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MS in Education Insight: Handling Behavior Problems in Students with Disabilities

Read along with Walden’s MSEd candidates to learn appropriate ways of correcting the behavior of students with special needs.

In their ethics code, members of the National Association of Special Education Teachers pledge to apply their professional knowledge to promote student success.1 To deliver on that promise, special educators—and teachers studying for a master’s in special education—know they must have a deep and clear understanding of how to capably handle any behavioral issues that may arise in the classroom.

Recognizing that behavior affects the learning experience of all children, Walden University offers the MSEd course Creating Effective Behavioral Interventions. “Disciplining Students with Disabilities” by Kevin P. Dwyer from the National Association of School Psychologists is required reading in the class. This important article explains the behavioral interventions that may be appropriate for children with special needs and details the federal laws protecting their rights. Read along with Walden’s master’s in special education students to learn more: 2


Addressing and Preventing Behavior Problems

It is the responsibility of the individualized education plan (IEP) team to review the discipline code and determine what specialized help and instruction the child may need to understand the code and consistently demonstrate the appropriate classroom and school behaviors conducive to learning. The team should identify and address the difficulties that may occur and may be related to the child’s disability and establish plans that will reduce the chance that such infractions will occur. The team should plan to provide adaptations and compensations for those behaviors that require an intervention plan and also address those behaviors that may remain unchanged due to the complexity of the disability.

Behavioral goals, like goals for reading or other elements of the general curriculum, should be incorporated into the IEP and not be developed as a separate document or plan. To design a separate “behavior plan” implies that such plans should be treated differently, apart from academic functioning. Additional distinct “behavior plans” could also cause prejudice and establish a subset of children within special education (those with behavior plans). There is evidence that effective individualized academic goals and services reduce frustration and behavior problems.

Behavioral IEP Goals, Parent Involvement, and Services

A child with a disability and the family or parent surrogate should be aware of the discipline code and the consequences for violating each component of that code. Parents can assist the school in finding effective strategies for positive behavioral interventions and strategies for the IEP. They should participate in the IEP development to help determine what exceptions to the discipline code are necessary and to help design behavioral goals that progressively address those exceptions to reduce behavioral difficulties. These plans should include the special education and related services interventions designed to assist the child in maximizing her/his social responsibility. Behavioral goals, as with academic goals, should be measurable and reviewed and modified as needed. As with other goals, services, and interventions, frequent review is imperative to success.

Problematic Patterns of Behavior and Prevention

When children with disabilities demonstrate a new pattern of problematic behavior potentially leading to suspension, the school should initiate an IEP meeting to determine if additional interventions or modifications in the IEP are needed. Such interventions may reduce the chances of the child accumulating a series of suspensions which may, over time, constitute an inappropriate “change in placement.” Any behaviors that block learning and the success of the educational program should be addressed. When the behaviors are not related to the disability, it remains important to both address the problems and to restate the pattern of code violations and the consequences for those violations to the child and parent. Schools and parents should work cooperatively to change the pattern of negative behavior. The school should support the parent in securing other resources to assist in positive behavioral change and work cooperatively with those resources.

Weapons and Drugs

Weapons violations require quick and deliberate administrative action. When a child with a disability violates a rule involving weapons, safety should be the priority both for the child and others. If the local school rules mandate “automatic” expulsion and notification of the police, a written notice of such action must be made available to the parents. Weapons must be clearly defined in the code of conduct. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires initiating an IEP meeting within 10 calendar days. An ordinary expulsion (lengthy removal from educational opportunity) is no longer permitted for children with disabilities who violate weapon laws. Removal from special education services for more than 10 days violates the child’s right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). IDEA ’97 does not use the term “expulsion” but uses the term “a change in the placement of a child with a disability.”

Drug use and possession are also intolerable in schools. Drug use can endanger both the user and peers. It is also a violation of state and federal laws and may involve police action. Schools should be aware that drug use and addiction can be higher among some groups of children with disabilities. Drug use, abuse, and addiction require professional intervention, which frequently includes drug treatment and physical monitoring. A review of the IEP and a functional assessment may control some of the related behaviors demonstrated by a child with a disability who is a drug abuser, but drug use and addiction require assessment and intervention beyond the IEP team’s skills and may require interagency involvement. Drug possession should not be dismissed as unrelated to disabilities, since some youth may be cognitively unaware of what they possess.

The IEP team is now required to review and modify the IEP to address that behavior. If the behavior was not already addressed on the IEP, the IEP team should implement interventions and goals to address that behavior. The law also requires a “functional behavioral assessment” when such behaviors have not been addressed. A true functional behavioral analysis or assessment cannot be effectively carried out as proposed in the law. Such assessments require a series of observations by highly qualified professionals who already know the child in depth, including the child’s strengths and needs. Such an assessment should also follow the guidelines of any review, reevaluation, or assessment according to the law’s requirements for reevaluation. In other words, such an assessment should consider the existing IEP goals and services as well as what is needed. School psychologists should be involved in this review as the persons most qualified to address behavior and learning. They should become involved in assisting in developing the most effective disposition as soon as possible.

