How to Cultivate Resilience like a Starfish

Starfish are masters at letting turmoil wash around them. They are also excellent models of resilience. This short video uses imagery from the sea and provides a strategy to get grounded, steady the breath, and cultivate four key aspects of resilience: purpose, connection, adaptability, and hope.

Become present and let thinking float away as you treat yourself to this opportunity to take a few minutes to care for yourself.

Breathe Mindfully and Give Your Favorite Stuffy a Ride

Even young children can become grounded and calm if breathing with intention is fun and accessible to them. This short video features two young models showing how they give their stuffed animals a ride while they breathe into and out of their tummies.

Have your child choose a comfortable place to lie down and place their stuffed animal on their tummy. Help them to notice what it’s like to breathe and watch the stuffy go up and down. Ask them what it feels like to notice their breathing and their stuffy taking a ride.

Our five-year-old model says, “I loved it and felt like I could fall asleep.”

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

A Brief Overview

  • Discussion about school-based discipline was pretty quiet during the pandemic. The topic is resurfacing as schools begin to reopen for in-person instruction. Read on for information about student rights in Washington and what families need to know when behavior impedes learning and disability may be a factor.
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students receive best-practice services and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.
  • If the school calls to send a child home due to behavior, parents can ask whether the student is being suspended. If the school is not taking formal disciplinary action, parents are not required to take a child home. If the action is a suspension, specific rules apply. Read on for more detail. PAVE also provides a video with information about what to do if the school wants to send a child home due to behavior.
  • Families can seek individualized assistance by clicking Get Help from PAVE’s website, wapave.org.
  • Read on for information about Procedural Safeguards, which are downloadable through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington’s lead educational agency.

Full Article

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

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

Although no one can predict what will happen as schools reopen for in-person services, research clearly indicates that children’s behavioral health has worsened during the pandemic. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.

The governor’s order requires schools to provide in-person learning options at least part of the week and directs the Health Care Authority and Department of Health to “immediately begin work on recommendations on how to support the behavioral health needs of our children and youth over the next 6 to 12 months and to address and triage the full spectrum of rising pediatric behavioral health needs.”

As schools reopen, the topic of how to support expected behavior and avoid disciplinary removal from the classroom is resurfacing. Read on for foundational information about student and family rights in Washington.

What is exclusionary discipline?

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

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

Exclusionary discipline may violate FAPE

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

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

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

Unexpected behavior may indicate a disability and need for services

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

The Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education in December 2016 issued a two-page Fact Sheet that includes this statement: “A student’s behavioral challenges, such as those that lead to an emergency situation in which a school believes restraint or seclusion is a justified response could be a sign that the student actually has a disability and needs special education or related aids and services in order to receive FAPE.”

Manifestation Determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: With the exception of a firearm violation under federal law, school districts are not required to suspend or expel students for any behavioral violation. State law explicitly encourages school districts to consider alternative actions before administering suspension or expulsion. If a student’s conduct involves weapons, illegal drugs, or serious bodily injury, a student may be removed for up to 45 school days regardless of whether the student’s behavior was a manifestation of disability. However, a manifestation determination meeting still is required within the first 10 days of removal from school and educational services are provided.

Schools are required to support behavior and work with families

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

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

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

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

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

In general, Washington rules:

  • Encourage schools to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions and focus instead on evidence-based, best-practice educational strategies
  • Prohibit schools from excluding students due to absences or tardiness
  • Limit use of exclusionary discipline for behaviors that do not present a safety threat
  • Prohibit expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range cannot be excluded from their classroom placements/suspended for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)
  • Require schools to provide educational access while a student is suspended or expelled

Schools must provide educational services during a suspension

State law requires that all suspended and expelled students have an opportunity to receive educational services (RCW 28A.600.015). According to the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-400-610) educational services provided in an alternative setting must enable the student to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

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

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

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

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

Emergency Response Protocol (ERP)

If emergency responses and/or severe disciplinary actions become frequent, schools might ask the parent/guardian to sign an Emergency Response Protocol (ERP) for an individual student. Families are not required to sign this.

The ERP explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff authorized to conduct isolation and restraint. Parents can request a copy of the district’s general education policies on this topic. The ERP can include a statement about how parents are contacted if the school uses isolation or restraint.

Reporting requirements

Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian and to the state any time formal disciplinary or emergency actions are taken. Following are statements from the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.600.485):

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

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

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

Equity work in student discipline is ongoing

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

Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Alarming statistics indicate the pandemic has worsened behavioral health outcomes for young people. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.
  • Students eligible for special education services through the federal category of Emotional Disturbance are more than twice as likely as other disabled peers to quit school before graduating.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for further information and resources.
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide.
  • Help is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
  • Text HEAL to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
  • For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Projectprovides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.
  • A place to connect with other families is a Facebook group called Youth Behavioral Healthcare Advocates (YBHA-WA).
  • Family caregivers can request support and training from A Common Voice, a statewide non-profit staffed with Parent Support Specialists who have lived experience parenting a child with mental illness or behavioral health challenges. Contact Jasmine@acommonvoice.org/253-732-4944.

