In The Politics of Autism, I write about special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
This is the total number of disciplinary removals students with disabilities experienced over the 2019-20 school year. Each removal represents a child’s time away from their typical learning environment: time away from their teachers, their peers, and their friends. For many children with disabilities, particularly those who find comfort in routines, it can be an uprooting and distressing experience. It is hard for a child to learn when they are removed from their class.
And yet, these data are not an anomaly. In fact, the number of disciplinary removals for children with disabilities has remained fairly consistent over the last decade (see Previous Civil Rights Data Collection Reports). I mentioned in my last blog, Discipline Discussions: The Impact and Harm of Exclusionary Discipline, we can’t suspend our way to better behavior; we must take a more thoughtful, evidence-based approach.
In the Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP) recently released discipline guidance package, the U.S. Department of Education called on State and local leaders to double down on their efforts to reduce their reliance on exclusionary discipline practices. Too often, disciplinary removals are seen as a first response to addressing challenging behavior rather than a last resort.
Our school discipline policies reflect our priorities. Let me explain more.
Of course, every school and classroom must clearly convey behavioral expectations to its students. This allows for creating safe, predictable learning environments for students and educators.
The systems we establish to address a child’s behavior reflect how we think about our children, their development and whether we prioritize understanding why a child behaves in a certain way so that we can address the root cause and work to prevent future challenges.
As the data noted above show, a common response to addressing challenging behavior is to remove a child from their typical learning environment. While removal may be warranted in selected situations, particularly those related to safety, removal alone rarely provides us with the true remedy we are seeking: to support students’ behavioral needs and minimize or prevent challenging behaviors before they occur.
I have heard from many educators that they feel underprepared to address the behavioral needs of children. They lack access to evidence-based practices and exposure to school-wide approaches anchored in proactive prevention. As a result, they feel they have few “tools in their toolbox” to call upon when addressing challenging behavior. With a lack of alternatives, it’s no surprise that a punitive and reactionary response of removal is commonplace.
How we support the behavioral needs of our children reflect how we value our children as learners and our educators as professionals. Let me be perfectly clear, if we value our students and school staff, we must support their needs; this in turn creates a more positive school culture and environment. Let us all consider, as a system, how we can connect, collaborate and impact positive change for those whom we serve. Collectively, we have the knowledge and tools necessary to improve outcomes.
Thankfully, we have decades of OSEP-funded research that shows the powerful impact of shifting toward a proactive, preventative mindset and establishing a framework of positive behavioral interventions and supports. Two OSEP-funded technical assistance centers focus on addressing the behavioral needs of children with disabilities: Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (Center on PBIS) and National Center on Pyramid Model Interventions (NCPMI). I asked them to share about the power of preventative models of addressing the behavior of young children with disabilities (NCPMI) and school-aged children with disabilities (Center on PBIS).