Saturday, December 7, 2013

School-wide Approaches to Mitigate Behavior Problems and Optimize Learning for All

When trying to implement the safe and orderly environment correlate, educational leaders can easily fall into common traps (Simonsen, Sugai, & Negron, 2008; Horner, Sugai, & Horner, 2000).  Behavior management can be key to student, teacher, classroom, school, and district success.  Whenever serving students with disabilities, effective behavior management becomes even more crucial.  

Failure to implement proper behavioral plans for students with disabilities can have financial as well as academic consequences.  Although less tangible, the emotional toll upon students for inappropriate behavior management can be significant.  District administrators must be aware of both the educational and legal issues required for effectively managing the behavior of students with disabilities.  Therefore, implementation of sachool-wide policies and appropriate interventions must also provide the opportunity for case-by-case consideration. 

Poorly managed classrooms and buildings negatively impact student learning.  Conversely, well-managed classrooms and buildings positively impact student learning.  Administrators and educational leaders can take several steps to promote a district-wide climate that cultivates well-managed classrooms and buildings.  Administrators and educational leaders can do the following:

1. Encourage all teachers to establish and define reasonable classroom norms or rules and appropriately communicate these to each student.  Each norm or rule should be stated in positive terms.  Assess student awareness of each rule’s purpose.

2. Facilitate commitment from all staff for teaching students the appropriate school behavior in a manner similar to teaching, reinforcing, and assessing academic skills.  Therefore formal lessons on social skills, interpersonal problem solving, and conflict resolution should be presented by teachers and counselors.  Diverse programs designed to assist schools in this regard provide significant professional development.

3. Establish universal expectations for various areas of each building.  Staff should be competent describing what “respect” entails within the classroom, library, lunchroom, and restrooms.  This provides consistency with norms or rules throughout the building.  Common understanding of expectations eliminate disagreements among students and staff, thereby reducing anxiety for students.

4. Convey explicit behavior expectations and consequences to parents and families.  This encourages support from home, mitigates conflicts, and increases the positive home-school relationship correlate.

Despite implementation of the above, some students will not respond to school-wide strategies.  Therefore, more individualized strategies will need implementation.  Knowing a range of approaches and additional preventative strategies mitigate chronic behavior problems. 

Whenever students exhibit chronic behavior problems, staff must know how to consider the root cause and purpose for the problematic behavior before attempting to identify an appropriate replacement behavior.  Effective, well-versed administrators draft policies and seek consensus for carrying out disciplinary strategies.  Depending on the age of the student, including the student in discussions of the problem may prove very helpful.  Including the student’s family members in identifying strategies tailored to the child’s individual needs also proves helpful.

Whenever a student has an individualized education program (IEP) or a behavior intervention plan (BIP), strategies need to be evaluated by child study team (CST) or intervention and referral services (I&RS) team.  Typically, such child-centered teams include the child’s parent[s], general education teacher, special education teacher, and other school officials with specialized knowledge of the child’s needs.  This optimizes communication, collaboration, implementation, and effective integration through the IEP or BIP.  Some preventative strategies may include:

• Designate specific support staff such as a counselor, social worker or aide, to regularly check in with the student or help the student needing time or space to vent or cool down.

• Adjust the timing or content of the student's academic schedule.  When appropriate, such accommodations mitigate potential triggers that increase student stress and anxiety.  For instance, it may be helpful to schedule physical education between cognitively demanding academic classes.

• Directly teach the student various relaxation techniques, including visualization, deep breathing, or yoga.

• Plan for the student’s need to take “timeouts” as an accommodation to either settle down, become calm, or regroup.

• Develop a succinct crisis plan, outlining procedures for optimally responding to the student's problematic behavior.  Such a plan may provide training in non-aversive behavior management.  This includes positive reinforcement and communicative strategies that all support staff and stakeholders can universally utilize.   

• Provide counseling, mentoring, or intense social skills training.

