Tag Archives: support

School-Wide PBIS & Teachers Who Bully

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this article.

Source: US Dept of Ed – Office of Special Education Programs

With all the public dialogue and experience-sharing regarding the prevalence of bullying in our schools, you would think the federal government’s push for school-wide positive behavioral interventions would be getting more attention. But, it’s not.

One reason, I suspect, is that people are so focused on holding bullies accountable that they’re not focusing on the real causes of bullying. But, that’s a reactive strategy rather than a proactive attempt to prevent bullying in the first place.

Additionally, people are primarily focused on other children as being the perpetrators of bullying when there is plenty of evidence that students are bullied by teachers and other school personnel, as well. This is one of those things that I wish it weren’t even necessary to talk about, but it is unfortunately one of the issues that fails to receive adequate attention but has such a negative impact on our students that it would be recklessly irresponsible of us to ignore it.

Our work here at KPS4Parents is about solving problems in special education and pretending problems like this don’t exist solves nothing. I believe that if teachers and administrators expect to be regarded with authority by their students, it behooves them to first devote themselves to their responsibility to create a positive learning environment that earns them their students’ respect.

In a recent bullying-related suicide in Japan, it has come to light that teachers were as much responsible as peers for the torment the deceased student experienced, who jumped to his death from his family’s 14th floor apartment. This just goes to show that the problem is not limited to the United States. But, it’s not rare, here in the U.S., either, and children with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers.

A recent due process decision from Georgia shows just how bad it can get (not reading for the weak of heart – be forewarned) and there have been a number of cases in the news and/or in which parents have turned to social media to shed light on the mistreatment of their children with special needs at school by staff.

Continue reading

Federal Seclusion & Restraint Info

USDOE Offices in Washington, DCThe U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) has made information available regarding the use of seclusion and restraint in public school and public school-funded settings for the use of educators, policy makers, parents, and concerned citizens alike. Click here to see this content.

All of it is important for parents and educators of special education students. I’m going to summarize a few key points here because it is so important, but realize that the federal info linked to above is far more comprehensive and includes additional resources that educators and parents can use that I’m not duplicating here.

First, USDOE has identified 15 key principles that it believes schools and parents throughout the country should consider when it comes to seclusion and restraint. Those 15 key principles are as follows:

  1. Every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and for the use of seclusion.
  2. Schools should never use mechanical restraints to restrict a child?s freedom of movement, and schools should never use a drug or medication to control behavior or restrict freedom of movement (except as authorized by a licensed physician or other qualified health professional).
  3. Physical restraint or seclusion should not be used except in situations where the child?s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others and other interventions are ineffective and should be discontinued as soon as imminent danger?of serious physical harm to self or others has dissipated.
  4. Policies restricting the use of restraint and seclusion should apply to all children, not just children with disabilities.
  5. Any behavioral intervention must be consistent with the child?s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse.
  6. Restraint or seclusion should never be used as punishment or discipline (e.g., placing in seclusion for out-of-seat behavior), as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience.
  7. Restraint or seclusion should never be used in a manner that restricts a child?s breathing or harms the child.
  8. The use of restraint or seclusion, particularly when there is repeated use for an individual child, multiple uses within the same classroom, or multiple uses by the same individual, should trigger a review and, if appropriate, revision of strategies currently in place to address dangerous behavior; if positive behavioral strategies are not in place, staff should consider developing them.
  9. Behavioral strategies to address dangerous behavior that results in the use of restraint or seclusion should address the underlying cause or purpose of the dangerous behavior.
  10. Teachers and other personnel should be trained regularly on the appropriate use of effective alternatives to physical restraint and seclusion, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports and, only for cases involving imminent danger of serious physical harm, on the safe use of physical restraint and seclusion.
  11. Every instance in which restraint or seclusion is used should be carefully and continuously and visually monitored to ensure the appropriateness of its use and safety of the child, other children, teachers, and other personnel.
  12. Parents should be informed of the policies on restraint and seclusion at their child?s school or other educational setting, as well as applicable Federal, State, or local laws.
  13. Parents should be notified as soon as possible following each instance in which restraint or seclusion is used with their child.
  14. Policies regarding the use of restraint and seclusion should be reviewed regularly and updated as appropriate.
  15. Policies regarding the use of restraint and seclusion should provide that each incident involving the use of restraint or seclusion should be documented in writing and provide for the collection of specific data that would enable teachers, staff, and other personnel to understand and implement the preceding principles.

