longer suspensions

If a student’s behavioral violation includes weapons or illegal substances, or causes severe injury, the school can remove the student from their placement for longer than 10 days, regardless of their disability. Those situations are referred to as “Special Circumstances.”

Some Section 504 protections do not apply when a school disciplines a student with a disability because of current drug or alcohol use. According to OCR, “Schools may discipline a student with a disability who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs or the use of alcohol to the same extent that the school disciplines students without disabilities for this conduct.”

OCR goes on to say that Section 504 protections apply to students who:

  1. Successfully complete a supervised drug rehabilitation program or are otherwise rehabilitated successfully and no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs
  2. Are participating in a supervised rehabilitation program and are no longer using
  3. Were erroneously [incorrectly] regarded as engaging in substance use

Under Special Circumstances, a student might shift into an Interim Alternative Educational Setting (IAES) for up to 45 school days, regardless of whether the violation was caused by disability related behaviors. The following information from federal law uses a couple of acronyms not previously defined in this article:

  • SEA is a State Educational Agency (OSPI is the SEA for Washington State)
  • LEA is a Lead Educational Agency, which in our state refers to a school district

Under federal law (34 C.F.R. § 300.530(g)):

School personnel may consider removing a child with a disability from their current placement and placing them in an IAES for not more than 45 school days without regard to whether the behavior is determined to be a manifestation of the child’s disability if the child:

  1. Carries a weapon to or possesses a weapon at school, on school premises, or to or at a school function under the jurisdiction of an SEA or an LEA
  2. Knowingly possesses or uses illegal drugs or sells or solicits the sale of a controlled substance, while at school, on school premises, or at a school function under the jurisdiction of an SEA or an LEA
  3. Has inflicted serious bodily injury upon another person while at school, on school premises, or at a school function under the jurisdiction of an SEA or an LEA

The temporary setting (IAES) is chosen by the IEP team and must support the student’s ongoing participation in the general education curriculum as well as progress toward IEP goals. As appropriate, the student’s behavior is assessed through the Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA—see below) while they are learning in the alternate setting, so a behavior plan is in place to prevent future problems when the student returns to their regular schedule and classes.

If the school pursues a threat/risk assessment, they are required to safeguard a student’s right to be treated in non-discriminatory ways. According to OCR, “Schools can do so by ensuring that school personnel who are involved in screening for and conducting threat or risk assessments for a student with a disability are aware that the student has a disability and are sufficiently knowledgeable about the school’s FAPE responsibilities so that they can coordinate with the student’s Section 504 [or IEP] team….

“For example, the Section 504 [or IEP] team can provide valuable information about: the nature of the student’s disability-based behaviors and common triggers; whether the student has been receiving behavioral supports, and, if so, the effectiveness of those supports; and specific supports and services that may be able to mitigate or eliminate the risk of harm without requiring exclusion from school.”

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. According to OCR, “Individualized behavioral supports may include, among other examples: regular group or individual counseling sessions, school social worker services, school-based mental health services, physical activity, and opportunities for the student to leave class on a scheduled or unscheduled basis to visit a counselor or behavioral coach when they need time and space to ‘cool down’ or self-regulate.”

Regardless of whether the student has previously qualified for services, best practice is for the school to conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) following a significant disciplinary action. 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.  

Schools are guided by the state to use best practices when evaluating and serving students with special needs. 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:

When a student’s behaviors aren’t working, there’s an opportunity for learning

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 and other behavioral health supports can be written into an IEP as related services. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for FAPE, a school district is responsible to provide and fund those services. If they participate in the state’s School-Based Health Services (SBHS) program, 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.

Keep in mind that participation in MTSS does not replace a school’s responsibility to evaluate a student with a known or suspected disability that is impacting their access to education.

PAVE provides resources to support families and schools:

Washington is a local control state

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.

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.

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
  • Require schools to excuse absences related to mental health (HB 1834)
  • 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

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

The state has specific rules related to the use of isolation (sometimes called seclusion) 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.

In simpler words, isolation and restraint are an emergency action for safety and cannot be used to punish a student. The isolation or restraint ends the moment the safety threat has passed, not after everything is all better.

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 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;
    • 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.”

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.

Procedural Safeguards: How to File a Special Education Complaint

This training has information about parent rights and describes a process for filing a community complaint. When parents believe their child’s school has done something inappropriate related to the Individualized Education Program—their IEP—filing a complaint is one option available.

This training will help you know where to get a community complaint form and walks you through a pretend situation to demonstrate use of the form. The community complaint process is a no-cost option for families of children who receive special education services.

For more information and to access the community complaint form in your language, visit the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the state educational agency for Washington State. To find the form, click on the question, “Is there a form for filing a community complaint?” The drop-down menu provides language options to download the form.

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

Civil Rights Protect Language Access for Parent Participation in Child’s Education

Under state and federal law, all parents have the right to information about their child’s education in a language they can understand. This information is translated on handouts in multiple languages from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

Language access includes translated documents and an interpreter for meetings and conversations. Parents have the right to these services even if they speak some English. These rights are unchanged if the student can speak or read English.

Meetings and Conversations 

When families talk with teachers or school employees, the school is responsible to offer an interpreter if one is needed. This includes parent-teacher conferences, meetings about special education, or any other conversations about a student’s education.

The school is responsible to provide competent interpreters who are fluent in English and in the family’s language. Interpreters are responsible to understand any terms or concepts used during the meeting. It’s not appropriate to use students or children as interpreters.

The interpreter communicates everything said during the conversation in a neutral way, without omitting information or adding comments. The school ensures that interpreters understand their role and the need to keep information confidential.

The interpreter may be in person, on the phone, or in a virtual space. The interpreter may be a district employee or an outside contractor.

Translated Information

Schools are responsible to translate important written information into the most common languages spoken within their districts. If a family receives information that is not in their language, they have the right to request a translated copy or for a translator to share the information verbally.

