Need to Know: Behavioral Concerns for Students with Disabilities

Behavioral Concerns for Students with Disabilities

On August 4th, 2016 The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), issued a Dear Colleague letter outlining and emphasizing the need for positive behavioral supports in schools for students with disabilities.

A chief point of the letter was outlining the very real hindrances children with disabilities have when facing disciplinary action at school. Among the letter was the finding that “10 percent of children with disabilities, ages 3 through 21, were subject to a disciplinary removal of 10 school days or less.” The letter also acknowledged that among children of color with disabilities, the rates of disciplinary action were higher.


The OSERS acknowledged that not only is the continued use of short-term removals and other exclusionary disciplinary measures damaging to a child’s educational journey, it has also been generally proven to be ineffective at reducing or eliminating misbehavior.

A critical point of the letter was the OSERS assertion, and clarification, that schools and IEP teams must be conscious of how they provide behavior support for students with disabilities. Not only must they  “use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about the child” before taking disciplinary actions, but the evaluation “must use technically sound instruments that may assess the relative contribution of cognitive and behavioral factors” as well.

The assumption here is that children with disabilities might experience vastly different reasons for behavioral outbreaks as compared to their non-disabled classmates. It is the duty of the school and the IEP to understand these different reasons for behavioral outbreaks and act accordingly, to properly address the child’s behavioral needs and limit the impediments to that child’s learning.

The OSERS particularly expressed the importance of multi-tiered behavioral frameworks (such as PBIS) in properly addressing the behavioral concerns of children with disabilities. The use of these frameworks helps facilitate the behavioral process from teacher to student, allowing a
“Child with a disability to benefit from special education” through “instruction and reinforcement of school expectations, violence prevention programs, anger management groups” and more.

Multi-tiered behavioral frameworks allow staff and other personnel to be better trained in handling the specific behavioral needs of children with disabilities. As OSERS puts it “School personnel may need training, coaching, and tools to appropriately address the behavioral needs of a particular child.” OSERS further adds that, in general, placing a child with disabilities in external classes solely due to behavior concerns, when aids and services could be more effective in addressing their concerns, is ill-advised and not allowed.

Ultimately the Dear Colleague Letter served as both a reminder of how schools benefit greatly from school-wide, small group, and individual behavior support systems, and of how important it is for schools to be conscious of, and proactive about, the specific behavioral needs of students with disabilities.

Read the full letter here.

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