Discipline Discussions: The Impact and Harm of Exclusionary Discipline 

Discipline Discussions Banner - Introduction

Valerie C. Williams Director, Office of Special Education Programs Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

By Valerie C. Williams
Director, Office of Special Education Programs

Over seven million children with disabilities and their families rely on the effective, high-quality implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to support a lifetime of success.

Make no mistake about it, IDEA — and the rights and protections it affords — impacts a child’s future, how they view themselves as learners today and leaders tomorrow. In fact, the National Center for Educational Outcomes estimates that 85–90% of children with disabilities can be expected to achieve at grade-level when they are provided with the best instruction, supports, and accommodations. Indeed, the promise of IDEA rests with the full implementation of the law.

High-quality implementation of IDEA starts with a clear understanding of the law’s requirements, and that is why OSEP recently released the most comprehensive guidance package on IDEA’s discipline and behavior requirements since the law was reauthorized in 2004.

As our country’s first African American OSEP Director, and as the parent of a child with a disability, this guidance holds special meaning to me. It gives hope to parents, strategies to educators, and direction to state and local leadership.

Perhaps, most importantly, it motivates us at the federal, state, district, school, and program levels to have conversations about current disciplinary practices, their immediate and long-term impact on children with disabilities, and how we can change our systems and practices to focus on preventing interfering behaviors rather than relying on punitive, exclusionary approaches. Bottom line: this guidance package compels us to take a smarter approach to addressing discipline in our schools.

The data trends are longstanding and clear: children with disabilities, particularly children of color with disabilities, are disciplined at far greater rates than their peers without disabilities and these trends start as early as preschool and extend throughout high school. For example:

The impact is alarming:

We cannot suspend our way to better behavior, but we can invest in what works.

I am proud that OSEP has invested millions of dollars over decades to deeply consider how to best address the behavioral needs of children with disabilities. These investments have yielded powerful, evidence-based strategies and approaches that can be used by schools and early childhood programs to mitigate or even prevent interfering behavior before it occurs. In fact, according to the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations, implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) results in:

  • Improved outcomes, such as increased academic achievement and social and emotional competence for children with disabilities, and reduced bullying behaviors;
  • Significant reductions in inappropriate behavior;
  • Reduced use of exclusionary discipline, including reduced discipline referrals and suspensions; and
  • Reduced use of restraint and seclusion.

When we pair these tools with leadership and motivation to have honest and reflective discipline discussions, the outcomes can be powerful for children with disabilities and their families.

Over the next few months, I will be writing a series of blog posts that highlights challenges and opportunities before us and connects stakeholders with OSEP funded resources. I will address topics such as informal removals, alternatives to exclusionary discipline, and proactive approaches to supporting a child’s behavioral needs; and will provide you with resources you can use in your own discipline discussions.

Additional information about OSEP’s Guidance to Help Schools Support Students with Disabilities and Avoid Disparities In the Use of Discipline:


2017-18 Overview of Student Discipline, K Through Grade 12. Link to Suspensions and Expulsions of Students with Disabilities in Public Schools (PDF)

Source: Suspensions and Expulsions of Students with Disabilities in Public Schools (PDF) (ed.gov)

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


  1. Thank you, Ms. Williams, for your leadership in Special Education. I have been a teacher for mild/moderate students from middle school to high school for 15 years in a variety of schools and districts. My experience is that all schools lack funding to hire qualified and effective staff to care for these students properly. District funding allocations seem to be unaware of the importance of having cooperative aides and qualified teachers to do what they know how to do. School administrators hide and squash incidents so families are unaware of the difficulties they have created. I know of only one exception to this because of the quality of the Program Specialist who makes sure students are safe and growing in her district.

  2. As a parent of a child who exhibited challenging behaviors in the classroom, and now as a PhD researcher who investigates the topic surrounding this issue, I can honestly say a lot is lacking in terms of how restraints are used in the classroom. My child was hurt by a two teacher during a restraint and was never taken to the nurse in order to cover for their conduct. Later we were harassed right out of the school district. This is why I will never give up the fight for parents rights! There is so much that needs to be done regarding protecting children from forceful teachers and helping parents to advocate and protect their children.

  3. “High-quality implementation of IDEA starts with a clear understanding of the law’s requirements” has been something that the State Department of Education has ignored this position for years.
    Our children deserve federal protections that work to protecting from racial and disability discrimination that have “real” consequences.
    If we don’t hold state-level folks accountable, then nothing with change.