Behavior “Likely to Result in Injury”

A child with a disability who causes injury to self or others cannot be placed in a different program without parental consent. If the parent does not consent, a hearing officer can be requested to determine if a change is required, when there is a preponderance of evidence presented “that maintaining the current placement of such child is substantially likely to result in injury to the child or to others.” The hearing officer is required to examine the evidence to determine the above as well as the “appropriateness” of current placement, including the reasonableness of the school’s services, interventions, aides, and other efforts to minimize the risk of harm related to behavior within the current placement. The hearing office must also determine that the interim alternative 45-day placement provides effective IEP services to ensure FAPE, including participation in the general curriculum.

Manifestation Review

When the IEP has already addressed problem behavior, the team has valuable information about the relationship between the child’s disability, the behavioral concerns, the components of the IEP, and the classroom, including the services provided. When a suspension or 45-day alternative placement is recommended, the IEP team, assisted by qualified professionals, should determine if the student’s behavior (misconduct as defined) is related to the disability and whether the current placement is appropriate by evaluating all factors related to the student’s behavior and IEP. This should include review of the interventions tried and services provided to prevent the presenting problem. Such a review should be comprehensive and focus on multiple factors, not merely the behavioral goals of the child’s IEP.

The determination that a behavior is a manifestation of the child’s disability can be a complex process. It must be determined by qualified professionals, on an individual, case-by-case basis. It cannot be determined by the child’s label or category. For example, a label of “emotionally disturbed” does not by itself imply a manifestation of the disability. A behavioral goal or its absence does not determine manifestation. It is not decided by the “ability of the child to determine right from wrong.” Under IDEA, a manifestation determination must include an analysis of the child’s program as well as the child’s physical, cognitive, developmental, mental, and emotional challenges. The child’s behavior may be considered unrelated to the disability if the disability did not impair the child’s understanding of the impact of the serious consequences of the behavior and if the disability did not impair the ability of the child to control the behavior. These factors must be viewed in the context of ecological variables and IEP services and goals.

It is a best practice that the school psychologist assisting in such a determination knows the child and the child’s program. School, classroom, and external factors can result in additional inappropriate and dangerous reactive behaviors from a child with disabilities. Ecological factors that can be addressed within the least restrictive environment (LRE) should be considered in a manifestation review to prevent inappropriate recommendations of changes in placement.

When Behavior is a Manifestation of the Child’s Disability

When the dangerous behavior is the result of the disability, expulsion is an inappropriate action. The child cannot be expelled for that behavior. However, this does not mean that the child must remain in the present placement. When it is determined that the placement or the IEP is not meeting the child’s behavioral needs, modifications should be made to the IEP and, if necessary, to the placement and needed services, to assure that the behavior will be addressed and to prevent its reoccurrence. When dangerous behavior such as weapons violations continue, a controlled, secure placement may be necessary. Any placement should continue FAPE as well as address the behaviors of concern. When parents have been involved in the development of the IEP, including the behavioral goals and services, agreement is more likely to occur between school and family regarding modifications in the program and changes in placement.

When Behavior Is Not a Manifestation of the Child’s Disability

A child with a disability whose dangerous misconduct is found to be unrelated to his/her disability and whose IEP, program, and services are appropriate to address the child's needs may be subject to the regular discipline code of consequences, provided that the child continues to receive FAPE. The parent continues to have the right to appeal this decision and any decision regarding placement. Even when the behavior remains a perceived threat or danger to the child and/or others, FAPE should continue but may need to be provided within a more restrictive alternative center where control reduces danger. Restrictive alternatives may include, for example, a juvenile detention center, a residential treatment center, or another secure facility. It is not in the child’s, the school’s, the community’s, or the family’s interest to maintain a child using an existing IEP and placement when the weapons or dangerous behavior cannot be effectively addressed within that placement. It is in no one’s interest to terminate FAPE to a child with a disability who is in need of special education and related services.

Become an Expert in Your Field

Walden University has two degree programs for working professionals interested in special education. Teachers can earn an online master’s in education with a specialization in Special Education (Grades K–12) in as little as 12 months. For professionals holding bachelor’s degrees or higher who would like to become teachers, the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) with a specialization in Special Education (K–Age 21), is an innovative option.

Walden’s master’s in special education degree programs place emphasis on practical strategies like designing and implementing curricula to facilitate standards-based learning for individuals with exceptionalities and employing assistive technology to promote higher levels of student engagement and learning.

Members of the National Association of Special Education Teachers also commit to furthering their education to advance professional development.1 And with an MSEd or a MAT, you can join your colleagues in upholding that principle—and reap the rewards of bringing quality and compassionate education to children with special needs.

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.

2Walden MSEd curriculum source:

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,