The school is responsible to communicate with parents in their language about:

  • Registration and enrollment in school
  • Grades, academic standards, and graduation
  • School rules and student discipline
  • Attendance, absences, and withdrawal
  • Parent permission for activities or programs
  • School closures
  • Opportunities to access programs or services-including highly capable, advanced placement, and English language learner programs

For students with disabilities, families should expect all documents about a student’s services to be translated into their native language. These may include:

  • Meeting invitations
  • Evaluation results
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Section 504 Plan
  • Prior Written Notice (PWN)*

*Prior Written Notice (PWN) is a document schools are required to provide to the family after a meeting. The PWN includes notes from the meeting and describes any changes to a student’s services before those changes take effect. Parents have the right to add information or request changes to the PWN.

Questions, Concerns, and Complaints

Language access is a civil right. Districts have staff members responsible for civil rights compliance and non-discriminatory practices. OSPI provides a list of civil rights compliance coordinators statewide, including their email and phone number. Families can reach out to this person to explain what happened and what would fix the problem.

If the concern or disagreement is not resolved, families may file a discrimination complaint.

IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning

A Brief Overview

  • This article provides some considerations for families while students are doing school in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • As always, programming for students who qualify for special education services is uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and needs. Special education law maintains a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), although some aspects of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) may not be deliverable because of health and safety concerns.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families.
  • Updates and additional handouts for families are available in multiple languages on OSPI’s website: Special Education Guidance for COVID-19.  
  • The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is provided by OSPI to support but not replace the IEP. Read on for more information about how to make contingency plans so students continue to make progress regardless of where education is provided.

 

Full Article

Some teachers and family caregivers are cooking up clever ways to deliver learning to students during the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. Their recipes for success include carefully built schedules; a mix of curriculum materials that adapt to different settings; regular check-ins between school and family; social-emotional support strategies; and adaptability to address a student’s unique interests, talents, and needs regardless of where education is provided.

If that is not your family’s reality, you are not alone. During this national emergency, families are not expected to have a perfect plan for what to do and how to do it. Neither are schools, which are being asked to redesign themselves by the moment. This article provides some basic considerations for families and schools who serve students with special educational needs. This time of crisis clearly calls for communication, creativity, and unique efforts toward collaboration.

For more about social-emotional support for the family see PAVE’s article, Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short mindfulness practice videos for all ages/abilities: Live Mindfully.

School decisions are made locally

Uncertainty about the 2020-21 school year is ongoing. At an Aug. 5, 2020, press conference, Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal noted that 2020-21 will be “the most complicated school year in American history.”

WA Governor Jay Inslee stated at the press conference that decisions about whether school buildings are open will be made locally. 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. Public comment is part of each public meeting, and the open meeting rules apply in any space or platform.

No disability rights are waived

Reykdal has encouraged families to stay engaged with their Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams regardless of where the student is learning. “I want to constantly challenge you to work with your school district and reach out,” Reykdal said in April 2020.

“Make sure you understand who is responsible for delivering those services at this time and whether you think that IEP needs to be revisited. That is the right of parents, and that is the relationship that has to happen on the local level. We’ll keep guiding to this. The expectation is clear. We are delivering special education services. We are delivering supports for students with disabilities. There’s no exemption from that. There’s no waiver from that.”

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families. Included is a section about “recovery services” to support students who have fallen behind because of the pandemic.

TIP: Collaborate, communicate, keep careful records

Documentation about what is happening with the student is key to discussions about the IEP moving forward and whether the student gets recovery services. Family caregivers and school staff can collect and share notes that address these questions and more:

  • Have educational materials been accessible during distance learning?
  • What learning location will work for this student and the family moving forward?
  • When or how often has the school communicated with the family, and what could improve that communication?
  • Does the student have the tools and technology needed for learning?
  • Where has the student made progress? (any bright spots?)
  • Where has the student lost ground? (any lost skills?)
  • What else needs to be addressed to meet the unique needs of this individual student, so the student can make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances?

Recovery services are not the same as compensatory services

To determine whether recovery services are needed, OSPI encourages IEP teams to:

  1. review progress toward IEP goals, and
  2. assess progress toward grade-level standards within the general education curriculum.

Both points are standard aspects of a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that entitles eligible students to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IDEA rights are not waived due to COVID-19.

OSPI makes clear that recovery services are part of the school day and are not the same as “compensatory services,” which are educational opportunities provided outside of regular school to make up for IEP services that were not provided even though the student was available to receive them. A student may qualify for compensatory services if it is determined through a dispute resolution process that the standard of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) was not fully met in the provision of special education.

Recovery services, on the other hand, are considered in the context of the national health emergency that impacted all students and staff within the system. OSPI’s 2020 special education guidance document states: “The extent of a student’s recovery services, if needed, must be an individualized determination made by the IEP team, considering individual student needs, in the context of instructional opportunities provided to all students during the school facility closures.”

TIP: Consider a child’s total circumstances

Keep this in mind: A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. To meet the standard of FAPE, a school provides an individualized program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the student to make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.” That phrase is part of IEP case law, from a 2017 Supreme Court ruling referred to as Endrew F.

A child’s circumstances include, but are not limited to:

  • Strengths, talents, assets
  • Disability
  • Family (work schedules, finances, housing…)
  • COVID-related impacts (distance learning, medical fragility of self or family member, grief from a loved one’s death or economic hardships…)
  • Mental health (impacts of social isolation, loss of friendship connections…)
  • Whatever is true for the individual child!

A key question for all IEP teams: How can we create equitable educational opportunities, in light of all of these aspects of the child’s circumstances?

Section 504 protects students too

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also provides FAPE protections, and none of those rights are waived because of COVID-19. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act, so students who receive support through a Section 504 Plan have civil rights protections under that federal law. Students with IEPs have Section 504 protections in addition to the protections of the IDEA.

School staff and families might discuss whether a student on a Section 504 Plan has made adequate progress within the general education curriculum and whether the accommodations and modifications in the plan are correctly adjusted for the student to access learning in light of the pandemic. Families and schools can discuss what additional supports are needed so the student can access the curriculum equitably.

Recovery services may support academics or social emotional learning

OSPI provides a few examples of recovery services to help families and schools think creatively about what is possible:

  • A student who regressed behaviorally during the closure may need new or different positive behavior interventions during the school day.
  • A student who lacked social skills opportunities during the closure may need additional instruction in social communication.
  • A student who lost academic skills during the closure may need additional supplementary aids and services in the general education classroom.