Continue reading

“Velcro® Aide” vs. Learning Facilitator

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

There is a realm of conflict surrounding the use of 1:1 aides in special education and many local education agencies (“LEAs”) have developed their own assessment protocols to determine when a child really needs an aide to try and rein in this issue.

Sometimes these assessments just turn into a means of justifying to the parents a decision against aide support that was actually made by the LEA for fiscal reasons, so there are still issues with these types of aide assessments that need to be worked out.

Because these are LEA-made evaluations that are not bound by regulation and they aren’t scientifically validated standardized tests, LEAs can make them up however they want and some are better at researching best practices than others. But, even if it’s the best aide assessment in the world, none of that makes any difference if the aide support a child is given isn’t used well.

Continue reading

Can’t vs. Won’t

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

One of the students for whom we’re providing lay advocacy services had an tumultuous experience at school just over a week ago.  More to the point, everyone in her class, including her teacher, had a tumultuous experience with our client right in the middle of it.

This little girl is the poster child for all the cutie-patooties in the world.  She’s an early elementary student who is completely adorable, caring, and engaging.  She’s also compromised by a mood disorder and can have extremely emotional outbursts that come seemingly out of nowhere every once in a great while.

Continue reading

Services that Address IEP Behavior Goals

Once a special education student with behavioral issues receives an appropriate assessment of his/her behavior, and appropriate IEP goals are written to address the student’s behavioral needs, the IEP team has to determine what services and supports are necessary to see those goals achieved.  The types of services and supports a child requires in order to achieve his/her IEP goals can influence placement decisions, which is why placement is the last decision that should be made by the IEP team.

It is necessary to first know what services and supports will be required in order to determine what the Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”) is for each particular special education student and, as we’ve stated before, the LRE is relative to the unique needs of each individual child.  What is the LRE for one student is not necessarily the LRE for another.  Placement must be in the least restrictive environment necessary in order for the services and supports to be provided such that the goals can be achieved, which varies from student to student.  That means that the selection of services, including the frequency, duration, and times of day they are provided, is a very critical step in the IEP process and it comes into play fairly late in the game.

To recap the process (as described in our prior postings in the “Techically Speaking” category), the IEP process begins with assessment.  The data yielded by the assessment is supposed to inform the IEP team of the student’s Present Levels of Performance (sometimes referred to as “PLOPs”).  Based on what is understood about the student’s Present Levels, the IEP team then must write measurable annual goals that describe in objective, empirical terms what outcomes the IEP is attempting to achieve – what specifically it is trying to teach the student to do.  Once that is known, the next step is the selection of services and supports.

There are a number of tools to address behavioral goals that can be used.  One of the most powerful tools is a Behavior Support Plan (“BSP”) or Positive Behavior Support Plan (“PBSP”).  Once a functional analysis of a student’s behavior has been conducted, the next step is supposed to be the creation of a BSP/PBSP unless?the analysis reveals that the behaviors do not significantly impact the child’s participation in his/her education.

A properly written BSP/PBSP is a thing of gold, but it’s no good to anyone if not everyone implements it the way it is written.  Behavior is a touchy thing.  When you have a child who realizes that the same behavior is met with different outcomes depending on who that child is with, what you often produce is a manipulative child who learns how to push peoples’ buttons.  When behavior is met with the same outcome regardless of who the child is with, the child gets a consistent message about certain behaviors.  For that reason, it is imperative that anyone working with a special education student who exhibits problematic behaviors follow the BSP/PBSP to the letter as best as he/she possibly can.

A BSP/PBSP starts out by describing the problem behavior so people know what they’re looking for. Identifying the function that the behavior serves (i.e. to avoid math problems, to avoid writing, to gain access to more preferred items or activities, etc.) allows people know what need the child is trying to meet and, therefore, the types of responses they should have to the behaviors.  The BSP/PBSP should then describe what responses to give to each type of problematic situation if the behavior manifests, but, more importantly, it should describe what replacement behavior will be taught to the child so that he/she has a more appropriate way of seeing his/her needs met without engaging in the problematic behavior.

It’s not enough to tell a kid to stop doing something.  You have to tell them what is appropriate for them to do instead.  If you’re trying to drive a nail with a banana peel, you’re just going to make a mess.  But, if all somebody does is tell you to stop slinging that useless banana peel at the nail and fails to give you a hammer and show you how to use it, you’re still going to be stuck with a nail that hasn’t been driven.  What you were attempting to accomplish remains unachieved.

