Behavior Management Strategies & Advocating for Your Child with Special Needs

Behavior Management Strategies & Advocating for Your Child with Special Needs

Classroom disruptions cost students and teachers valuable instructional time. To address issues before they happen, public schools in Ohio are now required to adopt policies and procedures for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Schools utilizing this behavior management framework are seeing reduced rates of office discipline referrals, suspensions and expulsions.

We spoke with local experts about classroom strategies and how parents can advocate for their children; we also share one parent’s special education experience.

Alison Smith, of Westlake, shares her experience with her son. 

“Jonathan is academically strong, but 95 percent of our focus is behavior management,” she says. “How do we get him to behave in a mainstream classroom to access his curriculum?” 

Jonathan, who is autistic and has sensory processing and auditory processing disorder, can speak, but he is classified as noncommunicative. 

“He struggles with expressing his wants, needs and emotions, but he can spit out facts,” Smith says. 

Now a third grader, Jonathan has had a one-on-one aide since kindergarten. 

“He benefited from peer models and specialized support in full-day preschool, and we had extinguished his significant behaviors by the end of pre-k,” Smith recalls. “However, we saw huge behaviors when he entered a mainstream kindergarten class.

Smith says she credits the growth and progress made to her “linchpin,” a behavior specialist from the county who conducted a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) and remains involved in his behavior management, as well as partnerships with a supportive principal, teachers and aides.

“When he has behaviors, they are significant, but the team is able to stay in front of it with a rewards system so he is able to function,” she explains. “He can now go upwards of two to three weeks without tantrums.” 

The behavior plan includes earned computer time, some edibles and four break cards given each morning that he can use throughout the day to regulate himself, but he must first finish the task at hand.

“Before the FBA was completed, every day at 1 p.m. Jonathan would have a meltdown, and the principal at the time would call me to ask what they could take away from him to get him to stop,” Smith recalls. “The specialist discovered he was hungry. Once he was given a second lunch, we all saw a different child. He is more secure in the environment because he knows he is getting what he needs. He can focus with his needs met.”

SCHOOL STRATEGIES AND PARENT SUPPORT

Christie Kimbler is a behavior and curriculum intervention specialist (BCIS) with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities William Patrick Day Services Center. As a BCIS, she receives specialized training in the application of behavioral supports from the Institute for Applied Behavior Analysis. She also has a teaching license and experience in the classroom, so she is able to adapt curriculum, which sets a BCIS apart from board certified behavior analysts (BCBA).

Kimbler and other specialists work with public school district staff and parents to ensure students ages 3 through 22 who are board eligible succeed in a least restrictive environment. When schools do not have a behavior specialist or an independent evaluation is requested, they may be called in to conduct an FBA and offer other school or in-home support.

“An FBA typically includes one or two days of observation and baseline data collection, followed by a team meeting with service providers, such as the speech therapist and occupational therapist,” Kimbler explains. “A true FBA looks at the whole picture – every environment and the curriculum. If behavior occurs across all settings, then it needs to be addressed in all settings to be completely extinguished. The FBA typically takes one behavior and breaks it down. For children who struggle all day long, I will observe throughout the day, conduct interviews and create a global educational planning document, or I may prepare both.” 

Districts may write their behavior intervention plans from these reports and recommendations.

“Most of the time, people think behavior is one of four functions, but behavior is rarely driven by one function,” Kimbler asserts. “You have to address all the functions of behavior, including the sensory component. A thorough FBA identifies these functions and examines what happens before and after the behavior. To better address the behavior, understand where, when and why it is happening. There is so much more to look at. What is driving and sustaining it?”

WHAT IS PBIS?

PBIS is a prevention-oriented process focused on proactive teaching approaches and evidence-based interventions, rather than merely reacting to behavior. While PBIS originated in special education with language from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and it is based on principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), the National Education Association recognizes it as a general education initiative benefiting all students. PBIS has been shown to reduce problem behavior, increase academic performance, prevent bullying, improve social-emotional competence, improve classroom management practices and ensure student safety. 

“There is tremendous momentum in Ohio around PBIS,” says Brittany Miracle, whole child program administrator for the Ohio Department of Education Office of Integrated Student Supports. “The Department’s goal is to help schools create consistent and predictable learning environments that are safe and supportive for all students and staff.”

Emily Jordan, education program specialist for the Ohio Department of Education Office of Integrated Student Supports, describes PBIS as a three-tiered continuum of support to meet the needs of all students: 

  • Tier 1 sets 3-5 universal behavioral expectations for all students, teaching and reinforcing appropriate behavior. 
  • Tier 2 creates staff-student mentoring and small group skill development for at-risk students. 
  • Tier 3 conducts an FBA and establishes a behavior intervention plan (BIP) for individual high-risk students with identified problems.

“Parent and family engagement is a key component of PBIS,” adds Jordan. “It is important for parents to be aware of the tiers of support, how to request services if their child needs additional supports, and how to work with the school to get those.”

