Ideas to Support Children and Families Impacted by Abuse, Trauma and Divorce

Brief Overview

  • The National Education Association (NEA) recognizes that childhood experiences related to domestic abuse, trauma or divorce affect education. This article includes recommendations for teachers, family members or other adults who might advocate for a student who needs more help due to challenging life circumstances.
  • Researchers agree that a trauma-sensitive approach to special education can be critical and urge schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students.
  • After a divorce, both parents participate in educational decisions unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes a parent’s rights. This article includes tips for navigating those circumstances. A parenting plan that designates a primary parent for school interactions is one idea.
  • Schools can accommodate survivors of domestic abuse to help them participate safely in the special education process for their children. Alternative meeting spaces are among ideas further described below.

Full Article:

Students who experience trauma often have a rough time staying emotionally stable and keeping their behavior on track for learning at school. Research about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) lists many childhood conditions that impact a person’s lifelong health and access to opportunities. High on the list are trauma from domestic abuse and divorce. For many families, complex trauma includes both.

A child’s response to trauma may look like disobedience or lack of motivation. A family member or teacher might notice that a child is regressing. A student may have delays in social communication or emotional regulation–skills schools teach in an emerging area of education called Social Emotional Learning. Some children survive severe distress but don’t demonstrate obvious changes in behavior or disrupt the classroom. In all cases, figuring out what’s happened and how to help requires a thoughtful, individualized process.

A family member, school employee or any concerned adult can respond by seeking an evaluation to determine whether the student has a disability and qualifies for services delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 plan.

Note: Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects individuals with a disabling condition that impact a “major life activity.” An article on PAVE’s website further describes Section 504 and the differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP. PAVE also provides comprehensive articles and on-demand webinars about special education process, the IDEA, evaluation, and other topics listed under Learning in School at wapave.org.

A behavioral or emotional disability that significantly impacts access to learning can qualify a student for an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if the student demonstrates a need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). Among the IDEA’s 14 qualifying categories of disability are Emotional Disturbance, which captures a variety of behavioral health conditions, and Other Health Impairment, which sometimes captures conditions related to attention deficit, anxiety or depression. A child who isn’t found to have a qualifying disability might benefit from a behavior support plan or counseling services at school. 

Supporting and educating students with trauma histories has become a priority for the National Education Association (NEA), with a specific focus on students who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, sexual abuse and related traumas.

The problems are widespread: More than half of women who experience domestic violence have children younger than 12, and data indicate that nearly half of those children witnessed the abuse.

Response to a child’s symptoms may be complicated by cultural considerations: Some cultures may be more accepting of abuse, less trusting of authorities or afraid of the fallout within the community. An agency in Washington that helps when multicultural issues create barriers is Open Doors for Multicultural Families.

Best Practice Strategies to Help

On its website, the NEA offers an article: Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization. The article provides strategies to support traumatized students. Here is a summary of some points:

  • Provide structure, a sense of security and a safety plan: “Children who experience abuse often yearn for structure and predictability.”
  • Help students understand available support and the teacher’s role as a mandated reporter: “The larger the number of people available to listen to a student, the more likely that student is to disclose abuse.”
  • Validate and reassure the student: “Provide non-judgmental, validating statements if a student discloses information. Sample statements include That must have been scary or It must be difficult to see that happening.”
  • Identify triggers of anxiety or challenging behavior: “…be prepared for negative emotions and behaviors from the student in response to triggers.”
  • Use a daily Check In to provide a solid foundation for relationship building: “It can be helpful to use pictures or a rating scale to help students identify and label their emotional states.”
  • Directly teach problem solving skills: “Be honest with students about how you’re feeling and talk through your actions in response to challenging situations.”

Domestic Abuse is Common

Understanding the nature and prevalence of domestic abuse can grow compassion, combat stigma and promote shared problem-solving. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), defines domestic violence as “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”

Acts of domestic violence can be physical, sexual, threatening, emotional or psychological.  Statistically, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience some form of domestic violence; its prevalence is noted among all people regardless of age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality.

How to Notice Something is Wrong

When domestic abuse impacts a child’s access to education, figuring out how to help requires thoughtful consideration. The NEA describes specific characteristics of children who have experienced trauma and how their ability to function is compromised. Here is a summary from NEA’s article:

Regulation

  • Children may find it hard to explain their emotional reactions to situations and events.
  • They may appear inattentive or hyperactive—or fluctuate between both.
  • Loud or busy activities can trigger a confusing reaction: a child might lose control about something that is usually a favorite.

Social Skills

  • Children may have “disordered social skills,” playing inappropriately or lacking typical boundaries.
  • They may withdraw socially or try to control situations in ways that seem rude or look like bullying.
  • They might develop “friendships” based on negativity and be unable to develop high-quality, appropriate friends.