How and when additional services are provided is up to school/family teams to consider and may depend on the district’s reopening schedule. Some recovery services may be deliverable through distance learning, while others may require schools to be fully open.

Focus on key elements of learning

Within the Inclusionary Practices section of its reopening guidance, OSPI highlights four core areas that support planning and teaching students with disabilities in a variety of learning environments:

  • Family Partnerships and Communication to foster continuity of learning, high expectations, and support to students through shared goals and partnerships between home and school.
  • Student Engagement to maintain knowledge and skills, feelings of connectedness, curiosity, and a love of learning while progressing toward benchmarks and standards.
  • Social-Emotional and Behavioral Supports to create positive learning experiences and shared understanding of expectations to help students achieve learning goals.
  • Instructional Delivery and Universal Design for Continuous Learning to create conditions that make learning accessible, stimulating, relevant and rewarding so students will make academic gains and develop self-determination.

TIP: Parents parent, teachers teach

Parents can consider that first and foremost, their role is to parent. When all schools were in distance-learning mode, the Florida Inclusion Network provided Tips for Families in Supporting Their Children with Disabilities in Virtual Formats. Included is this recommendation:

“It can be confusing for students if families try to assume the role of teacher. Explain to your child that their teacher is still their teacher, and that you are in communication with the teacher to help them learn at home.”

Presume competence and maintain high expectations

OSPI’s resource about special education access in the 2020-21 school year contains a chapter called Inclusionary Practices Across the Continuum of School Reopening Models. The first paragraph states (emphasis added):

“In the context of change, students with disabilities are most successful when educators and families presume competence in what they are capable of learning and accomplishing in school. Rather than view student challenges or inability to meet learning objectives in new and different learning environments as a deficit in the student due to a disability, recognize how instruction or environments may be affecting what a student learns and how they demonstrate what they know.

Students learn best when they feel valued and when people hold high expectations. When students cannot communicate effectively, or behavior impedes participation and learning, explore multiple pathways for understanding and assume students want to learn but may have difficulty expressing their needs.”

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) encourages inclusion

Federal special education law (IDEA) entitles students to individualized education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent possible. While education is being provided in a mix of environments, IEP teams may need to think in new ways about how the right to LRE is protected.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) issued a policy brief regarding LRE in the wake of COVID-19. The brief includes examples of how LRE might be provided for a student in a virtual, hybrid, or traditional model of school. For example, a fictional 3rd grader with special education services to support learning in math and English Language Arts (ELA) could attend a virtual classroom with all students and receive instruction in break-out rooms with math and ELA teachers at additional times.  

The right to LRE is not waived due to COVID-19. “NASDSE stands ready to support its members with the effort of ensuring all students receive FAPE in the LRE,” the brief concludes.

Language access is protected

Some families face barriers related to language access. Under state and federal law, all parents have the right to information about their child’s education in a language they can understand, and students have a right to accessible learning materials. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about language-access rights in multiple languages.

A Continuous Learning Plan may help with organization

A Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is a tool developed by the state in spring 2020 to help IEP teams make contingency plans. The plan does not replace a student’s IEP, but rather documents individual decisions for special education services when a student is not fully attending in-person school.

The plan is part of a downloadable document published April 7, 2020: Supporting Inclusionary Practices during School Facility Closure. Glenna Gallo, assistant superintendent of special education, worked with many agency partners to design the 31-page guidance document. The introductory paragraphs include the following statement:

“Providing equitable access and instruction during these times will require creative and flexible thinking to support continuous learning, where students and educators are in different locations. Educators and families should explore creative ways to respond to diverse languages, cultures, socio-economic status, abilities, and needs.”

Review the Present Levels of Performance

To consider what is most important for learning, regardless of where education is provided, IEP teams can carefully review the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, which is the first section in a student’s IEP. Special education attorneys Pam and Pete Wright have published books about special education law and maintain a website, Wrightslaw.com. Included during the pandemic is this page: IEPs During the COVID-19 Era: Your Parental Role and Present Levels in IEPs.

PAVE also provides an article and a handout to help families participate in the goal-setting process: IEP Tips: Evaluation, Present Levels, SMART goals.

Request an IEP meeting to clarify how services are provided

Family caregivers can request an IEP team meeting any time there are concerns. For health and safety reasons, the meeting may be virtual, by phone, in a park…. Teams can get creative to meet all needs. PAVE provides an article about requesting a meeting and a letter template to support a written request. An additional article: Quick Look: How to Prepare for a Virtual Meeting.

While reviewing and amending the IEP, the team might consider the “service matrix,” which is the chart on the IEP document that shows how many minutes of each service a student receives, and which school staff are responsible to provide the service. An IEP team might decide to amend the matrix to reflect services provided remotely versus services provided in person at school.

Another option is to document on the IEP matrix the services to be provided when in-person school fully resumes and to use the optional Continuous Learning Plan template to document contingency plans during remote learning.

Before meeting with the school, family caregivers may want to design their own Handout for the Team to share their specific ideas and concerns.

Big Picture goals to consider

OSPI’s guidance includes the following tenets of inclusionary practices:

  • All students feel a sense of belonging and value, as full members of the school community.
  • All students have access to equitable and high-quality, meaningful instruction.
  • Instruction is culturally responsive, and student and family centered.

TIP: When communicating with school staff, families can have these tenets ready and request that each one is addressed somehow through the planning.

Additional ideas to support families

  • If a child is doing school from home, try to set up comfortable, adaptable spaces for learning. Include alternatives to sitting for children who need variety, sensory support or more movement. If the IEP includes accommodations for special seating, consider if those ideas could work at home.
  • On days when school is integrated with home life, establish a schedule that includes breaks (recess/nature walks) and activities of daily living. The amount of academic time needs to consider all impacted family members. Here are sample family schedules: COVID 19 Schedule From MotherlyGet-Organized-Mom.comHomeschool.
  • Make sure each day includes time away from screens to reduce eye strain and fatigue from being in one physical position too long.
  • During academic learning time, limit distractions from siblings, gaming devices, tablets, television shows, etc.
  • Find or create support networks. Some Parent-to-Parent groups are meeting virtually, and individuals can make agreements to check on each other. The Arc of Washington State provides information about regional P2P networks.
  • Be patient with your child, teachers, medical providers, and yourself. No one has ever been here before, and all are trying to figure it out.

