Rethinking Discipline for Students with Disabilities

Two friends revise together for their exams

As a former educator, I know that one of the most complicated, and I’d venture to say one of the most critical aspects of teaching children is the management of the various behaviors in the classroom. And as a mom, I know how frustrated I get when I try to provide various types of discipline to my three very different kids. Not one of the three respond to a certain method in the same way. For my eldest, it usually just takes “the look” and a short lecture, and all is good. He doesn’t want to disappoint. My middle son, however, would laugh when we sent him to time out and roll his eyes when he got “the look.” He responds best when we have a discussion about the consequences of his behavior and how it affects others, and we institute a logical consequence that fits his misbehavior. And my youngest? I still haven’t figured that one out. 14-year-olds are just, well . . . 14. But one thing I DO know is that for my own three kids, the “one size fits all” approach does NOT work.

In schools, teachers have the extremely difficult task of providing discipline to a number of children all at the same time. And “one size fits all” doesn’t work there, either. We can’t just look at a classroom of kids and determine that they all respond to certain classroom management practices in the same way. Each child responds in different ways because they bring experiences with them in their personal backpacks – their “baggage” that travels with them.

Some children come to us in classrooms with special types of challenges, and often educators are well-equipped with information about those challenges. These are children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) due to a disability which adversely affects his or her educational performance. Examples of disabilities include specific learning disabilities in reading or math, autism, or “other health impaired” conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder. These IEPs are written and agreed upon by the child’s educational support team (the Admissions and Release Committee, or ARC), that includes her or his teachers and parents/guardians. They are packed full of information about that particular child—their background, medical history, educational history, parental input, and cognitive and behavioral evaluation results, along with recommendations on how to best help level the playing field so that child can successfully learn alongside her or his peers.

Yet, with all the information we have for this specific group of kids, data shows they are disproportionately over-represented in school punishments. Nationally, students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension (13 percent) than students without disabilities (6 percent). They represent a quarter of students arrested and referred to law enforcement, even though they comprise only 12 percent of the overall student population. Kentucky’s data is just as disconcerting. The latest available data shows students with an IEP receive 16.4 percent of in-school suspensions, 18.1 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 22.6 percent of uses of corporal punishment yet are only 13.2 percent of the total student population.

special ed graphic

Source: Kentucky Center for School Safety, 2012-2013 Safe Schools Data Project.

I’ll reiterate that managing a classroom is demanding, and even teachers who are renowned for their management skills have those particularly strenuous days and situations that are just plain tough to get through.  But so do the students and especially kids who have specific, identified challenges.  As a teacher, I saw kids with disabilities get embarrassed because they had to learn differently than their peers.  This would cause them to become defensive and react in ways that were difficult for me to manage.  Being aware that the catalyst for that child’s negative behavior wasn’t her or his concerted effort to take away my control was integral in determining my strategic response.  I realized that child was asking for help in a different way than other kids, and it was my job to help them.

For those of us who are parents or guardians to kids with disabilities, we are our child’s most important advocate.  Both teachers and parents should work together to ensure the IEP is written and implemented in a way that can connect them to supports within the school early on to prevent potential problems, or get their student back on track when negative reactions occur.  I have witnessed many elementary, middle, and high school educators who have successfully created positive behavior supports for children which, instead of punishing a child, divert the child into a skill or area where the child has success, such as drawing, building, helping a student in a younger grade, or just shooting a basketball for five minutes.  Intervention Central has a variety of strategies that both parents and teachers can utilize as part of a student’s positive behavioral or academic intervention plan.

Punishment is usually not the best solution for students with disabilities. With IEPs and open channels of communication between parents and teachers, we can turn challenging situations into moments of opportunity for these students.

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