Behavior is Education, Too!
By Heather M. Hulse, J.D., M.S., MA.
Students that demonstrate behavioral needs that negatively impact their educational progress may have a disability pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Many students that have behavioral concerns have an underlying mental health disorder, which may or may not have been diagnosed. Regardless of a mental health diagnosis, students with behavioral issues may qualify for special education services. Indeed, one of the eligibility categories under the IDEA is “Emotional disturbance”, which includes “a condition exhibiting…inappropriate types of behaviors…under normal circumstances…over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” Moreover, educational performance includes behavioral performance, not just academic performance.
It is not uncommon for students with behavioral needs that rise to the level of “Emotional Disturbance” to be overlooked by school districts. This can be particularly true if the child is not demonstrating significant academic deficits. Thus, students with behavioral needs that warrant special education services will instead receive only punitive consequences, such as loss of recess, detentions, loss of privileges, and suspensions. Not surprisingly, these types of punitive responses will frequently not increase positive behaviors, nor decrease negative behaviors. Sadly, the results will often lead to further and more significant behavioral issues.
Students demonstrating significant behavioral concerns over a long period of time that are resulting in punitive consequences should be evaluated by their school districts for the purposes of determining whether they are eligible to receive special education services. It will be particularly important that a Functional Behavioral Assessment (“FBA”) be conducted as part of that evaluation. An FBA involves several observations over a period of time, in various settings, by a qualified professional in order to assess the student’s “function” of the problematic behavior(s). In other words, the assessment involves finding the reason(s) for the problematic behavior(s). These reasons can include a variety of factors, including environmental and social factors.
Students that are identified with Emotional Disturbance due to their problematic behaviors impeding on their educational performance require a Positive Behavior Support Plan in order to provide for specific interventions to address the target behaviors that interfere with learning and teach replacement behaviors. Such a behavior plan must be developed by the student’s Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) team, based on an FBA, and become part of the student’s IEP. These behavior plans must include methods that utilize positive reinforcement and other positive techniques to shape a student’s behavior, including, but not limited to, the use of positive verbal statements, preferred activities, homework passes, and specific tangible rewards.
Moreover, school districts must follow specific requirements in managing the behaviors of special education students pursuant to Chapter 14 of the Pennsylvania Code. School districts must implement positive behavior support programs that include research-based practices and techniques. This means that the practices and techniques utilized for behavior programming must have been scientifically proven to be effective in increasing positive behavior and decreasing problematic behavior. Furthermore, school districts should frequently and appropriately monitor students’ progress to determine whether revisions to behavior support plans are necessary. With such practices, students who demonstrate behavior problems can effectively learn to increase their positive behaviors and decreased negative ones.