The Ohio Department of Education works with 16 regional State Support Teams and 52 Educational Service Centers to assist with training and implementation of PBIS in schools. Schools take the framework, collect and process behavior data, then identify appropriate interventions and practices to meet their students’ specific needs.

The Ohio State Board of Education set a policy in 2013 for all school districts regarding the implementation of PBIS to prevent the use of restraint and seclusion. Restraint is the “use of physical contact to immobilize a student,” while seclusion is defined as “the involuntary isolation of a student in a room, enclosure or space from which the student is prevented from leaving by physical restraint or by a closed door or other physical barrier.” Guidelines state these “must be used as a last resort and only when there is an immediate risk of physical harm to the student or others and no other safe or effective intervention is possible.” Every use must be documented and reported. Additionally, each district building receives training in crisis management and de-escalation techniques. 

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENTS

“Behaviors happen because there is a lag or a lack of skills, so the child needs to be taught a replacement positive skill,” Kimbler explains. “While teaching a new skill, reinforce with something positive. I may schedule a reinforcer every few minutes to start, then once a skill is mastered, fade the reinforcer.” 

Kimbler favors naturally occurring reinforcers: “If you love music, and it’s coming soon and your work is not done, naturally you do not go until it is done.”

When it comes to behavior management systems, Kimbler finds that most general education elementary classrooms use some of version of clipping up and down, a stoplight, or ClassDojo, an online tool where teachers assign positive or negative points to student profiles. Kimbler says that in general, it is a good idea, but you can turn it positive. She favors positive reinforcement over response cost (or negative punishment), which involves taking Dojo points away or removing a preferred item for an undesirable behavior. 

“For some children, that works as a self-monitor, but for others it is a source of anxiety. The system does not have to be the same for all children. Know your child, and ask if the system can be individualized,” Kimbler says. “In general education, children often do not get a reward until days later. Those who struggle need it sooner to reinforce positive behavior.”

Kimbler identified some common triggers and factors impacting behaviors: 

Unstructured times of the school day — recess, lunch, bus rides and specials like gym or music — are problematic for many children. 

Is the work developmentally appropriate? Is there too much or not enough? “One fifth grader was in and out of a general education classroom because of behaviors. It was found to be over this student’s head, but within a month of adapting the curriculum, the student’s behaviors were cut in half.” 

Classroom environment and structure, including lighting, seating and having a defined space for the body are important.

Teachers or parents may ask, “What about the rest of the class?” Kimbler suggests having an honest conversation with students. 

“Explain, ‘Everyone is working on something. You might be working on reading now, and this friend has challenges in math. Won’t it be nice when this friend can join us?’ Keep it positive: ‘She is still learning, and that’s OK. You can be a really good friend by ignoring or getting up and moving.’  The children help monitor once they know the plan. This teaches children resiliency, acceptance and understanding.”

In her experience, Kimbler sees parents fall into one of two extremes: those who are afraid to advocate because they do not want to offend and make the district angry, or parents who have unrealistic expectations of their child and what free and appropriate public education (FAPE) looks like. She says, “It’s a difficult balance.”

She encourages teachers to give direction and hold the child accountable like everyone else. If multiple reminders or adaptations are needed, it is appropriate for the aide to step in.

Kimbler reminds parents and teachers that her involvement does not mean anyone did anything wrong. “I have the luxury of looking from the outside in,” she says. “The class approach just doesn’t match this child, so let’s see how to make it work together.”

HOW CAN I ADVOCATE FOR MY CHILD?

Attorney Linda Gorczynski, of Hickman & Lowder Co., L.P.A., says, “It’s important parents understand when restraint and seclusion are appropriate and allowed by the law and the difference between a physical escort and restraint. Prone restraint — pinning down with knees and use of pressure points, for example — is not permitted by law. If a district uses restraint and seclusion, staff must be appropriately trained and parents should receive notice.” 

In 2018, Ohio enacted the Supporting Alternatives for Fair Education (SAFE) Act, House Bill 318, which is considered “one of the strongest state laws in the country to attempt to reduce disciplinary referrals, especially for prekindergarten through grade 3 students.”  The bill requires each district in Ohio, including community schools, to provide PBIS training in preschool through third grade and sets parameters to limit suspensions and expulsions among young learners.

If any child with an IEP is being suspended or expelled, Gorczynski advises parents to be aware of a protection called a manifestation hearing. The district cannot remove a child from a setting for more than 10 days total without holding a meeting with parents present to determine if the behavior that led to the discipline was a result of the disability, or it is considered a change of placement. The school must have an FBA and behavior plan in place. 

“If the school does not do this, a parent should request it,” Gorczynski explains. “Sometimes students are not officially suspended; they have in-school suspensions, are sent home a lot, or put into the principal’s office. Keep track, add up that time out of class, and request a meeting. Parents also have a right to inquire about the qualifications of the person conducting the FBA or request an independent third-party evaluation by someone other than the school psychologist.”

