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Challenging Behaviors

     If a child is violent the options are few. Then he or she may need to be temporarily removed to an alternative setting. Parents should know that even in such a setting a child's IEP must be followed. The law states such a placement should be temporary as the child needs to be with nondisabled and appropriate peer role models as much as possible. Real violence is a level beyond what we will address in this article. Violence that presents harm to a student or fellow student requires professional intervention far beyond just a positive behavior plan and/or alternative discipline plan. However, behavior plans can dramatically assist a child in developing more appropriate behaviors over time. 

      Below we shall take a look at the philosophy behind the law's support for positive behavior plans and alternative discipline plans. 

     If a child has a pattern of inappropriate behavior, parents and IEP teams must be proactive before there is any kind of serious incident, real or perceived. Intervention should be swift, with a proactive approach. 

Warning Signs

     As a child grows older, particularly by junior high, there are high expectations for social skills and communication skills. A child with a disability impacting those skills may well be far behind peers in developing those skills. Because of the higher expectations, the child is at higher risk for inappropriate judicial involvement or punishment, both of which are not going to help that child overcome a skills deficit. But those skills can be learned, if taught and positively reinforced in a systematic manner. 

    A thoughtful, carefully constructed positive behavior plan which is fully implemented by all staff at school and by parents at home can  teach a child to more appropriate behaviors long before the behavior becomes serious.

     With today's zero tolerance popularity it is critical for parents to put into place protections for any child who has behavior issues arising from a disability. If you wait until a crisis happens it may be too late and the child ends up in the judicial system. Once there, a child has very few rights, unlike adults. The issue is best addressed before things reach that point. 

Protections in the law

     There are protections in the law for our children whose behavior impedes their learning and/or the learning of others.  Parents usually are unaware of those protections. This is sad, because they were written to protect the child, and help him or her to new, more appropriate behaviors.   Special education law and 504 plans can include a positive behavior plan and/or an alternative discipline plan when a child has behaviors that interfere with progress in school. 

What are the ABC's of Behavior?

    There are three components for teams to consider when addressing behavior problems.  Called the ABC's of behavior they consist of the antecedent (what was going on just before the behavior) the behavior itself, and the consequence (what happens as a result of the behavior). Often the team, including the parents,  does not establish the antecedent. What was going on immediately before the behavior happened? Did something happened during a time of transition (change)?  Was teacher  distracted, attending to a myriad of details other than the class, or this child?  Is teacher proactively involved in teaching nondisabled children that all children are to be respected for differences, not for sameness? Then there is the consequence to the behavior. Was it ignored? Was the child punished? How? Did it prevent a recurrence? What intervention was successful in preventing recurrence? Don't write a behavior plan without determining what cause the behavior and what function it serves for the child.  Read What is a Functional Behavior Assessment?

  Incompetence or Irresponsibility?

     There are certain phrases that parents should take as a warning sign of trouble brewing. Be wary if the phrase "has to learn responsibility" is used frequently regarding behaviors you believe are disability related. A child who lacks competency in the area of social behavior might be told to "act responsibly."  You might hear, "If the child was responsible he would get his work in on time."  As the parent of a child with disabilities you may find it much more productive to ask the team to substitute the word "competent" for the word "responsible" and see if it makes sense. In other words, we want Johnny to be "more competent" in the area of assignment completion.  We want Johnny to be "more competent" in the area of social skills. If  children with inappropriate behaviors do not have support to replace those behaviors with new, acceptable behaviors, it can set him or her on a  pathway  to disciplinary measures and the juvenile justice system.

Documenting Behavior Concerns

     If behavior is of concern to the school the parents can write a letter to the school, and offer to work with the school to reduce the behaviors of concern.  Once behavior issues are noted in writing, the child is afforded some protection, as the district has a responsibility to identify children at risk and to serve them. If a school is unaware that a child has a disability that may involve behaviors it can treat that child as it would any other student in the event of an incident.  If the child is identified as a child with a disability, then the procedural safeguards in special education law would take effect.

