Sample Letter to Request a Functional Behavioral Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manifestation Determination

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

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

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

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

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

Request FBA formally, in writing

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

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

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

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

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

The FBA/BIP might prevent a shortened school day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sample letter to request an FBA

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

Your Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip
Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Your Name

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

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

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

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

A Brief Overview

  • School discipline is resurfacing as a concern for many families as schools have reopened for in-person instruction. Read on for information about student rights in Washington and what families need to know when behavior impedes learning and disability may be a factor.
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students receive best-practice services and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.
  • If the school calls to send a child home due to behavior, parents can ask whether the student is being suspended. If the school is not taking formal disciplinary action, parents are not required to take a child home. PAVE provides a video with information about what to do if the school wants to send a child home due to behavior.
  • If a student is excluded from school through suspension or expulsion, or if a student is isolated or restrained at school, specific reports are required. Read on for more detail.
  • Read on for information about Procedural Safeguards, which are downloadable through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington’s lead educational agency.
  • PAVE provided a training about student rights, with some information specifically related to mental health, for the statewide NAMI conference Oct. 16, 2021. The recording is available through PAVE’s website: How to Navigate School for Youth with Mental Health Concerns.
  • Families can seek individualized assistance by clicking Get Help from PAVE’s website, wapave.org.

Full Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is exclusionary discipline?

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

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

Exclusionary discipline may violate FAPE

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

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

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

Unexpected behavior may indicate a disability and need for services

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

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

Manifestation Determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools are required to support behavior and work with families

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

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

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

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

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

In general, Washington rules:

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

Schools must provide educational services during a suspension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

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

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

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

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

Emergency Response Protocol (ERP)

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

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

Reporting requirements for disciplinary removal

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

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

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

Reporting requirements for isolation/restraint

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

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

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

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

Equity work in student discipline is ongoing

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

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!

Behavior and Discipline in Special Education: What to do if the School Calls Because of a Behavior Incident

Continue reading “Behavior and Discipline in Special Education: What to do if the School Calls Because of a Behavior Incident”

Suspension Know your Rights

A Dear Colleague Letter

The US Department of Education (DOE), in an effort to keep families and educators
informed, has produced a number of Dear Colleague Letters on topics of concern. Among these are two addressing issues around discipline, suspension/expulsion, and the use of School Resource Officers (SRO’s). These are critical topics of concern considering the many long-term negative consequences associated with suspension and expulsion, as well as discipline of students with disabilities. At the same time the Federal Government is producing these letters, Washington State legislature has introduced a Bill that would prohibit the use of suspension and expulsion for kindergarteners through 2nd grade. The Bill has a way to go before it can be signed into law, but the Dear Colleague Letters have already started making an impact on how discipline issues are addressed. So, what do these two Dear Colleague Letters say? Let’s look at them individually.

Dear Colleague Discipline and the use of School Resource Officers (SRO) letter:

The letter starts with a strong reminder from Former Secretary King that states, in part:

“…. school resource officers (SROs)—can help provide a positive and safe learning environment and build trust between students and law enforcement officials in some situations.” He goes on further to state, “I am concerned about the potential for violations of students’ civil rights and unnecessary citations or arrests of students in schools, all of which can lead to the unnecessary and harmful introduction of children and young adults into a school-to-prison pipeline”

This strong beginning helps lend to the clear recommendations made by Secretary King that, “School districts that choose to use SROs should incorporate them responsibly into school learning environments and ensure that they have no role in administering school discipline. State and local leaders should consider setting policy and passing legislation designed to help SROs minimize citations and arrests of students and use diversion programs and other alternatives to arrest, detainment, or the use of force. With appropriate training, support, and community engagement, SROs can bolster a school’s capacity to ensure safety and promote learning among all students.  Indeed, students and their families have the right to expect that all school-based personnel coming into contact with students are professionals trained to exercise appropriate judgment and to do so in a nondiscriminatory fashion.”