Children need to be taught things.  They can’t be expected to somehow magically know things or figure things out as well as more experienced adults.  Children with certain types of disabilities have a harder time picking up what seems obvious to most people, requiring explicit instruction on more basic concepts.  A BSP/PBSP describes what fundamental concepts are being taught, or refers to the behavioral goals which describe what concepts are being targeted, so that the child acquires the reasoning skills necessary to handle situations more successfully.

I’m a fan of Diana Browning Wright’s work. She’s done trainings in California and I have students whom I represent whose PBSPs are written up on Diana’s forms.  They’re very well organized and make total sense.

Another tool that some schools try to use is a “Behavior Contract.”  I’m not a huge fan of these at all.  A “Behavior Contract” is something usually used in general education in which a student makes a written commitment to follow school rules.  It utterly fails to identify what need the student was attempting to meet by engaging in the inappropriate behavior and only speaks to what the child will do; there is nothing that describes what the adult school site personnel will do to assist the student in dealing with whatever is provoking his/her inappropriate behaviors so that they don’t present problems for the student anymore.

Instead, the child is stripped of whatever coping strategies he/she had, even if they were poor ones, and left with nothing he/she can do at all.  This creates a great sense of powerlessness, which can turn on its heel in an instant and lead to more escalated behaviors meant to regain whatever power the child feels he/she has lost.

I’ve seen it happen too many times.  What was meant to stop a problem behavior only served to reinforce it and is particularly horrible to deal with among children with issues involving anxiety, paranoia, and/or Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  Their handicapping conditions magnify, sometimes exponentially, their reactions to having their actual needs ignored and left with no way to see them met, while everyone else is focusing on what they inappropriately did in an effort to see those needs met.

A good BSP/PBSP should also include a description of what consequences and reinforcers should be used to encourage the use of the appropriate replacement behavior and discourage the use of the inappropriate behavior.  By consequences, I do not mean punishment. A consequence is anything that results from an occurrence or event.

In the realm of positive behavioral intervention, a consequence is any outcome that discourages a behavior from reoccurring.  This is often the intent of punishment, but punishment is an artificial consequence that the child may associate with something other than his/her own inappropriate behavior, such as the person who is punishing him/her.

Consequences should fit the behavior and they work best if they are natural, inadvertent outcomes of doing the wrong thing.? In my example above, the natural consequence of trying to drive a nail with a banana skin is a gooey mess and a nail that still hasn’t been driven.  That by itself is enough to discourage me from ever trying to drive a nail with a banana skin again.  It clearly didn’t work.

But, associating consequences with one’s own behavior is actually more subtle and difficult than it sounds.  For children with relatively inexperienced, growing (and, thus, continually changing) minds, it’s even harder.  For children with certain types of special needs, it can often be agonizingly difficult.  The connections have to be taught.  So, the consequences to inappropriate behaviors and reinforcers of appropriate behaviors should be delivered as soon after the behaviors have manifested as possible, particularly when first starting out with a new behavior program.  Over time, the reinforcers can be faded.  The idea is that the use of the appropriate behavior will become intrinsically rewarding because it yields success without drama and the need to artificially reinforce will disappear.

The use of appropriate data collection tools is critical. Data collection should be naturally built into the behavior goals and BSP/PBSP. It’s the only way to track progress and measure the degree to which the replacement behavior is taking over for the problematic behavior. Therefore, data sheets have to be created right away at the beginning so that data collection can begin as soon as the school site personnel start implementing the goals.

Parent training is also a really valuable piece to a successful behavioral intervention program.  Just as it is imperative that the child be met with the same response to his/her behavior by all of the staff working with the child, it is equally important that he/she is met with the same response at home.

I’ve seen some of the best school-based behavior strategies in the world completely unravel because no one thought to explain to the parents how the behaviors were being responded to at school.  The child would go home to a completely different set of expectations and responses to problematic behaviors and an entire school day’s worth of intervention might as well have never happened.  The next day, the school site staff would be starting all over again.

By training the parents on the behavioral strategies being used at school, particularly if they can collect at least some data on what they are doing, makes them more involved, gives them greater understanding of what the school site team is trying to do, makes them partners in the process rather than outside observers, makes them more comfortable about how their child’s behavior is being handled by the school site staff, and creates much needed consistency that will help make the intervention successful.