Cognitive Function

  • Children impacted by trauma may be mentally overwhelmed and struggle to follow directions or shift from one activity to another, even with prompting. (Adults may mislabel these cognitive inabilities as deliberate or defiant behaviors.)
  • Children may overly depend on others but struggle to ask for help.
  • An impaired working memory can make it difficult for the child to start or finish a task, pay attention and/or concentrate.

Evaluate with Trauma in Mind

The Federation for Children with Special Needs provides a downloadable article called Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process. The article provides suggestions for making the evaluation process trauma sensitive and includes this statement:

“By becoming aware that violence may be at the heart of many of the child’s learning and behavioral difficulties, school personnel may be able to mitigate much of the lasting impact of trauma.”

The federation urges schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students and encourages use of the Functional Behavioral Assessment tool and a framework of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS):

“Self-regulation describes the ability of a child to ‘put the brakes on’ in times of emotional stress. Traumatized children are hyper-aroused; they view their world as dangerous and unpredictable and they are prepared to react in a moment’s notice, usually in inappropriate (and possibly unsafe) ways…IEP Team Meeting members can go a long way towards ameliorating this hyper-arousal by asking for Functional Behavioral Assessments to ascertain the reason for the inappropriate reactions as well as ways to replace the behaviors with better coping skills and strategies.”

A trauma-informed approach at school meetings can help the team figure out why unexpected behaviors happen or why academic progress seems so hard to achieve. Promoting healthy relationships by designing intentional time with trusted adults and developing a creative strategy for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) at school are strategies the team can discuss. A trauma-informed approach, the federation contends, “encourages educators to ask, What happened to you? instead of What’s wrong with you?

When Divorce Complicates Work with the School

Another domestic issue that sometimes complicates circumstances for families navigating special education is divorce. The US Department of Education stresses that parents or legal guardians are decision-makers for their children. Whether parents are married or separated, they both are equal decision-makers in special education process unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes that right.

A parenting plan can be written with specific instructions about which parent is the educational decision maker.

The school needs a copy of the parenting plan in order to follow it. Without a plan in place, either parent who shares joint legal custody can sign an educational document that requires parental consent, even if the student lives full time with only one parent. Parental rights include access to records and educational information about the student. A non-custodial parent has the right to be informed of meetings and attend meetings.

Parents with joint custody who share parenting decisions may want to draft an agreement with the school to specify how the child’s time is divided and which parent is responsible for specific days, activities or meetings.

Schools Can Offer Safe Space

If one partner has been abused and there is no restraining order to prevent the non-custodial parent from attending school meetings, schools can accommodate the domestic abuse survivor by offering a separate meeting in a different space, at a separate time.

If a parent is bound by a restraining order, the IEP team will need to determine whether the order limits access to the school building and whether the order specifies that the parent has lost rights under the IDEA. If the order limits building access, but does not limit IDEA rights, then that parent has the right to attend a meeting in another space or by phone. A restraining order might include “no contact” with the child, and the meeting must ensure that the child’s safe distance from the parent is protected.  

Visit the following websites for additional information:

Access Rights of Parents of Students Eligible for Special Education (Washington State)

Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization.

In the Best Interests of the Child: Individualized Education Program (IEP) Meetings When Parents Are In Conflict (PDF)

Divorce: It Can Complicate Children’s Special Education Issues

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process (PDF)

Trauma Informed Schools Resources (OSPI)

Introduction to Special Education

 

The process of special education can feel overwhelming for parents already working hard to manage home and medical challenges. This presentation is for parents of students ages 3-21, with known or suspected disabilities, who may have unique educational needs that require additional supports and services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan. This information can help parents participate in decision-making with schools by understanding basic principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

For an additional video about communication strategies for collaborating with the school, watch PAVE’s video, Parents as Partners with the School.

OSPI Provides Guidance for Families

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the agency responsible for oversight of all public schools and non-public agencies in Washington State. In addition to supporting schools, OSPI provides resources and support directed toward students and families.

OSPI upgraded its website (k12.wa.us) in July 2019. The home page provides news about current events, a calendar, and an option for Parents and Families to seek resources specific to their needs and concerns.

The Parents and Families section of the website is divided into three categories:

  • Learning, Teaching, & Testing: Information about graduation requirements, learning standards, testing and more
  • Data & Reports: Access to data specific to a school or district, financial reports and guidance about the Washington School Improvement Framework
  • Student & Family Supports: Special Education guidance and information about student Civil Rights, how to file a complaint, health and safety, English Language Proficiency (ELP) and more

Under Guidance for Families: Special Education in Washington State, the website provides this statement:

“The OSPI Office of Special Education aspires to ensure students with disabilities receive Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). About 14 percent of students overall receive special education services in the state of Washington.”