PAVE staff are available to provide 1:1 support. Click Get Help at wapave.org to fill out a Helpline Request form. For additional resources related to the pandemic itself, see Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis.

 

Social Emotional Learning, Part 2: Trauma-Informed Instruction

A Brief Overview

  • Understanding trauma and providing consistent skill building in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) can improve outcomes in education and elsewhere.
  • Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides free SEL training materials for educators and families on its website: k12.wa.us.
  • Trauma-informed adults can use specific strategies to help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next. Read on for ideas about what works.
  • Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Full Article

“Being at school in a traumatized state is like playing chess in a hurricane.” This statement, from Mount Vernon high-school teacher Kenneth Fox, provides a vivid reminder that learning is not just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical lifelong skills.

Fox’s quote is highlighted in a free guidebook offered by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success.

OSPI also provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI addresses family caregivers directly to describe the resource: “SEL provides skills to do things like cope with feelings, set goals, and get along with others. You can help your kids work on these skills at home and have some fun along the way. It’s important to discuss the SEL skill that will be addressed in the activity (e.g., kindness, empathy, self-exploration, decision-making) to make the activity more focused and targeted on that skill.”

Statewide SEL initiatives have been boosted by a sequence of legislative actions. The 2015 legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and subsequent bills supported development of SEL learning standards. Information about the history of the work is available through OSPI’s website: k12.wa.us. PAVE provides an article with an overview of the SEL standards and more: State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

Trauma-Informed instruction starts with SEL support for educators

Movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which leave children less resilient and less able to manage their behavior.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, then CDC 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.

As data from the ACEs study began to circulate, educators sought new ways to help children cope at school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) formed in 1994 with the goal of establishing evidence based SEL as an essential part of education.

In 1997, CASEL and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) partnered on Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, with strategies for SEL programming from preschool through grade 12. “This was the first book of its kind,” CASEL states, “and it laid the foundation for the country to begin addressing the ‘missing piece’ in education.”

CASEL helped fund a February 2017 report about SEL training for teachers. To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers examines SEL as an aspect of teacher certification and concludes that higher education has more work to do to make sure teachers are prepared:

“The implications for good teaching, and for the implementation of SEL in particular, make it clear there’s serious work to be done. If teachers are not aware of their own social and emotional development and are not taught effective instructional practices for SEL, they are less likely to educate students who thrive in school, careers, and life.”

Toxic stress results from untreated trauma

A 2016 film, Resilience, by KPJR Films, looks at an aspect of trauma called “toxic stress,” which results from exposure to strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, violence, economic hardship, etc.

According to the film’s website, “Toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune.

“Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose.”

Tip: Ask about a teacher’s experience and training in SEL

Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Collaborate with the teacher to consider whether an approach at home might match what’s being used in the educational setting. Common responses and phrases will reinforce a child’s emerging SEL skills and provide predictability, which is evidence-based to comfort and calm children.

What does trauma-informed instruction mean?

Generally, trauma-informed instructional techniques help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next.

An agency called Edutopia provides an article that lists some common misunderstanding about trauma-informed instruction. One is that children with trauma in their past need to be “fixed.”

“Our kids are not broken, but our systems are,” the article by elementary principal Mathew Portell states. “Operating in a trauma-informed way does not fix children; it is aimed at fixing broken and unjust systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized.”

Portell, whose Nashville, Tenn., school has been spotlighted as a leader in trauma-informed strategies, points out also that staff are not acting as therapists. “Our part in helping students with trauma is focusing on relationships, just as we do with all of our students. The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing.”

A trauma-informed instructor might use a specific tool to help the child label an episode of dysregulation, such as the Zones of Regulation, which encourage self-observation and emotional awareness. Another good example is the “brain-hand model” described by Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. PAVE provides a video demonstrating the technique to avoid “flipping your lid.”

Here’s how to make and use a hand model of the brain:

  • Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  • Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions process.
  • Fold your four fingers down over your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  • Imagine something emotional triggers you and begin to flutter or lift your fingers.
  • When you “flip your lid,” the fingers pop up all the way while emotions based in the amygdala rule. Problem behaviors may become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts based in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Practice even, steady breathing to regulate the nervous system, and slowly settle the fingers back over the thumb.
  • As your fingers fold down, consider what the mind feels like when problem-solving is accessible versus how it feels when emotions disrupt clear thinking.
  • Consider how this hand model might help you or someone else recognize and manage an emotional moment.

SEL builds resilience and reduces need for discipline

A Washington agency that teaches self-awareness and resiliency is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle. Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline trains about 5,000 educators and parents each year, estimating to impact more than 100,000 children annually.

Like similar programs, Sound Discipline describes “problem” behaviors as coping mechanisms. Acting out is a child’s attempt to manage stress or confusing emotions, and stern punishments can re-ignite the trauma, making the behavior worse instead of better.

A principal goal is to train professionals and parents to collaborate with students in problem solving. Helping a student repair damage from a behavior incident, for example, teaches resilience and develops mental agility. “Children don’t want to be inappropriate,” McVittie emphasizes. “They are doing the best they can in the moment.”

Educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. A 2016 report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching restorative discipline reduces school suspensions and drop-out rates:

“Restorative Discipline/Justice includes strategies to both prevent children from breaking the rules and intervene after an infraction has occurred. Some elements are focused on reducing the likelihood of student rule breaking (proactive circles where students and teachers talk about their feelings and expectations) and others on intervening afterwards (e.g., restorative conferences where the parties talk about what happened). In all cases the focus is on avoiding punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Trauma toolkits for educators and families

As part of its materials for school staff and families, OSPI provides a handout that focuses on culturally responsive SEL approaches. The handout states, “Culturally responsive practices are intentional in critically examining power and privilege, implicit biases, and institutional racism, which serve as barriers to realizing the full potential of transformative social emotional learning (SEL) practices.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN.org) provides articles about evidence-based practices for adults supporting children with a wide range of circumstances. The website includes links specifically for military families, for example, and includes content related to early learning, homeless youth, and for families and educators supporting children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who also have experienced trauma (I/DD Toolkit).