Do you have any other suggestions regarding behavioral supports and services that can be made part of a student’s IEP? Post your comment with your suggestions below.

Writing IEP Goals for Behavioral Issues

Update (4/11/13):  The link below to our former Ning community no longer works. We have moved our IEP goal-writing forum to http://kps4parents.org/main/community-outreach/iep-goal-forum/.


Writing IEP goals for behavioral issues can pose a particular challenge. Unlike academic goals, which should be tied to State standards for academic performance and more easily lend themselves to measurable language, behavioral goals aren’t tied to a pre-described set of criteria of what students should learn; at best, they relate to rules about what students should not do at school.

Behavior has been poorly dealt with in our school over the decades since mandatory schooling was first implemented back during the Industrial Revolution. Mandatory schooling itself was used as a behavioral intervention to address a huge juvenile delinquency problem that arose after child labor laws were passed that prevented parents from putting their children (as young as 6) to work in the factories. This left large numbers of unsupervised children roaming the squalid, poverty-stricken streets of the inner city factory workers’ neighborhoods. Suffice it to say that they often came up with some pretty inappropriate ways of keeping themselves occupied.

Child advocates at the time pushed for mandatory schooling to take these trouble young people and convert them into quality citizens of a growing young nation. As seems to be the case with every age, innovations in business and industry were applied to the concept of large-scale public education and the current system was designed to emulate the assembly line. Teachers were regarded similarly as workers on an assembly line, passing students from one grade to the next (except those that failed QC). More and more so, teachers were increasingly women looking for less dangerous work than what was available to them in the factories. Being that the women at the time had fewer rights than men and were often not knowledgeable in the ways of self-advocacy and the assertion of their rights, they were often more easily exploited as workers than male teachers. So, just as the workers on the assembly lines of the factories began to engage in collective bargaining and organized labor unions, teachers began to do the same. At the time, these unions served to protect workers and teachers alike from exploitation. Today, it’s a different political climate.

Nonetheless, taking the lead from the business world, the assembly-line nature of public education began pushing children through the system, many of whom who were already causing problems because of their behaviors. I mean, it was their behaviors that led to mandatory schooling in the first place. The response to their behaviors by the adults responsible for educating them was fairly typical for the times: spare the rod and spoil the child. It was highly punitive. Children were punished for inappropriate behaviors but there was no effort to systematically teach them the appropriate behaviors they should have engage in, instead. In other words, the interventions at the time focused on the structures of the behaviors – that is, what the child had actually done – as opposed to the functions of the behaviors – that is, why the child had done it. This left many, many children with unresolved issues and no means to see them addressed, causing the perpetuation of troubling conditions.

In defense of the educators at the time, these children’s parents were often even less capable in rendering proper guidance to their children. Factory workers often worked 14 to 16 hour days before going home to horrible living conditions in a crammed up tenement with their ten kids and were in no position to offer effective parenting and guidance at the end of the day to that many children. They were dependent upon the public school personnel to help them during the daytime with their children’s needs.

Fast forward to today and you still have an assembly-line type system in the general education setting. In fact, unless something is “wrong” with you such that you require special education, you aren’t entitled to an education tailored to the way you actually learn. Behaviors are still largely dealt with in a reactionary fashion with punitive responses to inappropriate behaviors after they have already occurred, though there is a burgeoning movement to finally implement positive behavioral interventions on a school-wide basis rather than on a child-by-child basis. Even still, all schools maintain disciplinary records for each student, which speaks to the culture of public school administration and its perception of children who behave inappropriately at school. If there still weren’t such a punitive mindset, they would be called behavioral records or something else non-judgmental.

Just because a kid does something that’s inappropriate doesn’t automatically mean that the kid wanted to do something bad or wrong; very often it’s the situation that the child just doesn’t know what else to do, is engaging in trial and error to try to meet a want or need without thinking things through (which may not even be possible depending on the stage of childhood development the kid happens to be in at the time), or is crying out for help in whatever ways will be heard. Behavior is largely a function of communication; the trick is being able to understand the message.

So what does all of this have to do with writing behavioral goals? Well, a lot. It’s difficult to write behavioral goals for many people because they are still caught up in the antiquated punishment model of behavioral intervention, which evidence shows may curtail a specific behavioral incident in the short-term, but does nothing in the long-term to prevent problem behaviors from developing again or growing worse and more sophisticated over time. Because so many people in public education have been trained to look at behaviors as challenges to their authority rather than signs of things that need to be addressed, it’s hard for them to conceptualize the proper formatting of behavior goals. Parents usually have no formal training in this area either and get caught up in the momentum of the punitive mindset, not necessarily sure that the schools’ approach is appropriate but not knowing what else to suggest.

