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Is It Discipline In Disguise? Your Child’s Behavioral Needs and the IEP

Oct. 23, 2019

young boy with hands covering his ears and his mouth and eyes wide open appearing to be screamingYou may already be aware that your child’s IEP needs to address his behavioral, social, and emotional needs (among others) in addition to his academic deficits and learning challenges. For example, a student who needs specialized reading instruction may receive an IEP under the Specific Learning Disability designation. But if this student also has trouble with peer conflicts, off task behavior, and difficulty focusing in class, his IEP should include appropriate goals, instruction, and related services designed to meet those behavioral needs as well. That student may receive both small group reading instruction along with school-based counseling.

Some special education students have a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) incorporated into the IEP. This is a written document that outlines the student’s specific behavioral needs and describes the interventions the school will use to address those behaviors, including the use of positive “replacement behaviors.” The replacement behaviors are intended to help meet your child’s needs without the ill effects of the problematic behaviors he is used to. The BIP is not a wish list of desired behavioral changes, but a targeted intervention program that is based on the results of a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). Simply put, the FBA is an evaluation that attempts to define the problem behaviors and understand their function in the school environment, i.e., why the student does what he does. A child who breaks his pencil when faced with a writing demand may be seeking to avoid the stress he feels during such activities, because he does not like writing and struggles both with the writing mechanics and his emotional frustration at doing at activity he dislikes. If the FBA finds that task avoidance is the function of the pencil-breaking behavior, the resulting BIP might call for the teacher to provide a special cue or incentive that eases the child’s anxiety around the task and rewards him for completing the assignment.

Unfortunately, not every BIP or intervention included in the IEP is effective to meet the student’s behavioral needs. Sometimes this is because the proposed intervention or replacement behavior is not properly matched with the true function of the child’s behavior. But in other cases, there is a good BIP in place that the team is failing to implement fully or consistently, resulting in a lack of effective intervention.

A child who regularly engages in tantrums, meltdowns, or similarly disruptive behavior may be seeking to avoid excessive or stressful academic demands. But she may also be seeking attention that she feels she is not getting from her teachers or service providers, albeit in a maladaptive way. This is why it’s especially important to have a qualified evaluator conduct the FBA and understand the true function of the child’s behavior.

In some such situations, the parent of a child with frequent emotional outbursts is asked to come to the school to bring her child home in order to de-escalate and become available for learning. The school should always contact the parent as soon as possible in the event of any physical or verbal altercations, or any unsafe behavior exhibited by the student. But some parents report constant trips to the school, and many missed days of instruction and homework assignments due to the repeated removals from school. Even if the student is not being formally disciplined for his behavior, this pattern of disruption may constitute a violation of the child’s right to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as required by the federal special education law, IDEA. The use of behavioral interventions in the IEP should not serve as a way for the school to send a child home whenever his behaviors become difficult to manage in the learning environment. Instead, the child’s parents and educators should meet to discuss updated assessments and program revisions to more effectively meet the child’s educational needs, leading to a reduction in problem behaviors over time.

Does your child have a Behavior Intervention Plan as part of her IEP? Share your experience with other parents in the comments.