Full Article

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

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

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

A press for more school-based services

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

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

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

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

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

Special Education is one pathway for more help

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

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

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

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

Behavioral health counseling can be part of an IEP

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

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

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

Placement options for students who struggle with behavior

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

Sometimes the IEP team, which includes family, will determine that in order to receive FAPE a student needs to be placed in a Day Treatment or Residential school. OSPI maintains a list of Non-Public Agencies that districts might pay to support the educational needs of a student.

A precedent-setting court ruling in 2017 was Edmonds v. A.T. The parents of a student with behavioral disabilities filed due process against the Edmonds School District for reimbursement of residential education. The administrative law judge ruled that the district must pay for the residential services because “students cannot be separated from their disabilities.”

Strategies and safety measures for families

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

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

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

The handout includes tips for parents and other adults supporting teens who feel anxious or depressed:

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

State options for behavioral health services and support

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

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

If a person ages 15-40 is newly experiencing psychosis, Washington offers a wraparound-style program called New Journeys. This website link includes access to a referral form.

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

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

Family Initiated Treatment (FIT) is an option in Washington

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

Places to seek referrals and information

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

PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center provides technical assistance to families navigating health systems related to disability. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368 for individualized assistance. Family Voices of Washington provides further information and resources.

Key Resources

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

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK)
  • Text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor
  • Trevor Project Lifeline (LGBTQ) (1-866-488-7386)
  • The Washington Recovery Help Line (1-866-789-1511)
  • TeenLink (1-866-833-6546; 6pm-10pm PST)

Further information on mental health and suicide:  

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

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

Evaluation is a 3-part process

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

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

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

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

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

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

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

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

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

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

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

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

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

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

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

A referral starts the evaluation process

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

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

If the school agrees to evaluate, a variety of tests and questionnaires are included. The evaluation looks for strengths and difficulties in many different areas, so input from parents, teachers and providers is critical. Generally, the evaluation reviews developmental history and assesses cognition, academic achievement and “functional” skills. Listed below are some common skill areas to evaluate:

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

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

Eligibility Categories of Disability

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

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

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

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

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

Here are some considerations:

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

Deadlines start when a referral is made

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

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

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

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

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?

If all agree that an evaluation is needed, and a parent/guardian signs a formal document giving permission, then the school completes the evaluation within 35 school days.

In compliance with the IDEA, an evaluation for special education is non-discriminatory. If the child cannot read, for example, the testing uses verbal instructions or pictures. The child’s native language is honored. Schools have a variety of tools available to eliminate bias. Parents can take action if they disagree with the way testing was done or the way it was interpreted.

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

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

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

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

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

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

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

What if I don’t agree with the school?

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

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

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

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

Items to include in the referral letter:

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

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

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

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

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

Here are additional resources:

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

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

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

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

OR

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

Home for the Holidays: The Gift of Positive Behavior Support

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make a list and check it twice: Prevention is key

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

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

Respond quick as a wink: Reward replacement behavior

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

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

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

Here are steps to help teach replacement behaviors:

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

Praise a silent night

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

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

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

All is calm: Intervene at the first sign of trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believe: Be a beacon for hope

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

Here are a few points to review:

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

Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

Fall 2020: Ready or Not

Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal predicts that 2020-21 will be “the most complicated school year in American history.” In preparation, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is turning out new guidance for school districts that serve more than a million students.

About 143,000 Washington students receive special education and related services. No federal or state protections for students with disabilities are waived due to the pandemic.

Decisions about what school looks like are left to local districts, which follow policies established by elected school boards. 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 open meeting rules apply in any space or platform.

Among OSPI guidance released in summer 2020 is a 60-page booklet: Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance. Recommendations encourage schools to collaborate with families in providing equitable access to learning opportunities and to include all students when designing curricula for a range of delivery methods.

PAVE provides an article that summarizes some content from OSPI’s guidance and provides more detail about navigating special education regardless of what school looks like: IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning.

Reykdal and WA Governor Jay Inslee spoke Aug. 5, 2020, at a press conference about school decision-making amid the nation’s ongoing struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Inslee said he would not order the closure of all schools, as he did in spring 2020. Instead, Inslee said he would rely on local districts to use sound judgment about whether school buildings can open safely, in light of a region’s health data.

At the August press conference, Inslee announced plans to send $8.8 million in federal CARES Act stimulus money to OSPI, which will use some funds to cover the costs of internet for students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. OSPI has committed to partner with community-based organizations to help families secure childcare, engage in language translation services, and other parent and family engagement strategies.

CARES Act funds also will support professional development to upgrade how distance learning is delivered statewide. In partnership with OSPI, the state’s nine regional educational service districts (ESDs) will provide support and training to help districts choose a consistent online platform and train staff about best practices. “Last spring, we heard consistently from educators that they needed more training on how to effectively use online learning management systems,” Reykdal said, adding:

“To make online learning more effective this fall, we have to streamline this. Students and parents should be able to focus on learning, and educators should be focused on teaching, without the modality of the instruction getting in the way. Our ESDs will provide educators with training in a handful of learning management systems consistent with guidance we have already sent to districts to simplify their remote learning management systems for families.”