He goes on further to provide an exceptional tool to help in supporting the SRO and other staff assisting students. The tool, created by the U.S. Departments of Education (DOE) and Justice (DOJ)—the Safe, School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect (SECURe) Rubrics—has been developed to assist States and districts in improving SRO-related policy and practice. This new resource can help education and law enforcement agencies that use SROs to review and, if necessary, revise SRO-related policies in alignment with common-sense action steps that can lead to improved school safety and better outcomes for students while safeguarding their civil rights. The SECURe Rubrics have been developed with the notion that partnerships between school districts, law enforcement agencies, and juvenile justice entities should be formalized through locally developed memoranda of understanding. Additionally, the SECURe Rubrics can support school safety and other SRO-related policies and practices that are informed by educators, families, students, and community and civil rights stakeholders; are updated regularly; and explicitly articulate that SROs should ensure safety and security but should not administer discipline in schools. At the same time the Department of Education has put out the SECURe Rubric the Department of Justice is releasing a letter for law enforcement leaders to highlight the resources developed by DOJ and DOE. For more information about this resource and to get a copy of the letter go to http://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools. It is an exceptional tool and one that as families and educators we may want to share with local law enforcement partners.

The other letter addresses the growing concern regarding the use of Corporal Punishment. This letter has been sent to Governors, State Education Secretaries, and other school administrators. This letter points out that the mission of promoting positive development of the nation’s youth requires a school to ensure that no harm occurs to the children and young people entrusted into its care. The Dear Colleague Letter goes on to state that a practice in some schools — the use of corporal punishment[  1  ] —is harmful, ineffective, and often disproportionately applied to students of color and students with disabilities. The letter urges the Governors and education leaders to take on the power they possess to change the use of corporal punishment.

The letter states clearly:

“The use of corporal punishment is ineffective as a strategy to address inappropriate behavior. When used in an attempt to compel behavioral change, corporal punishment often has significantly poor results; for example, physical punishment may make a child more aggressive, defiant, and oppositional. Moreover, it can be detrimental to a child’s health and well-being and may have lifelong repercussions.  Research shows, for example, that children who experience physical punishment are more likely to develop mental health issues, including alcohol and drug abuse or dependence, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and other personality disorders. The excessive use of corporal punishment has been shown to be associated with antisocial behavior in children and later when they reach adulthood”.

Beyond its alarming health implications, corporal punishment in school is also associated with negative academic outcomes. Research shows, for example, that corporal punishment can impact children’s cognitive functioning, potentially affecting verbal capacity, brain development, [  1  ] and the ability to solve problems effectively. Additionally, studies also indicate that students as young as those in preschool who experience corporal punishment tend to perform at lower levels, when compared to peers who have not been subjected to such practices, on measures of both academic achievement and social competence.

In the letter, Secretary King states, “While some may argue that corporal punishment is a tradition in some school communities, past practice alone cannot be a sufficient rationalization for continuing to engage in actions that have been proven to have short- and long-term harmful effects. There is a growing consensus that we simply cannot condone state-sanctioned violence against children in school.”

In his letter, Secretary King identifies that “a long list of education, medical, civil rights, disabilities, and child advocacy groups, including the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and many others, have also been calling for a ban on this practice and citing the harmful long-term effects on children and the need to keep physical violence out of the educational environment. Corporal punishment has also been banned in Head Start Programs, Department of Defense-run schools, U.S. prisons and U.S. military training facilities, and most juvenile detention facilities.” He ends the letter by pointing out that twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have banned corporal punishment. Washington is one of those 28 states that have state law governing the use of Corporal Punishment. However, even with this information on the books, the State still finds a greater number of children of color and those with disabilities being punished far more severely than their peers who do not have disabilities or who are among the population majority.

All in all, the more knowledge we have, the greater the ability to assure that the needs of all students are protected. Learn more about how corporal punishment is handled in your district and share that knowledge with others. Together you can help build a strong alliance against the use of a system that has proven to be both ineffective and dangerous.