Adults need self-care and their own SEL to support children

Family caregivers play an important role in furthering trauma-informed approaches by learning about and healing their own trauma experiences, applying trauma-informed principles in their parenting and by learning how to talk about these approaches with schools.

According to Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support, adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children. Collyer helped develop a three-part video training series for parents, especially while children are learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. PAVE provides a short article describing the video series, with links to each section: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

In Spring 2020, PAVE launched a series of mindfulness videos with short practices for all ages and abilities and an article with self-care strategies: Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

A Brief Overview

  • Understanding trauma and providing consistent skill building in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) can improve outcomes in education and elsewhere.
  • Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides free SEL training materials for educators and families on its website: k12.wa.us.
  • Trauma-informed adults can use specific strategies to help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next. Read on for ideas about what works.
  • Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Full Article

“Being at school in a traumatized state is like playing chess in a hurricane.” This statement, from Mount Vernon high-school teacher Kenneth Fox, provides a vivid reminder that learning is not just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical lifelong skills.

Fox’s quote is highlighted in a free guidebook offered by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success.

OSPI also provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI addresses family caregivers directly to describe the resource: “SEL provides skills to do things like cope with feelings, set goals, and get along with others. You can help your kids work on these skills at home and have some fun along the way. It’s important to discuss the SEL skill that will be addressed in the activity (e.g., kindness, empathy, self-exploration, decision-making) to make the activity more focused and targeted on that skill.”

Statewide SEL initiatives have been boosted by a sequence of legislative actions. The 2015 legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and subsequent bills supported development of SEL learning standards. Information about the history of the work is available through OSPI’s website: k12.wa.us. PAVE provides an article with an overview of the SEL standards and more: State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

Trauma-Informed instruction starts with SEL support for educators

Movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which leave children less resilient and less able to manage their behavior.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, then CDC 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.

As data from the ACEs study began to circulate, educators sought new ways to help children cope at school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) formed in 1994 with the goal of establishing evidence based SEL as an essential part of education.

In 1997, CASEL and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) partnered on Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, with strategies for SEL programming from preschool through grade 12. “This was the first book of its kind,” CASEL states, “and it laid the foundation for the country to begin addressing the ‘missing piece’ in education.”

CASEL helped fund a February 2017 report about SEL training for teachers. To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers examines SEL as an aspect of teacher certification and concludes that higher education has more work to do to make sure teachers are prepared:

“The implications for good teaching, and for the implementation of SEL in particular, make it clear there’s serious work to be done. If teachers are not aware of their own social and emotional development and are not taught effective instructional practices for SEL, they are less likely to educate students who thrive in school, careers, and life.”

Toxic stress results from untreated trauma

A 2016 film, Resilience, by KPJR Films, looks at an aspect of trauma called “toxic stress,” which results from exposure to strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, violence, economic hardship, etc.

According to the film’s website, “Toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune.

“Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose.”

Tip: Ask about a teacher’s experience and training in SEL

Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Collaborate with the teacher to consider whether an approach at home might match what’s being used in the educational setting. Common responses and phrases will reinforce a child’s emerging SEL skills and provide predictability, which is evidence-based to comfort and calm children.

What does trauma-informed instruction mean?

Generally, trauma-informed instructional techniques help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next.

An agency called Edutopia provides an article that lists some common misunderstanding about trauma-informed instruction. One is that children with trauma in their past need to be “fixed.”

“Our kids are not broken, but our systems are,” the article by elementary principal Mathew Portell states. “Operating in a trauma-informed way does not fix children; it is aimed at fixing broken and unjust systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized.”

Portell, whose Nashville, Tenn., school has been spotlighted as a leader in trauma-informed strategies, points out also that staff are not acting as therapists. “Our part in helping students with trauma is focusing on relationships, just as we do with all of our students. The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing.”

A trauma-informed instructor might use a specific tool to help the child label an episode of dysregulation, such as the Zones of Regulation, which encourage self-observation and emotional awareness. Another good example is the “brain-hand model” described by Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. PAVE provides a video demonstrating the technique to avoid “flipping your lid.”

Here’s how to make and use a hand model of the brain:

  • Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  • Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions process.
  • Fold your four fingers down over your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  • Imagine something emotional triggers you and begin to flutter or lift your fingers.
  • When you “flip your lid,” the fingers pop up all the way while emotions based in the amygdala rule. Problem behaviors may become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts based in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Practice even, steady breathing to regulate the nervous system, and slowly settle the fingers back over the thumb.
  • As your fingers fold down, consider what the mind feels like when problem-solving is accessible versus how it feels when emotions disrupt clear thinking.
  • Consider how this hand model might help you or someone else recognize and manage an emotional moment.

SEL builds resilience and reduces need for discipline

A Washington agency that teaches self-awareness and resiliency is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle. Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline trains about 5,000 educators and parents each year, estimating to impact more than 100,000 children annually.

Like similar programs, Sound Discipline describes “problem” behaviors as coping mechanisms. Acting out is a child’s attempt to manage stress or confusing emotions, and stern punishments can re-ignite the trauma, making the behavior worse instead of better.

A principal goal is to train professionals and parents to collaborate with students in problem solving. Helping a student repair damage from a behavior incident, for example, teaches resilience and develops mental agility. “Children don’t want to be inappropriate,” McVittie emphasizes. “They are doing the best they can in the moment.”

Educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. A 2016 report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching restorative discipline reduces school suspensions and drop-out rates:

“Restorative Discipline/Justice includes strategies to both prevent children from breaking the rules and intervene after an infraction has occurred. Some elements are focused on reducing the likelihood of student rule breaking (proactive circles where students and teachers talk about their feelings and expectations) and others on intervening afterwards (e.g., restorative conferences where the parties talk about what happened). In all cases the focus is on avoiding punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Trauma toolkits for educators and families

As part of its materials for school staff and families, OSPI provides a handout that focuses on culturally responsive SEL approaches. The handout states, “Culturally responsive practices are intentional in critically examining power and privilege, implicit biases, and institutional racism, which serve as barriers to realizing the full potential of transformative social emotional learning (SEL) practices.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN.org) provides articles about evidence-based practices for adults supporting children with a wide range of circumstances. The website includes links specifically for military families, for example, and includes content related to early learning, homeless youth, and for families and educators supporting children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who also have experienced trauma (I/DD Toolkit).

Adults need self-care and their own SEL to support children

Family caregivers play an important role in furthering trauma-informed approaches by learning about and healing their own trauma experiences, applying trauma-informed principles in their parenting and by learning how to talk about these approaches with schools.

According to Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support, adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children. Collyer helped develop a three-part video training series for parents, especially while children are learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. PAVE provides a short article describing the video series, with links to each section: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

In Spring 2020, PAVE launched a series of mindfulness videos with short practices for all ages and abilities and an article with self-care strategies: Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

PAVE provides a list of resource links to specifically support families during the coronavirus pandemic, including this one: Washington Listens is a program to support anyone in Washington State experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For anonymous support, call 1-833-681-0211, Mon.– Fri., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.

A Brief Overview

  • Understanding trauma and providing consistent skill building in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) can improve outcomes in education and elsewhere.
  • Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides free SEL training materials for educators and families on its website: k12.wa.us.
  • Trauma-informed adults can use specific strategies to help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next. Read on for ideas about what works.
  • Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Full Article

“Being at school in a traumatized state is like playing chess in a hurricane.” This statement, from Mount Vernon high-school teacher Kenneth Fox, provides a vivid reminder that learning is not just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical lifelong skills.

Fox’s quote is highlighted in a free guidebook offered by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success.

OSPI also provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI addresses family caregivers directly to describe the resource: “SEL provides skills to do things like cope with feelings, set goals, and get along with others. You can help your kids work on these skills at home and have some fun along the way. It’s important to discuss the SEL skill that will be addressed in the activity (e.g., kindness, empathy, self-exploration, decision-making) to make the activity more focused and targeted on that skill.”

Statewide SEL initiatives have been boosted by a sequence of legislative actions. The 2015 legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and subsequent bills supported development of SEL learning standards. Information about the history of the work is available through OSPI’s website: k12.wa.us. PAVE provides an article with an overview of the SEL standards and more: State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

Trauma-Informed instruction starts with SEL support for educators

Movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which leave children less resilient and less able to manage their behavior.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, then CDC 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.

As data from the ACEs study began to circulate, educators sought new ways to help children cope at school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) formed in 1994 with the goal of establishing evidence based SEL as an essential part of education.

In 1997, CASEL and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) partnered on Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, with strategies for SEL programming from preschool through grade 12. “This was the first book of its kind,” CASEL states, “and it laid the foundation for the country to begin addressing the ‘missing piece’ in education.”

CASEL helped fund a February 2017 report about SEL training for teachers. To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers examines SEL as an aspect of teacher certification and concludes that higher education has more work to do to make sure teachers are prepared:

“The implications for good teaching, and for the implementation of SEL in particular, make it clear there’s serious work to be done. If teachers are not aware of their own social and emotional development and are not taught effective instructional practices for SEL, they are less likely to educate students who thrive in school, careers, and life.”

Toxic stress results from untreated trauma

A 2016 film, Resilience, by KPJR Films, looks at an aspect of trauma called “toxic stress,” which results from exposure to strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, violence, economic hardship, etc.

According to the film’s website, “Toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune.

“Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose.”

Tip: Ask about a teacher’s experience and training in SEL

Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Collaborate with the teacher to consider whether an approach at home might match what’s being used in the educational setting. Common responses and phrases will reinforce a child’s emerging SEL skills and provide predictability, which is evidence-based to comfort and calm children.

What does trauma-informed instruction mean?

Generally, trauma-informed instructional techniques help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next.

An agency called Edutopia provides an article that lists some common misunderstanding about trauma-informed instruction. One is that children with trauma in their past need to be “fixed.”

“Our kids are not broken, but our systems are,” the article by elementary principal Mathew Portell states. “Operating in a trauma-informed way does not fix children; it is aimed at fixing broken and unjust systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized.”

Portell, whose Nashville, Tenn., school has been spotlighted as a leader in trauma-informed strategies, points out also that staff are not acting as therapists. “Our part in helping students with trauma is focusing on relationships, just as we do with all of our students. The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing.”

A trauma-informed instructor might use a specific tool to help the child label an episode of dysregulation, such as the Zones of Regulation, which encourage self-observation and emotional awareness. Another good example is the “brain-hand model” described by Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. PAVE provides a video demonstrating the technique to avoid “flipping your lid.”

Here’s how to make and use a hand model of the brain:

  • Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  • Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions process.
  • Fold your four fingers down over your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  • Imagine something emotional triggers you and begin to flutter or lift your fingers.
  • When you “flip your lid,” the fingers pop up all the way while emotions based in the amygdala rule. Problem behaviors may become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts based in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Practice even, steady breathing to regulate the nervous system, and slowly settle the fingers back over the thumb.
  • As your fingers fold down, consider what the mind feels like when problem-solving is accessible versus how it feels when emotions disrupt clear thinking.
  • Consider how this hand model might help you or someone else recognize and manage an emotional moment.

SEL builds resilience and reduces need for discipline

A Washington agency that teaches self-awareness and resiliency is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle. Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline trains about 5,000 educators and parents each year, estimating to impact more than 100,000 children annually.

Like similar programs, Sound Discipline describes “problem” behaviors as coping mechanisms. Acting out is a child’s attempt to manage stress or confusing emotions, and stern punishments can re-ignite the trauma, making the behavior worse instead of better.

A principal goal is to train professionals and parents to collaborate with students in problem solving. Helping a student repair damage from a behavior incident, for example, teaches resilience and develops mental agility. “Children don’t want to be inappropriate,” McVittie emphasizes. “They are doing the best they can in the moment.”

Educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. A 2016 report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching restorative discipline reduces school suspensions and drop-out rates:

“Restorative Discipline/Justice includes strategies to both prevent children from breaking the rules and intervene after an infraction has occurred. Some elements are focused on reducing the likelihood of student rule breaking (proactive circles where students and teachers talk about their feelings and expectations) and others on intervening afterwards (e.g., restorative conferences where the parties talk about what happened). In all cases the focus is on avoiding punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Trauma toolkits for educators and families

As part of its materials for school staff and families, OSPI provides a handout that focuses on culturally responsive SEL approaches. The handout states, “Culturally responsive practices are intentional in critically examining power and privilege, implicit biases, and institutional racism, which serve as barriers to realizing the full potential of transformative social emotional learning (SEL) practices.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN.org) provides articles about evidence-based practices for adults supporting children with a wide range of circumstances. The website includes links specifically for military families, for example, and includes content related to early learning, homeless youth, and for families and educators supporting children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who also have experienced trauma (I/DD Toolkit).

Adults need self-care and their own SEL to support children

Family caregivers play an important role in furthering trauma-informed approaches by learning about and healing their own trauma experiences, applying trauma-informed principles in their parenting and by learning how to talk about these approaches with schools.

According to Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support, adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children. Collyer helped develop a three-part video training series for parents, especially while children are learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. PAVE provides a short article describing the video series, with links to each section: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

In Spring 2020, PAVE launched a series of mindfulness videos with short practices for all ages and abilities and an article with self-care strategies: Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

PAVE provides a list of resource links to specifically support families during the coronavirus pandemic, including this one: Washington Listens is a program to support anyone in Washington State experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For anonymous support, call 1-833-681-0211, Mon.– Fri., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.

Children with trauma backgrounds can be more ready to learn when adults take time to cultivate feelings of safety and connection first. Neuroscientist Bruce Perry provides a “3 Rs” approach to intervention: Regulate, Relate, and Reason. The Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety provides specific guidance.

PAVE provides a list of resource links to specifically support families during the coronavirus pandemic, including this one: Washington Listens is a program to support anyone in Washington State experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For anonymous support, call 1-833-681-0211, Mon.– Fri., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.

Social Emotional Learning, Part 1: The Importance of Compassionate Schools

A Brief Overview:

  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a training program for school staff focused on Social-Emotional Learning. The SEL Online Education Modules are designed for educators, administrators, school staff, others professionals, and parents.
  • Moments of trouble can provide insight about unmet needs. Meeting those moments with compassion helps children learn better in all areas.
  • High social-emotional scores correspond to better attendance, higher graduation rates, fewer suspensions, and improved academic scores.
  • Family caregivers can learn the vocabulary and key principles of SEL and compassionate schools to collaborate with schools.  A list of terms is included at the end of this article.

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Educators and communities have a new vocabulary for discussing what schools and families might do when children are stressed out and struggling. Self-awareness, emotional management, goal setting, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills are taking their place alongside academic subjects.

These life skills are part of a growing area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL). The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a training program for school staff focused on Social-Emotional Learning. The SEL Online Education Modules are designed for educators, administrators, school staff, others professionals, and parents.

Development of the learning modules was authorized by Senate Bill 6620 during the 2016 legislative session: “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,” the bill states.

The modules are intended for all school staff—from teachers and principals to bus drivers and lunch servers—to understand their roles in promoting students’ self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.

Principles for Compassionate Schools

The training modules are an extension of the Compassionate Schools Initiative within Student Engagement and Support at OSPI, which provides resources to schools aspiring to consider a trauma responsive infrastructure. OSPI’s website lists 10 principles for a compassionate school:

  1. Focus on culture and climate in the school and community.
  2. Train and support all staff regarding trauma and learning.
  3. Encourage and sustain open and regular communication for all.
  4. Develop a strengths-based approach in working with students and peers.
  5. Ensure discipline policies are both compassionate and effective (Restorative Practices).
  6. Weave compassionate strategies into school improvement planning.
  7. Provide tiered support for all students based on what they need.
  8. Create flexible accommodations for diverse learners.
  9. Provide access, voice, and ownership for staff, students, and community.
  10. Use data to:
    1. Identify vulnerable students, and
    2. Determine outcomes and strategies for continuous quality improvement.

The Heart of Learning and Teaching

Also available from OSPI is a link to download a free e-book called “The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success.” The handbook, first published in 2009, was written and compiled by OSPI and Western Washington University staff in response to a growing body of knowledge about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the effects of childhood trauma on learning.

Ron Hertel, Program Supervisor for Social and Emotional Learning/Compassionate Schools at OSPI, in 2017 stated that some schools were providing best practice trainings and resources while others remained in the early stages of SEL programming. “Social emotional learning is the foundation for both life and learning, whether or not a student is impacted by trauma,” Hertel says. “By providing specific guidance on the relevance of SEL skills as well as exploring implementation strategies, we hope to provide a firm platform schools can use to support social emotional development for all students.”

SEL improves learning and keeps kids in class

An important component of SEL is the recognition that problem behaviors offer critical clues about a child’s unmet needs or undeveloped social and emotional skills. These behaviors can be especially pronounced in children with developmental delays, emotional disturbances or other disabilities that qualify them for special education.

By using troubling moments as teachable moments and prioritizing compassion and skill building over punishment, many schools find that children learn better in all areas—including academics—and are less likely to be removed from class because of behaviors.

The Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children (TACSEI) offers tips about teaching “skill fluency” when problem behaviors highlight a child’s untrained attempt to cope or problem-solve: “When children do not know how to identify emotions, handle disappointment or anger, or develop healthy relationships, a teacher’s best response is to teach.”

