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MS in Education Insight: Disciplining Students With Disabilities

Learn how an effective behavioral intervention can create a positive learning environment for all pupils.

Discipline in primary and secondary schools is a multifaceted subject of exploration for students in master’s degree in education or Master of Arts in Teaching programs. And for students pursuing a special education specialization, the topic grows even more complex. Different behavioral interventions and procedures are often required for children with special needs.

In Walden University’s master’s-level course Creating Effective Behavioral Interventions, students explore how behavior affects every student’s ability to learn. Because special educators are frequently called upon to evaluate, assess, and create behavior interventions, MSEd and MAT students must learn best practices to develop strategies for improving behavior.

MS in Education Insight: Disciplining Students With Disabilities

“Disciplining Students With Disabilities” from the National Association of School Psychologists, by Kevin P. Dwyer, is a key piece of required reading that offers an in-depth examination of the issues students with special needs and their teachers may face. Read along to learn how teachers can effectively manage behavior in children with special needs:1

Disciplining Students With Disabilities

A child runs, out of control, down a busy school hallway and punches another child who is quietly waiting in line outside her classroom. She starts to cry while the disruptive child continues down the hall, not responding to a teacher aide’s commands to stop. Another adult says, “He’s special ed, there’s nothing that we can do. You can’t send him to detention. I’ll tell his teacher.” The aide is frustrated and upset as she comforts the crying child.

A child who is labeled seriously emotionally disturbed sets a trash can on fire. When brought to the principal’s office, the security specialist is told that it is a manifestation of the child’s disability and the usual disciplinary procedures will not be followed. The security specialist leaves, muttering, “Those kids get away with murder!”

Both examples are serious misunderstandings of the procedural safeguards of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA procedural safeguards were designed to assure that students with disabilities (receiving special education and related services) were not arbitrarily removed from their parent-approved program without consent and were guaranteed a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) within the least restrictive environment (LRE).

There is nothing in IDEA that restricts schools from disciplining children with disabilities. In fact, some would say that by not addressing dangerous behaviors, school officials are not giving students with special needs an “appropriate” education. Both of the above children may need specialized services to change their disruptive and dangerous behavior and to make sure that whatever discipline is used works in preventing a reoccurrence of that behavior.

This article is designed to provide a set of practical concepts to improve the chances that positive behaviors will increase and negative behaviors will decrease among children with disabilities who warrant special education and related services under IDEA. Some of these concepts may also be applied to other troubled students. Regardless of students’ classification, all interventions should be evaluated as to their effectiveness. We know, for example, that expulsion may result in a positive behavioral change for some students but may be ineffective or increase negative behavior in others. Research shows that when education is disrupted by long absences (such as expulsion), the likelihood of dropping out increases dramatically and that children with special needs are more likely to drop out and never complete a diploma, and to remain unemployed and economically dependent. Expulsion may be a deterrent for many students who worry about their academic progress and who hold to a high standard of behavioral control. The threat of expulsion may be one small component of a comprehensive discipline plan. However, there is little research regarding the actual effectiveness of expulsion in improving school discipline.

The materials contained in this article are based on several resources and the author’s 30 years’ experience as a school psychologist. Many of the steps noted below already are found in the practices of some school districts. A “best practices” example which this document follows is the policy of the Parkway School District in Missouri. … These steps have been modified to conform to the author’s interpretation of the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA ’97).

IDEA was amended to better ensure that children with disabilities whose behavior blocks learning have those behaviors addressed within their IEP (Individualized Education Program). Although this was expected practice prior to IDEA ’97, it was seldom implemented; children with such needs were underserved and punished and too frequently dropped out of school. The amendments also balance intervention with safety, allowing school staff to remove children from their school for possession of a weapon or drugs (including drug sale or use). One remedy allowed by IDEA ’97 is a 45-day alternative placement. Other options can be tried, including parent-supported change in placement and IEP. More complex is the removal by hearing examiner of a child when there is a preponderance of evidence that maintaining the child in the present placement is substantially likely to result in injury to the child or to others.

It is hoped that these principles will increase positive behavior conducive to learning and reduce the need to use expulsion and suspension as interventions for behavior problems. Positive interventions will also increase classroom teacher and parental support for actions taken to improve school discipline and safety.

Maintaining a Safe Environment Conducive to Learning

School systems have the legal responsibility to maintain safe, violence-free schools. Part of that responsibility includes the establishment of a code of conduct containing specific consequences for violations of the code. School authorities have the right and responsibility to discipline children (including the removal of children from their present school) when those children violate school rules by engaging in conduct that materially and substantially disrupts the rights of others to be physically safe and educated. When conduct endangers the student or others, temporary removal of that student may become imperative. Schools also have these rights and responsibilities when students with disabilities violate school rules, causing disruptions or danger to themselves or others.

All students have the right to know the rules of conduct and to learn to master school rules. All children learn differently. Many children learn intuitively through observation, experience, and encouragement. Many other children need further assistance and instruction in order to master developmentally appropriate behavior that enables them to attend school, learn, share, and cooperate with other children and adults. As school psychologists, we know that knowledge and demonstrated skill are required before we can presume a rule is “learned.” The level of learning also varies, and it is important for schools to acknowledge marginal, minimal, and developmentally standard levels of mastery.

Students with disabilities who are in need of special education and related services have, by definition, problems in learning and skill development. Unlike their nondisabled counterparts, they may, in some cases, have difficulty demonstrating socially appropriate behaviors. Unlike their nondisabled peers, they also have a continued right to a free and appropriate public education within the least restrictive environment even when their behavior violates a discipline rule or code.

When any child, disabled or not, has been found to violate a code resulting in proposed disciplinary action, that child has rights to challenge the reason for the action, including the right to prove that the accusations are false, distorted, exaggerated, or based upon racial, ethnic, gender or even disability bias. All students have the right to challenge the severity of the consequent disciplinary action recommended by the school authorities.

Find Your Career in Special Education

The employment outlook for special education teachers is expected to remain steady through 2026, with an estimated 33,300 jobs added to the workforce.2 If you’re a teacher with an eye on one of those future positions, you may want to pursue a master’s in education online with a specialization in special education. Walden’s MSEd degree program synthesizes the most current research in neuroscience, assessment, and scientifically based interventions so that you can determine best practices for student learning.

Walden also offers an online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program with a specialization in Special Education, which is ideal for professionals who already have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher and are interested in becoming teachers.

With Walden’s flexible and convenient online learning platform, you can earn a degree while continuing to work, enjoy time with your family and friends, and participate in your favorite pastimes. And some adult learners earn their MSEd degrees in as little as 12 months. If teaching students with special needs is your passion, let an MSEd or MAT start you down the path to serving the greater good.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online MS in Education degree program with 17 specializations. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

1Walden MSEd curriculum source:

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,