The thing with behavior goals is that they have to describe what a student is supposed to do in order to determine that the goal has been met. But, most people still think in terms of what the student should not be doing and will write things like “By 12/10/09, [Student] will decrease vocal outbursts in the classroom by 90% as measured by observation,” which is a poorly written goal on an uncountable number of levels. What the goal should do is describe and target the appropriate replacement behavior. So, it could read something like, “By 12/10/09, [Student] will use his break card to request time away from noisy distractions, take his work to a pre-designated quiet area, and complete his work with no more than one verbal prompt per occasion in 4 of 5 consecutive occasions within a 2-week period.”

Now, here in this example, it’s implied that the reason the child was engaging in noisy outbursts because he was becoming overwhelmed by noisy distractions presented by others. This is significant! Most behaviors are engaged in to either get something or get away from something, regardless of whether those behaviors are good or bad. Behaviors serve specific functions to the individuals who engage in them. Purists in the field of behavioral sciences tend not to really classify behaviors as good or bad, but more in terms of appropriate or inappropriate to the circumstance, adaptive or maladaptive, or successful and unsuccessful. Reinforcers are those things that occur once a behavior has been engaged in that increase the likelihood of the behavior being engaged in again. Consequences are those things that occur once a behavior has been engaged in that are likely to decrease the likelihood of the behavior being engaged in again. Consequences are not automatically presumed to be punishment.

Think about it. If you’re at a restaurant and want fettuccine alfredo, you don’t say, “Give me a t-bone steak, please.” You ask for the fettuccine alfredo. If you were to ask for a t-bone steak, and the waiter brought you a t-bone steak instead of fettuccine alfredo, the consequence of receiving a t-bone steak would decrease the likelihood of you asking for a t-bone steak the next time you wanted fettuccine alfredo. Getting the t-bone wasn’t punishment. It was just the natural consequence of you asking for something other than what you really wanted.

But, what if you don’t know the name of the dish you want? You can describe it to the waiter (“Yes, I’ll have those flat noodles with the creamy sauce and that spice that’s usually only used in snickerdoodles and spice cakes,”) and hope he understands, or you can just order something else that really wasn’t what you wanted just to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing the name of your favorite dish in front of your dinner companions and the waiter. At that point, though, your behavioral priority became avoiding embarrassment rather than getting the food that you wanted. When cast in that light, inappropriate behaviors start to make more sense.

With our example goal here, the only way we could have known why the child was engaging in the inappropriate behavior of verbal outbursts in the classroom was to have conducted an appropriate assessment of the child’s behavior. This assessment, in this example, would have revealed that the child – who has ADHD and an auditory processing disorder – was getting auditory overload whenever the noise level in the classroom increased during busy activities and, being highly distractible to boot, was incredibly challenged to remain on task. The verbal outbursts were the result of his frustration at not being able to concentrate and being so caught up in the moment of being overwhelmed and lacking in coping skills that it didn’t occur to him to ask his teacher to let him do his work some place more quiet. We’re talking about a child with compromised learning skills, here, not a 45-year-old adult with years of experience at effectively solving problems.

The goal describes the desired outcome, but what probably also needs to be in this child’s IEP is a positive behavior support plan that spells out what his issues are and how to deal with them. The only purpose the goal serves is to measure whether or not he acquired the replacement behavior over the course of the goal’s annual period. In our example goal above, the use of the break card has to be explained somewhere.

Sometimes IEP teams unnecessarily knock themselves out trying to write a succinct enough goal that captures all of the relevant elements without it becoming the world’s longest run-on sentence when something like a particular strategy must be employed. My favorite solution to problems like this is to develop a separate protocol that gets attached to an IEP as another page of the document and then have the goal refer to it.

For example, our example goal being used here refers to a break card but doesn’t make clear what that is or how it should be used. The goal could be re-written to read: “By 12/10/09, [Student] will use his break card according to the protocol found on page 12 of this IEP to request time away from noisy distractions, take his work to a pre-designated quiet area, and complete his work with no more than one verbal prompt per occasion in 4 of 5 consecutive occasions within a 2-week period.” Then page 12 of the IEP could be a one-page description of the protocol. In the alternate, if a positive behavior support plan is also attached to the IEP and the break card system is described in it, then the goal could reference the positive behavior support plan.