• Provide services and supports “wrapped around” the student and the student’s family.  These include interagency services provided at school, home, and in the community.  Given involvement of multiple agencies it is important that a care coordinator oversees support services.

Preventative strategies are more effective when based on valid and reliable functional behavioral assessment (FBA).  Since individualized strategies are intensive and may need to be in place over an extended period of time, it is crucial to involve the family in all stages of developing and implementing them.  Once again, this encourages support from home, mitigates conflicts, and increases the positive home-school relationship correlate.  

School-wide and individualized preventative strategies intend to proactively respond to student behavior problems, encourage desired behavior, and mitigate chronic behavior problems.  However, some students may continue to exhibit misconduct.  When students with disabilities engage in misconduct, administrators and teacher leaders must be aware that federal laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), provide such students with specific procedural safeguards.

IDEA and Section 504 prohibits schools receiving federal funds from discriminating against a student with a disability because of that disability.  For any student receiving special education services, federal law permits the school to “remove” (i.e., suspend) the student for up to 10 consecutive days for violating the school’s code of conduct.  The caveat is the discipline must be consistent with the school’s treatment of students without disabilities who have committed the same violation under similar conditions.  Beyond that level of consequence, the school must provide the student additional procedures, most notably a manifestation determination.  For example, when the student’s IEP specifies bus transportation as a related service, suspending the student from the bus due to chronic misbehavior for more than 10 consecutive days constitutes a “change in placement,” thereby triggering the child’s right to a manifestation determination.  This process determines whether or not the violation was a “manifestation” of the child’s disability. 

Under IDEA, an exception to the 10-day rule, occurs when a student commits a weapon or drug offense at school, or if the student causes another person serious bodily injury at school.  In such a case, the school may unilaterally place the student in an interim alternative educational setting for up to 45 consecutive school days.  Removing a student from the education program designated in her IEP for either more than 10 consecutive days or a pattern of removals accumulating more than 10 days, constitutes a “change in placement.”  This situation requires the school convene a manifestation determination meeting whereby members of the child’s IEP team will consider whether the violation was a manifestation of the disability.  If the team determines that it was, the school may not change the student’s placement without parental consent.

Under IDEA, when a manifestation determination results in consensus that a student’s conduct was a manifestation of disability, or if a school changes the placement of a child with a disability by removal for more than 10 days, the school must conduct a functional behavioral assessment (FBA).  The FBA examines the meaning, function, cause, or purpose of the student’s behavior.  The result of the FBA is a creation of an effective behavior intervention plan (BIP) aimed at managing the student’s behavior in the future.  FBA allows the team to isolate the reason for the student’s behavior problem.  As a result, the team can formulate an effective BIP that not only mitigates the behavior, minimizing intrusion upon the school, but ultimately extinguishing the behavior and channeling the student toward more acceptable and productive behaviors in the future.

Whenever a manifestation determination conference results in the finding that a student’s violation of a code of conduct was not a manifestation of disability, the school may discipline the student as it would a student without a disability.  This could thereby justify a change in placement.  This change could result in expulsion or transferring the student to an alternative school.  However, the school must continue to provide the student educational services that permit access to the general education curriculum and opportunity to progress toward stated IEP goals.

A proactive approach can mitigate the conflict cycle that exacerbates problematic behaviors (Fecser & Long, 2000).  The increasing popularity of school wide PBIS programs (Walker et al, 2005) exemplify schools recognize success based on related research.  Therefore, administrators and teacher leaders should be well-versed in appropriate district-wide and individualized preventative measures for managing student behavior.  Since the special education law can be intricate and punitive for non-compliance, understanding the legal issues related to the discipline of students with disabilities is essential.  Professional development for staff and stakeholders increases competencies, promotes collaboration, and mitigates potential conflict.  The result is increased opportunity to sustain success and optimize the mission of learning for all.

To Cite:
Anderson, C.J. (December 7, 2013) School-wide approaches to mitigate behavior problems and optimize

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