Reykdal and Inslee encouraged school districts in areas of the state with low rates of COVID-19 infection to prioritize face-to-face instruction for those who are most likely to struggle with remote learning: elementary schoolers and those with disabilities. 

In circumstances where in-person school is offered, families will make their own decisions about whether to send children or keep them home. Here are a few tools families might use to prepare for the school year:

  1. Is the rate of infection in the community going down?  
  2. Does the community have a clear protocol for testing and contact tracing?  
  3. Does the school provide a clear protocol for what to do if/when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19? 

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

A Brief Overview

  • Children who are taught self-regulation are more resilient and learn better in academics and more. This article describes a few practical tools and techniques that are aspects of Social Emotional Learning (SEL).
  • “Kids do well if they can,” says Ross W. Greene, a child psychologist and author. In a short YouTube video, Greene says, “The biggest favor you can do a challenging kid is to finally, at long last, be the person who figures out what’s getting in his way.”
  • PAVE provides additional articles about Social Emotional Learning.
  • Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI also provides free online SEL training, links to information about SEL state learning standards, and more on the Social and Emotional Learning page of its website: k12.wa.us.

Full Article

When children act out at school, what does the teacher do? The answer depends on the discipline policies of the school, but research indicates that suspending and expelling students is ineffective for improving behavior and can cause harm (NIH.gov).

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in schools marks a shift toward education that promotes self-regulation, resiliency, problem-solving skills, and more. “Kids do well if they can,” says Ross W. Greene, who explains his statement in a short YouTube video. Greene is a clinical child psychologist and author of the books The Explosive Child, Lost at School, Lost & Found, and Raising Human Beings.

By accepting the logic that kids do well if they can, adults shift away from believing that kids behave only if they “want to” and allows for problem-solving, Greene says: “The biggest favor you can do a challenging kid is to finally, at long last, be the person who figures out what’s getting in the way [of doing well].”

Behavior is communication: “Get curious, not furious”

Adults can consider behavior as a form of communication and seek to understand the function of the behavior. One educator refers to this approach as “Getting Curious (Not Furious) With Students.” In the article, posted to Edutopia.org June 29, 2016, Rebecca Alber says, “When teachers get curious instead of furious, they don’t take the student’s behavior personally, and they don’t act on anger. They respond to student behaviors rather than react to them.”

Alber lists the primary benefits to schools when they promote SEL and trauma-informed approaches to discipline:

  • Improved student academic achievement
  • Less student absences, detentions, and suspensions
  • Reduction of stress for staff and students and less bullying and harassment
  • Improved teacher sense of job satisfaction and safety

Tip: Request a Functional Behavior Assessment

A Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) may be necessary in circumstances where behavior consistently impedes learning. Schools can use FBA data to build an individualized Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP may support an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or could be a stand-alone plan for any student.

When using positive behavior support strategies, adults can avoid judging behavior with labels such as bad, non-compliant, defiant, uncooperative, etc. Researchers have found that those labels often refer to adult perception and frustration about what is happening more than they explain what a child may be trying to express.

Family caregivers might read through a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), a behavior plan, disciplinary referrals, or other notes from the school to notice what type of language is being used to describe what’s happening. Requesting a meeting to discuss an FBA and/or strategy for SEL skill-building is an option.

Raw moments are opportunities to teach from the heart

Heather T. Forbes, author of Help for Billy, is among professionals designing new ways to help children cope and learn. Emotional instruction is crucial, argues Forbes, whose website, Beyond Consequences, shares Trauma-Informed Solutions for parents, schools, and other professionals.

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

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

Regulation starts in the brain

SEL supports are informed by brain science. OSPI provides a free downloadable handbook, The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success. Included in Chapter One is a list of the brain regions affected by trauma. Understanding the amygdala as a center for fear, for example, can be critical for designing strategies to manage meltdowns. “Overstimulation of the amygdala…activates fear centers in the brain and results in behaviors consistent with anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance,” the page informs.

Writing for Edutopia, Rebecca Alber recommends that teachers learn to understand and recognize impacts of trauma and to understand that apparent refusal to comply might actually be a trauma-based response.

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

Use Your Words

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

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

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

Encourage rather than simply praise

Word choice can be critical in trauma-informed instruction. Jody McVittie, a pediatrician who started Sound Discipline, based in Seattle, gives workshops for parents and teachers. She talks about the difference between praise and encouragement in a training called Building Resiliency. Instead of saying “Great Job,” which can trigger an emotional response but may not reinforce learning, a teacher or parent might say instead:

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

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

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

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

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

A Self-Regulation Strategy for Right Now

Sometimes grace starts with self-care. Following is a breathing practice you can use right now to help your nervous system regulate. If you prefer, you can watch a short video from PAVE that demonstrates this technique: Stop and Settle with Five-Fingers Breath.

You will be breathing evenly as you trace the outline of your hand, giving your eyes and your mind something to focus on while you control your breath.

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

Now that you’ve learned this technique, you can share it with other family members!

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.