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An Educational Advocate's Tips for Parents: Navigating "Behaviors" at School.

As I write this article, I remember vividly assisting my sister with her daughter who was kicked out of every daycare by the time she was three years old. The school years were even more of a struggle as she was labeled the “bad kid”, but no one really understood that her behaviors were a direct result of her autism. That was over thirty years ago. As an advocate, today I hear the same heartbreaking stories from parents about how their children are treated as such and how they had to give up their jobs due to the excessive calls to pick up their child from school due to behavior. 

My red flags always go up when I hear statements such as "I hope receiving the same consequences for his defiance will help him make better choices" or "She is very capable and can control her behavior". These are statements exemplify the possibility that the staff may not understand the effects of the disability. As a prior Special Education Director, I trained school teams on the understanding that behavior is always a communicational intent of something. Is it difficult at times to figure out what the child is trying to communicate? ABSOLUTELY. Nevertheless, once you figure that out, you can begin to put the right supports in place to shape more appropriate behavior. 

As a parent, you are your child’s best advocate. If the school is treating your child’s disability as a behavioral problem, the following are things to consider and essential to ensuring your child’s rights are protected, receiving a free appropriate public education. 

  • Behavior must be taught. Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their disabilities. 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.

SEL goals are taught just as reading, writing, and math are taught with direct explicit instruction. It is recommended that those goals be taught daily, and progress monitored frequently. Do not assume this is being done because it is written in the IEP. I live by the motto "Show Me the Data". Do not be afraid to ask for the progress monitoring data sheets. I also would highly recommend writing in the IEP an accommodation that this data will be sent home weekly for you to review.

  • One good Behavior Intervention Plan leads to another. If disciplinary actions are occurring, best practice is for the school to conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). 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 identifies 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. Think about it from this perspective, when you are trying to accomplish a goal, you break it into smaller obtainable segments. Behavior is much the same. You cannot go from A to Z overnight, but you can shape behavior to go from A to B, B to C, and so forth until you eventually get to Z. Celebrate the small successes. Most importantly, the key is to have operationally defined behaviors, clear and consistent data collection, and distinct preventative strategies that are responsive to identifiable triggers. The behavior plan is about prevention, not just crisis management

  • Additional Supports. Another way that an IEP can support students with behavioral opportunities is through related services. Counseling and other behavioral health supports can be written into an IEP as a related service. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for free appropriate public education (FAPE), a school district is responsible for providing and funding those services. This could include regular group or individual counseling sessions, school social worker services, or school-based mental health services to name a few. Knowledge is power. Do not assume the school will offer these services automatically. Ask for what is available at your child’s school/district. 

  • Training is key. When a student’s behaviors are challenging, it can present itself as a great learning opportunity for the team. Do not be afraid to ask for training by highly qualified staff to educate your team. These services as well can be written into the IEP. Know that not all educators are proficient in dealing with behavior and social/emotional learning. This is a great opportunity to not only help your child but also build the team’s capacity to serve all children. 

  • More restrictive placements. There are always circumstances that may lend itself to the team determining a more restrictive placement. Make sure the team has exhausted all resources before making this move. I always get concerned when teams want to move a child with some behavioral concerns to a home-based placement. It is very difficult to teach appropriate replacement behaviors in an isolated setting. 

  • Parent pickups are suspensions. Our kids are very smart. Sometimes, when things are just too overwhelming, they will increase the intensity of their behavior knowing the school is going to call mom or dad to pick them up. When school teams do this, inadvertently they are reinforcing the behavior. In working parents, I often hear that the school is just sending the child home because they do not want to deal with them. Work with your school team to discuss better options. Those options should be outlined in the behavior intervention plan. Also, know that every time your child goes home due to behavior concerns those hours are counted as suspensions and should be noted accordingly in attendance and discipline records. 

At the end of the day, schools are required to support behaviors and work with families. You are a critical team member in this process to help school teams better understand your child’s needs. Knowledge is power. Do not be afraid to ask for supports and services that directly address your child’s unique needs.  

Click the links below to explore more resources on positive behavior supports, best practices for discipline, and what works briefs on social emotional development and challenging behaviors. 


Dr. Kelly Wulf is founder and Educational Consultant & Advocate at WBC Education Solutions. Dr. Wulf has extensive educational and professional experience in Special Education. She began her educational consulting and advocacy because she has witnessed parents’ frustration trying to navigate today’s complex education system. Children only get one chance at an appropriate education, and she has the desire to help your child make the most of their education today. Together, you and Dr. Wulf can make a positive difference in your child’s education and future. Time is vital: but, there is always hope. For more information contact Dr. Wulf at WBS Education Solutions.



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