Linkages through the Special Education section of the website provide information on a range of topics. Here are a few examples:

  • How Special Education Works
  • Laws and Procedures
  • Parent and Student Rights (Procedural Safeguards)
  • Making a Referral for Special Education
  • Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
  • Placement Decisions and the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  • Transition (Ages 16-21)
  • Behavior and Discipline
  • Disagreements and Disputes related to Special Education
  • Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC)

Each section includes state guidance under the rule of federal law (the IDEA) and provides linkages to other resources within and beyond OSPI.

A Need Assistance? link on the Special Education page provides contact information for the Special Education Parent Liaison, available as a resource to parents in non-legal special education matters. According the OSPI’s website, the liaison “serves as a neutral and independent advocate for a fair process.”

“The Special Education Parent Liaison does not advocate on behalf of any one party. Rather, the Parent Liaison exists to address individual concerns about bureaucratic systems and act a guide for anyone attempting to understand and navigate various special education or school district processes and procedures.”

To contact Scott Raub, the Special Education Parent Liaison, call 360-725-6075 or submit a message through OSPI’s Contact Us web page.

 

Special Education Parent Advisory Councils (SEPACs) Bring Parents to the Table

A Brief Overview

  • Parents and schools can learn step-by-step how to create and manage a SEPAC through the downloadable Advocacy in Action guidebook.
  • An informal webinar about SEPACs is freely available through Facebook.
  • Parents and schools who want to learn more about special education process, rights and responsibilities can reach out to PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff for guidance and training. From PAVE’s home page, click Get Help!
  • This article contains information about a special-education bill proposed in 2019 that would have required SEPACs throughout the state. Currently the option to develop a SEPAC is available voluntarily.

Full Article

Parents, school staff and invested community members can collaborate to improve outcomes for students in special education by building together a Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC).

Any school district can establish a SEPAC, and anyone within the local district—including a parent—might start the work to get the group going. No legislation is required. Although a few states require districts to develop SEPACs, Washington State does not. SB 5532, which failed to pass in the 2019 legislative session, would have required Washington school districts to establish SEPACs.

Note: Conversations continue statewide about which aspects of the special-education bill may be revived in 2020. In addition to the SEPAC requirement, SB 5532 included provisions for safety-net funding for special education; requirements for teacher-preparation programs; service district advocacy; and requirements for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) to participate in transition meetings for students older than 16 with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). A complete summary of the bill and information about its sponsorship and movement through the legislative process is available on the Washington State Legislature Website.

Once established, a local SEPAC is part of the local school district, not a private or independent group. It is not a Parent Teacher Organization (PTO); nor is it a parent support group. A local SEPAC addresses system-level challenges affecting students with disabilities and their families. A local SEPAC is parent-driven, and often parent-led, but there is an important role for school district staff and leaders. Ideally, membership is diverse and inclusive.

A parent center in New Jersey, in collaboration with the national Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR), provides a guidebook to help families and schools work together to build SEPACs. The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (New Jersey SPAN), created the 67-page, downloadable Advocacy in Action guidebook with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education.  Debra Jennings, who serves as co-executive director of SPAN in addition to being director of CPIR, speaks informally about the guidebook and SEPAC development in a webinar available through Facebook.

According to Advocacy in Action, “Participation in a SEPAC offers the opportunity to raise questions, voice concerns, and provide direct input to school leadership and influence policy and program decisions. The great benefit of participating in a local SEPAC is that the individual needs of a child become part of ‘the big picture’ and can reach a broader community of children.”

A SEPAC is parent-driven, meaning that:

  • Parents determine priorities and activities.
  • Parents strategize to seek solutions on issues that matter to them, helping schools overcome challenges and make decisions related to special education programs and services.

The guidebook emphasizes that parent-driven does not mean that parents do all the work: “District leaders participate, provide information, background, data, and support.”

Washington has a statewide Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC), and PAVE participates on that council. Staff from PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) program are available to consult with parents and can provide information and resources to assist anyone who may wish to build a SEPAC. For example, PTI staff may provide a training in special education process, parent rights and responsibilities to families wanting to get more involved with their local school districts.  PTI staff can help by providing tips for collaboration and developing a partnership with the district. Ideally, a SEPAC creates a sense of shared investment toward successful outcomes for students with disabilities.

From PAVE’s home page, click Get Help!  to request assistance from PTI staff. Or call: 800-572-7368.

 

Response to Intervention (RTI) – Support for Struggling Students

Brief overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

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

RTI has three levels, or tiers, for intervention:

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

RTI works best when parents are involved

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

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

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

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

For more information on RTI, MTSS, and PBIS:

The Three RTI Tiers

Center on Response to Intervention

Response to Intervention (RTI)

 What is the Difference Between RTI and MTSS?

MTSS: What You Need to Know

Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) in Schools