The important thing is that the goal has to be customized to fit the unique circumstances of the child involved. We get a lot of hits on our web site from people looking for pre-written goals, but I’m telling you that this is totally the wrong way to go about it. You’re not going to find canned goals that fit a particular circumstance involving a particular child, particularly when it comes to behavior. The goal has to target the specific area of need as identified in the present levels of performance and describe in measurable terms exactly what the student has to do in order to demonstrate mastery of the targeted skill. The goals of any child’s IEP have to be tailored to his unique needs and you don’t get a customized outcome with “off-the-shelf” goals. Rather than looking for pre-written goals that will fit a specific child, look for examples of goals and learn to understand the process and the logic behind how goals are written.

With behavior goals, target the acquisition of the desired behavior rather than dwell on reducing the undesired behavior. Gather baseline data on how often the child engages in the desired behavior at the time the goal is written and the degree to which he is expected to engage in it at the conclusion of the goal, which should be an increase over how often he engages in it at the beginning.

For example, if the baseline is that the student does not currently use a break card system to appropriately remove himself from a noisy and distracting environment to a quiet place where he can complete his work, then our example goal above represents a marked improvement. If the child begins using his break card system to escape the noisy, distracting environments and completing his work in a quiet area, then he’s not standing in the midst of the chaos yelling his head off.

By engaging in the appropriate replacement behavior, he inadvertently ceases to engage in the inappropriate behavior. Once he realizes that he is being met with a more beneficial outcome by using the break card system than he was by yelling out in class, he’ll have no reason to go back to yelling out in class. Over time, the skill can be refined to the point that the student is able to afford himself the trust of his teacher to excuse himself at his own discretion, without the need for overt signals to the teacher like break cards, to a quiet area to do his work and no one will think anything of it. A behavior goal in this area of need will eventually no longer be necessary.

I’ve seen kids overcome behavioral challenges in a year or less with good behavioral supports. I’ve also seen kids fall deeper and deeper into a hopeless pit of despair in the absence of good behavioral supports. And the degree of disability has little to do with it. It’s all about the quality of the behavioral interventions, including the goals. As long as the goals target the desired behaviors, are written in a measurable way that relates directly to relevant and accurate present levels of performance, and work in tandem with any behavioral protocols and/or a positive behavioral support plan in the IEP, you should be met with success.


Was this article helpful? Please donate to help cover the costs of our blog.
.

.
KPS4Parents is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, tax ID 65-1195513.
All donations are tax-deductible.


Assessing Problem Behaviors in Special Education Students

In previous posts, we’ve talked about what “serious behaviors are” and how they can interfere with a child’s receipt of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). In today’s posting, I want to discuss how assessment of behavior can and should take place.

As with any other type of assessment in special education, the assessment of behaviors that interfere with learning must be done by a qualified professional. Specifically, the implementing regulations of the IDEA (see 34 CFR  300.304(c)(iv) and (v)) requires that assessments be administered by “trained and knowledgable personnel” and “in accordance with any instructions provided by the producers of the assessments.” This is particularly the case with standardized assessments, but you also have to bear in mind that, as a result of NCLB and its influence on the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA, the use of scientifically research-based methodologies and practices must be used to collect relevant data and develop appropriate programming for all children, including those with handicapping conditions. (See 34 CFR  300.35 and the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (aka NCLB)  9101(37).)

Many parents have attempted to litigate the issue of what constitutes appropriate assessment, arguing for the use of Applied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”), with mixed results. Many of these cases, however, have had to do with the pursuit of a scientifically research-based methodology proven to yield positive outcomes for children with Autism as an across-the-board instructional strategy. ABA is actually a method of analyzing behavior and applying that knowledge to whatever contexts are appropriate to the individual being served, hence the title “Applied Behavioral Analysis.”

What is known, regardless of what you call it, is that behavioral interventions are most successful when the function of the behavior is identified and addressed rather than the structure of the behavior. I can remember as a child getting into trouble for fighting with my younger sister and being told to “stop fighting” but no effort was made to actually resolve the disputes we were having. We were simply ordered to quit interacting in a displeasing manner, leaving our actual conflicts unresolved for many years. This is a perfect example of the adults in the situation addressing the structure of the behavior – what it looks like – rather than the function served by the behavior – that is, the behavior’s purpose. It’s treating the symptom rather than the disease.