Gorczynski urges parents, “If you have behavior concerns and a behavior plan has not been done, ask for an IEP meeting to request one. You can request an IEP team meeting at any point.” 

According to IDEA 2004 (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act), which ensures all children with disabilities have access to a FAPE, the IEP team must address behavior issues when they interfere with a student’s learning or the learning of others. 

“Trust your gut when something doesn’t feel right, educate yourself and be proactive,” Gorczynski says. “Then you will know enough to ask a question. Read the special education procedural safeguards notice, ‘A Guide to Parent Rights in Special Education,’ that districts share during the IEP meeting, visit ODE’s website for special education resources and attend seminars.”

For additional support, she suggests reaching out to a parent advocate or attorney, adding, “For intense physical safety issues, contact an attorney more quickly.” 

Gorczynski cautions parents to choose an advocate carefully, saying, “Meet ahead of time to be on the same page for how to present at a meeting. You want someone who will be strong and advocate to help you work things out, but maintaining an amicable relationship with the district is key.” 

Additionally, State Support Teams and the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities offer lists of parent mentors who are local parents of a child with a disability employed by a district or agency to help families navigate the process.

SMOOTHER TRANSITIONS AND SAFETY

 In the case of Smith’s son Jonathan, simple modifications to the classroom also made a difference. Teachers covered lights, put curtains on windows and placed tennis balls on chair legs to limit light and noise, which are known triggers. Jonathan also has two desks — a normal desk and a table where he sits on a ball and can do puzzles and dot-to-dot. 

Smith says, “Jonathan is in constant motion, slamming, stomping, spinning in circles and rolling.” Since the old building had no sensory room or OT resources, the specialist created a sensory diet that included a doorway swing, scooter board and use of headphones. “Since he struggles before math, he has sensory time instead of centers.”

“He finishes classwork in rapid time, then he can do ‘Jonathan work,’” Smith says. “The ability to bounce back and forth keeps him engaged.”

To ease new school year transitions, Smith coordinates with the principal to visit the building before the first day to get comfortable with the environment. She begins each year talking to the teachers about their systems and the words they use for consistency, and also coordinates with them on the use of a daily log book to share information.

A major behavior concern, particularly among autistic children, is elopement or wandering. 

“Jonathan is a runner,” Smith says. “When he is emotional or scared, he bolts. He does not follow verbal commands, so if you don’t physically stop him, he will not stop. It’s terrifying.” 

After he got out of the building four times in kindergarten, she did research and worked with the school to adopt the SPECTRUM Alert Plan, an eight-step protocol for avoiding tragedy that is now used by the entire district. According to Smith, the key is removing all blame and putting the needs of the child first and foremost. 

“I told the school, this is not about your staff,” Smith explains. “(We deal with this at home, too.) This is about him being fast and needing a plan to keep him safe.”

As another safety measure, Smith signed a release for Jonathan to be restrained. 

“When he is frustrated or angry, he will clear table tops, throw chairs or show aggression toward adults,” she states. “He was fully restrained six times last year. He knows what it is, and he doesn’t like it. They call it ‘holding him.’ There are only three people in school who will hold him: the intervention specialist, principal and aide. If they can, they give him a warning first, saying ‘If you aren’t safe with your body we will have to hold you.’ Nine times out of 10, a warning is enough to stop him. They do a good job of it.” 

While some may consider behavior a choice, the specialist describes aggression for some children as an innate reaction, a fight or flight response to a perceived danger or threat when the environment is not working for a child, and he or she is overwhelmed.

Kimbler finds that when teachers, districts and parents buy in to a behavior plan and put some extra support in the classroom for 2-3 weeks to consistently implement the plan, results come more quickly.

Kimbler offers these strategies for use in school and at home to analyze, respond to and help prevent behaviors using a positive reinforcement model:

TRACK THE ABCs OF BEHAVIOR

To recognize patterns of behavior, create a log with the day, time and ABC information:
Antecedent — What was happening before the behavior? Where were you?
Behavior — What did the child do? Include duration, frequency and intensity.
Consequence — What did we do when the behavior occurred? What happened after?

USE POSITIVE LANGUAGE

Be simple, concise, concrete and age-appropriate. Tell the child what to do instead of what not to do. For example:
“Please walk” vs. “No running”
“Hands down,” “Body to self” or “Use your words” (and model appropriate language) vs. “Don’t hit”
“Use a calm/inside voice” vs. “Stop yelling/whining”

FOUR FUNCTIONS OF BEHAVIOR

1. Sensory stimulation — to feel good, especially when anxious or excited

2. Escape — to avoid a non-preferred activity or interaction, especially a task that is too difficult or easy

3. Tangible — to gain a preferred item or activity

4. Attention-seeking — for social interaction

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