Keep Track of Disciplinary Slips

     It would be helpful for a school that accumulates a disciplinary file to inform the parents, and keep them up to date as to the contents of that file. Parents also have the right to review any and all documents a district keeps regarding their child, including notes, if more than one person, the author has seen them.  If parents find information in files that is inaccurate they can request it be removed.  If information appears misleading, or of concern, parents are entitled to attached their own interpretation of the information in question.

     Any disciplinary file, including those slips, can now goe to court with the child if there is a proceeding. If there has been no proactive involvement, the chances are much greater that the child will be in trouble with the law at some point. 

     While the new safeguards in IDEA may seem time consuming and frustrating to school officials, deeper inspection and understanding of the philosophy driving the laws shows a carefully crafted attempt at saving our at risk youngsters from harmful, unnecessary intervention with the law. 

     Such involvement at an early age can mark a child for life, with negative attitudes and unrealistic expectations on the part of adults, both at home and at school. A downward spiral begins, with self fulfilling prophecy of failure a real possibility. 

     Parents of children with behavior issues should never ignore or neglect getting professional psychological help for their child. The problems will not get better with time or maturity, if the behavior is disability related. In fact, the issues become more serious with age, as more sophisticated demands are made in the upper levels of education.   

      School psychologists often have a huge case load and simply cannot devote the time necessary for in-depth evaluations and services, although they can certainly enhance a team's consideration of behavior issues.  If possible, it is wise to enlist the aid of independent psychological services for evaluation and counseling. A person who has specialized training and expertise in the area of behaviors is crucial to the evaluation and writing of behavior plans.

Building a Partnership

     Parents and schools must share responsibility in helping children develop new behavior skills.  While poor parenting can certainly exacerbate behaviors so can neglect or inappropriate treatment in the school setting, by staff and peers. Schools must realize that a child's behavior is not necessarily just "a family problem".  Medical as well as emotional and psychological conditions can be at the root of some behaviors. Learning disabilities left undiagnosed or addressed can be a large part of a child's frustration and acting out.  

    Parents must support their child's education on the home front, participate in school sponsored activities, communicate frequently with staff, and above all attend any meetings regarding their child's education. Children need to know that their parents and the school have formed a strong, working partnership.  Everyone, including the student needs to play with the same consistent game plan.

   Responsibility falls on the shoulders of the entire team and not just the child to achieve positive end results.  Both parents and school district share responsibility to properly identify the child's needs and to draw up a logical, well thought-out positive approach to changing the behavior. 

See What is a Positive Behavior Plan?

 Sensory Sensitive Issues

     Another factor often overlooked is that children with disabilities are often prone to tactile sensitivity.  This can mean being overly sensitive to layered clothing, touching, a hot room, a noisy room, a busy room, certain fabric textures,  becomes overheated in P.E., or overwhelmed and over stimulated by large crowds.  This sensitivity is important to explore, for such irritants can trigger frustration and anger.  At one IEP meeting a very savvy, well meaning teacher suggested one response for a behavior plan was to touch a child's shoulder as a way of reassurance. I asked the mom if the child liked to be touched and she said "Oh no, she would throw a fit". Explore this area carefully. A surprising number of people, including children, do not like to be touched in such a manner. Other children may be genuinely distressed by fire alarms, bells ringing, bright lights, certain smells, the feel of clothing, too tight, too loose, too hot, too cold, etc. The antecedent for one child, who always seemed to get in trouble in the gym during P.E., was a sensitivity to both becoming overheated and loud noise.  When those triggers were removed, or rather in this case, the child received adaptive P.E. in another setting, the disciplinary referral slips stopped.  

Tracking Interventions

      I.D.E.A. makes it clear that if there are serious behavior issues there needs to be a professional behavior assessment, and all interventions that are tried must be documented on paper, including which ones worked and which ones were not successful, and in what setting they were used.  This  cannot be a guessing game.  A careful, scientific  approach can pinpoint any problem behaviors, and their triggers.  This information is vital, if the team is going to build an approach to behavioral improvement and be able to have a measurable baseline to measure progress.

     Such a positive approach requires time and energy. But the team will have the satisfaction of seeing lifelong positive behaviors begin to develop. Social skills improve, self esteem grows, and confidence builds.  These are attributes that every child should have as they prepare to enter the adult world and workforce. We can give them no greater gift.


Information at this site should not be construed as legal advice.