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL instruction improves graduation rates and academic scores while reducing rates of exclusionary discipline. The CASEL website includes data from a pilot study begun in 2012 in Washoe County School District, Reno, Nevada. According to CASEL’s report, graduation rates are up 20 points and students with higher social emotional scores perform better than students with lower scores. They are:

  • More than twice as likely to stay in school
  • Less likely to be referred for an in-school suspension (3 percent: 8.8 percent)
  • More likely to score well on math assessments (45 percent: 23 percent)
  • More likely to score well on English Language Arts assessments (61 percent: 40 percent)
  • More likely to graduate (89 percent: 73 percent

Poor SEL skills cause problems that start young

Without SEL skills, children clearly struggle. The Child Mind Institute cautions that problems start early and students in special education are at high risk:

  • Expulsions in prekindergarten are 89 percent higher when classrooms do not have regular access to a psychiatrist or psychologist, while only 23 percent of pre-K programs nationwide have on-site psychiatrists/psychologists or scheduled visits.
  • Being at risk for mental health problems in first grade leads to a 5 percent drop in academic performance in just two years.
  • More than 77,000 children in special education receive suspensions or expulsions for more than 10 cumulative days in a year—including children with autism, anxiety, and learning disorders. See PAVE’s article: What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.
  • Children suspended or expelled for more than 10 days include 5.7 percent of children with emotional disturbance and 2.6 percent of students with other health impairments (OHI), an IEP disability category that includes such conditions as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • In one study, the suspension/expulsion rate for students with emotional disturbance as the IEP eligibility category was 64 percent.

Learn the language of SEL to promote Compassionate Schools

Families are a valuable part of the conversation as school staff learn and apply SEL/Compassionate approaches. Family caregivers can help school staff learn key vocabulary. Here are some terms to being with, from OSPI’s Heart of Learning guidebook:

  • Compassion: a feeling of deep empathy and respect and a strong desire to actively help someone stricken by misfortune.
  • Trauma: a state of distress caused by the inability to respond in a healthy way to acute or chronic stress.
  • Resiliency: the ability to withstand and rebound from adversity.
  • Compassionate School: a place where staff and students are aware of the challenges that others face and respond with supports that remove barriers to learning.
  • School-Community Partnership: a relationship that supports a shared goal of providing resources through responsibility and collaboration.

Other principles to consider are restorative discipline, positive behavior supports, collaborative repair, misbehavior versus stress behavior, emotional vocabulary, replacement skills, reframing and social competence.

In its conclusions, OSPI’s Heart of Learning e-book includes this statement: “The education reform movement in the United States has made great strides in transforming curricula and other aspects of the educational system. Social, emotional and behavioral health is the necessary next step for building better schools to nurture healthy brains and happy children.”

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.”

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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.”)

Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning

While school facilities are closed because of COVID-19, families impacted by disability face complex challenges. For some, children’s difficult behaviors are a regular concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stress and anxiety in children and youth may show up through unexpected or maladaptive behaviors. Those behaviors might get worse because of fear, isolation, and disrupted lives.

Meanwhile, some of the help that used to be there is gone. At school, students may have gotten 1:1 support or direct instruction to encourage behavioral skill-building. Those aspects of a special education program might be difficult or impossible to provide during social distancing.

While students are learning from home, parents can request individualized support from the school to support behavioral expectations, if behaviors have educational impact. Parent training can be a related service in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). As always, family caregivers can request an IEP meeting to discuss options to support academic and behavioral goals and expectations.

If the student has a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP), that document might hold clues about strategies most likely to work. For more ideas about how to communicate with the school in reviewing a student’s program and perhaps also designing a temporary Continuous Learning Plan, parents can refer to PAVE’s article: IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed.

To generally support caregivers in their various roles during COVID-19, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) offers a three-part webinar designed for families to help with behavior in continuous learning environments. The webinar has been recorded and uploaded to YouTube in sections, so families can access the content at their own pace.

The webinars are moderated by Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support. Collyer, a parent, describes his own challenges during the pandemic alongside ideas from research-based sources. Families are invited to send questions and comments to lee.collyer@k12.wa.us.

In various forums, Collyer has described his investment in fostering positive behavioral supports for students in order to reduce disciplinary actions. In a May 13, 2020, OSPI webinar about Mental Health and Safety, Collyer said, “My fear is that we’re going to try to discipline our way out of trauma.”

Following is a brief description of each segment of the three-part webinar series, with a link to each specific webinar. If you start with the first one, you will have the option to stay connected and flow through all three. Each segment is 20-25 minutes long, and the first one includes some background information about OSPI and Collyer’s role.

Supporting Positive Behavior in Continuous Learning Environments – Part One

Collyer begins the series by sharing OSPI’s official statements related to mission, vision and equity. He offers reassurance to parents that everyone is learning something brand new together, without time for proper training, and that “We should not let pressure from schools, teachers or school communities dictate what works for our family and what kind of learning we are prioritizing during this time.”

Collyer talks about the value of learning that is imbedded in everyday activities and part of family routines. He shares insights from psychiatrist Bruce Perry and psychologist Ross Greene, both widely regarded authors who apply their research to inform parents. Their names are linked here to practical articles about supporting positive behavior, and both are easily searchable to find additional materials.

The OSPI webinar includes signs of stress and anxiety to consider. Collyer recommends behavior solutions based on skill building: If children do not know how to do something (like behave), the answer is to teach, he points out, not punish. The segment ends by explaining how behavior serves a function and understanding that function is key to reducing escalations.

Supporting Positive Behavior in Continuous Learning Environments – Part Two

The second segment begins where the first leaves off, by discussing the functions of behavior and how to identify them and intervene early. Pre-teaching skills and reinforcing positive behaviors over negative ones in a 5:1 ratio is encouraged: For the best outcome, catch a child doing what is expected and provide encouragement five times more often than calling out an unexpected behavior.

The second segment also provides some specific strategies for home/school communications. Collyer describes the difference between a consequence and problem-solving and offers specific strategies for parent/child problem-solving.

Supporting Positive Behavior in Continuous Learning Environments – Part Three

The third segment begins with information about how a crisis might escalate and how reason and logic are compromised when fear and frustration highjack a person’s response system. Adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children, Collyer says.

He describes how children might be uneven in their development of cognitive versus social-emotional skills and how that might create confusion about the best parenting strategy. How to set limits with considerations for trauma and ways to shift from negative to positive interventions are additional strategies provided in the final segment of this webinar series.

For additional resources from OSPI, visit the page for Special Education Guidance for COVID-19.