For example, one of the students we have been representing is a high school student with sensory integration issues, high anxiety, and Autism. He is easily overwhelmed by noisy and busy environments and is tactile defensive, particularly once he reaches an agitated state. At that point, he will put his head down on his desk until he processes through whatever mental log-jam has occurred and is ready to return to his situation. When this happens, people need to leave him alone rather than add more stimulation to his experience so he can clear through all of the inbound data and return to a point where he is receptive to additional input. He’s gotten very good at self-regulating this way and will immediately return to his school work once he has mentally checked himself out by putting his head down on his desk for a couple of minutes or so.

This has been known for many years, now, but it seems to be the case that every so often a new person will be placed in his learning environment who disregards what is already known and thinks that he or she can somehow overcome this student’s neurology by doing things his/her own way. The last time this happened, our student had become, once again, overwhelmed by a very chaotic learning environment over which his teacher exercised poor control; he put his head down on his desk. While the aide assigned to him and the teacher left him alone, another aide in the classroom took it upon herself to go over to him and try to “speed up” his recovery process by “talking him through it.”  She didn’t understand that she was actually giving him more data to process and making it take longer for him to recover. She was actually making the experience increasingly painful to the student and when he told her to leave him alone, she made the mistake of putting her hand on his shoulder.  She intended it to be an encouraging gesture, but it was sensory overload for him at that point and his automatic response was to slug her.

There was no thought in his actions. It was a fight-or-flight response. When he realized what he had done, he was mortified. As with many people on the Autistic Spectrum, he is a very rules-based person and he has been raised by good parents who have made it clear that hitting is not appropriate. He knew what he had done was wrong and he was terribly remorseful. This put him into a psychological tailspin and the anxiety, which was already heightened in the first place, kicked into high gear. He developed somatic complaints of severe headaches and painful gastro-intestinal problems and began engaging in school refusal behaviors. His clinical psychologist found that the physical symptoms were tied to the anxiety he had about returning to that classroom and recommended home/hospital instruction until the situation could be resolved. The District arranged for a home instruction teacher to come to the house while things were worked out, which held him over academically and aided in his recovery from his emotional trauma, but he was unable to work on his socialization skills at home being away from the other students with whom his social skills work was being done prior to this event.

This is the kind of stuff that can result in a denial of a FAPE. One person who fails to take a student’s IEP seriously can undermine the entire program if he/she doesn’t respond to the behavioral issues appropriately. But the first step is identifying the function of the behaviors. What useful purpose do they serve to the student?  This information is needed not only to develop an appropriate behavior plan for a student, but also to appropriately implement it and suggest improvements to it over time.

In the example given above, the behavior in question was the student withdrawing from academic instruction. This behavior serves a useful function for the student and putting his head down on his desk was a positive replacement behavior taught to him when he was much younger at a time when his only response to over-stimulating situations was “I gotta get outta here!” and he would elope from the classroom, running across the campus as fast as he could to get away from the overwhelming situation. There were clear-cut environmental antecedents and behavioral antecedents that cued the adults in the room that he was reaching the point where he was going to need to “check out” for a couple of minutes. The consequence and, thus, the function of the elopement behavior was to permit the student to both escape from and contend with the sensory overload he experienced, as well as self-regulate. His nervous system just can’t take that much inbound data at once. It’s a manifestation of his disability.

What he needed, and what he ultimately got, was a more socially acceptable way of self-regulating in a situation like that. Essentially, he needed a socially acceptable tool that would let him go off “autopilot” and “steer the ship manually” as it were, making deliberate decisions about what to do with many pieces of incoming data, putting it all away in the proper processing centers of his mind, and clearing through the bottleneck of sensory information before returning to the academic task at hand.

That’s how behavioral assessment and intervention planning is supposed to work. From there, it’s all about training the staff on the intervention plan, implementing it in the day-to-day course of affairs, and collecting on-going data on its efficacy so that improvements and needed tweaks can be made to it as time goes on. The plan has to evolve at the same pace that the student makes progress towards the behavior goals in which the inappropriate behavior is not only extinguished, but replaced with a more appropriate coping strategy that sees the student’s evolving needs met.

Please keep your eyes open for our next posting, in which we will discuss the differences between FBAs and FAAs, and when each is meant to be used. As always, if you have any questions, please post a comment or email us at info@kps4parents.org.