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Addressing Behavior in the School Setting for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Problem and interfering behaviors are among the most challenging issues faced by school districts in their efforts to appropriately educate students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These behaviors may be considered inappropriate, reduce instructional time, reduce the quality of instruction, alienate others, or may result in more restrictive placements.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) mandates that a school district provide all eligible students with a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), in an Individualized Education Program (IEP), provided in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). For a student with an IEP who has behaviors that impede his or her learning, or that of others, the IDEA, and the federal regulations promulgated thereunder, require a school district to use positive behavioral interventions and supports, or other strategies to address those problem behaviors.

Positive behavioral interventions should include a school district performing a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) in order to determine why a student is displaying difficult behaviors. By determining the purpose of the behaviors, a school district can then devise interventions to help a student display more acceptable behaviors that will meet his or her needs or desires. The FBA is conducted in order to understand the reason for the behavior, and to devise ways to prevent its occurrence in the future. An FBA is the process of gathering and analyzing information about a student’s behaviors, and accompanying circumstances, in order to make a valid determination of the purpose or intent of those behaviors. An FBA should be considered as if it were any individualized evaluation of a student performed by the school district. This means it should be used to assist in determining whether a student is, or continues to be, a student with a disability in need of an IEP. In fact, the FBA process is frequently used to determine the nature and extent of the special education and related services that a student needs.

A comprehensive FBA should include a complete review of a student’s entire school record and all available outside professional records. It should also include extensive and direct observation of a student in school (classroom, recreation and common areas), and community and home settings. In addition, it should include interviews with the student (if possible), his or her parents, siblings, teachers, other school personnel, community service providers, family members and friends, who know the student. Finally, it should include completed and analyzed rating scales, observed behavior charts and related assessment tools. An FBA is a team effort and requires commitment and participation from all people who are part of a student’s educational team. If a school district does not have the necessary personnel to do a comprehensive and complete FBA, they may contract out with appropriate providers to assist. Although a good FBA may take time to complete, if done correctly and comprehensively, it can be an extremely valuable tool for helping to identify what happens before (the antecedent) and after a challenging behavior occurs. It also allows for the committee responsible for developing the IEP, to put in place comprehensive and positive strategies to support a student in learning new and appropriate behaviors.

Positive behavioral interventions also include the development of a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP is a plan based on the results of the FBA. After collecting enough information in the FBA to identify the reason(s) or function(s) of a student’s behavior, the committee on special education or behavior team, should develop a BIP. The plan should include positive strategies, program modifications, and the supplementary aids and supports required to address the behavior, as well as any staff supports or training that may be needed. Although, it is always the hope that these proactive strategies alone will decrease the problem behavior significantly, it is also essential that it be clear to all those involved, how the behavior should be handled when it does occur, to ensure consistent consequences. The BIP should be made part of, or at the very least referenced in, a student’s IEP.

Positive behavioral interventions could also be addressed by the school district, through annual goals in the IEP, modifications in a student’s program, support for his or her teachers, and any related services necessary to achieve those behavioral goals. For example, if a student needs a BIP to improve learning and socialization, the BIP should be included in the IEP and aligned with the goals in the IEP.

Successfully dealing with behaviors in students with ASD requires collaboration among a variety of professionals. For example, a speech-language pathologist and special education teacher may work together towards improved communication skills for a student with ASD. Of the utmost importance, is the involvement of the family of the student with ASD in order for any behavioral intervention to be successful. The pervasive nature of ASD and difficulties generalizing from school to home and community environments make parents and other family members essential partners in the successful eradication or reduction of difficult behaviors. While parents should not be expected to provide educational programming, regular communication regarding a student’s educational program and progress is essential. The degree of a family’s collaborative involvement will vary from family to family, and it is important for a school district to consider the range of obligations and demands faced by parents. School districts should also demonstrate an awareness and respect for the culture, language, values and parenting styles of the families of students with ASD and provide parent training, if appropriate.

The IDEA and the federal regulations promulgated thereunder, also require that an eligible student with ASD not be removed from the general education environment to receive instruction, unless his or her educational needs cannot be met with supplemental aids and services in a general education setting. A student with an IEP is entitled to receive an education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This usually means in a setting with the most opportunity possible to learn along-side their peers without disabilities. The IEP is required to address interfering behaviors, so that the student can receive an education in the LRE. If the Committee on Special Education approves a setting as appropriate, it cannot then change a student’s placement because of difficult behaviors, unless the district has attempted to appropriately address the behavioral needs. Before determining that a student would be so disruptive, that he or she would significantly impair the education of the other students, the district must consider the full range of supplementary aids and services that could be provided to the student in their current educational placement to accommodate his or her unique needs. Each IEP should also contain a statement of the program modifications or supports that school personnel will need so a student can be involved, and progress in, the general curriculum, can participate in extracurricular and nonacademic activities, and be educated alongside their peers without disabilities.

Nevertheless, a school district is also responsible for keeping students and staff safe, while protecting the rights of individual students. If any student is acting in a way that is dangerous to others or to the student him or herself, it is the school district’s first job and obligation to deal with the danger and keep students and staff safe. Special education law cannot interfere with school safety. An eligible student with ASD can receive the same consequences or discipline as other students. The only one exception to this rule is when there is a long-term exclusion or suspension from education. The specific rights and rules concerning discipline for special education students is beyond the scope of this particular article.

Balancing the LRE requirement with the requirement that a school district provide an eligible student with FAPE is an ongoing and required dance for school personnel, Committees on Special Education, the student, and their family. The eligible student with ASD is assumed to be best educated within the general education environment alongside their peers without disabilities, unless there are very specific and clear reasons justifying a more restrictive and specialized environment. For the student with difficult behaviors, modifications to the general education curriculum in the regular educational setting may be required, and is a priority. For a student that has interfering behaviors, conducting FBAs and developing and modifying BIPs is required by law prior to moving students to a more restrictive educational setting. Problem and interfering behaviors are among the most challenging issues faced by school districts in their efforts to appropriately educate students with ASD. Using FBAs and BIPs and aligning them with an ASD student’s goals in the IEP, will help to eliminate or reduce interfering behaviors, and will assist the student, the school district, and their family have a more positive, meaningful, and collaborative educational experience.

 

This article should not be considered legal advice. Please consult with an attorney before relying on any information contained herein.

 

Sheryl has worked almost exclusively with people with disabilities and their families for over 18 years. She is an expert in the area of special education, disability and special needs law and is a sought after speaker for professional and family organizations in the areas of special education law, life planning, and not-for-profit board governance for agencies that work with people with disabilities. She has also authored numerous articles on these topics. In addition to Sheryl’s legal work, she is a zealous advocate for the needs, acceptance, and integration of people with disabilities in the community. Sheryl is involved and active in many organizations in the disability community including taking leadership roles in many of them and has been instrumental in developing and implementing programs in New York State for people with disabilities and their families. Sheryl is currently a Board member of the Arc of the United States. She is the past President Arc Westchester and served on the Board of Governors of NYSARC Inc. for six years. Currently, Sheryl serves as the President of the Board of Directors of Ferncliff Manor, a residential school in Yonkers for children with severe disabilities. Sheryl has been the recipient of many awards and honors for her work in the special needs community. Sheryl is a graduate of Union College and received her law degree from The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law School of Yeshiva University. Her eldest son, Aaron, has Autism, and is her inspiration.

For more information, you may contact Sheryl at sheryl@bargergaines.com or visit www.bargergaines.com.

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