  4. Valerie,
    You stated above, “I am proud that OSEP has invested millions of dollars over decades to deeply consider how to best address the behavioral needs of children with disabilities. These investments have yielded powerful, evidence-based strategies and approaches that can be used by schools and early childhood programs to mitigate or even prevent interfering behavior before it occurs.” Could you outline more specifically who received these dollars and how resources were shared or disseminated to local directors? I believe that OSEP has invested millions of dollars but I question that these resources have effectively been shared with LEAs.
    Thank you for creating this blog and connecting with the field. I plan to share far and wide!

  5. Unfortunately, the data that has been provided is only the tip of the iceberg. Districts can remove children from class and deny them access to instruction, including special education, without reporting that removal as a suspension. These unaccounted removals are detrimental to our students’ social emotional needs as well as their academic needs. Most school staff risk their employment if they speak up so we desperately parents to become better educated about their rights and to hold their schools accountable. We have plenty of research to inform the way schools respond to students and a proper response does not remove a child from their classroom or isolate them from their peers. We need to raise the bar so that our expectations don’t unintentionally limit our students’ potential.

    • I agree, as parents we are accountable and could face jail time if we neglect our children, but the school district employees are untouchable and very rarely accountable.
      Truancy is the mayor weapon against us, they enforced because they need the money.

    • I totally agree. I am going through this as we speak and had a meeting just this morning with the Principal, VP and the Dean of Students regarding my kindergartner who has been diagnosed with ADHD and DMDD. He is in the transfer stage from 504 student to special education student. Within the last 2 wks I have been called 4-5 days to come and pick him up because he has become so defiant that they couldn’t couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with him. The problem is he acts nothing like this at home with me or anywhere else. In the meeting I voiced my opinions and stated all these facts about how sending him home and with them putting him on a half day program and making him earn the right to stay additional hours is going to leave him with delayed social skills along with hindering his education because he is missing out on classs time and the administration is not hearing it or hearing me. I feel like I have done all I can with that school and we will just finish out the yr and start fresh somewhere else. I’m just hoping it hasn’t done much harm to him with all the stress they have put us through. They have also placed him in in-school suspension, made him do isolated lunches which I have never in my life heard of such a thing to do to a 5 yr old. How is that age appropriate discipline?

  6. Thank God! One of us is heading OSEP. No one knows what it is to raise a child with disabilities except another parent. We do all the things that every other parent does, but there is an additional list we have to address every day. We are the most tired demographic in the country. However, we have been trained for tenacity by our children.

  7. Thank you Mrs. William for the information and for providing this means to comment. I am from the Federated States of Micronesia and a mother of a child with mild mental disability, only my daughter is now an adult. My daughter was fortunate to get the assistance and support she needed to finish her high school in Saipan. However, many children with disabilities are not able to complete their high school, let alone the elementary level. Many dropped out never to return to the classroom and it seems that that’s acceptable and all good with educators, parents and leaders.

  8. We know what not to do, but what can we do with children who’s behavior is so out of control that they harm themselves and others, including the adults in the room? Everyone knows seclusion is not the answer, but we have to protect the rest of the people in the classroom. So, what can we do?

    • Re: keeping children safe – you can have a one thing our district does is in the event that a student escalating someone other than the classroom have teachers causally draw the blinds and shut the classroom doors to a) reduce the distraction to the classroom and b) allow the child to have less attention drawn to them.

      Primary need would be having enough para/aide support who are trained in deescalation methods such as those found on the PBIS website (she mentioned it above), or Ross Greene’s Lives In The Balance. (He advocates the same strategies centered around behavior as communication, and that children unable to meet expectations have lagging skills that need to be identified and taught.) They can assist during escalations so that teachers can tend to the classroom.

      As the parent of an autistic middle schooler, I have come to believe that in order to truly solve for the bulk of undesired behavior, kids need more options to engage with the curriculum. In WA State, they are writing a handbook to guide districts in setting up a system that will allow for varied means of delivering instructions, completing work in response to the curriculum and varied options for assessment to prove mastery. Teachers won’t have to prep for any of this, it will be baked into the delivery of the curriculum. My child has opened my eyes to how simple it is to avoid behavior issues simply by offering an alternative: handwriting would trigger frustration and, unable to reflect on the problem or communicate his problem, he’d run from the room or he’d scream if he couldn’t get away. Upon the first few occurrences, the special ed advisor asked his aide to scribe for him in any instance where he would have to write. He stopped running almost immediately. They were able to offer other options like speech to text, or simply typing as he got older. He was able to show mastery through an alternative means.

      My daughter’s second grade teacher encouraged students that if they struggled with writing down how they solved their math problem, they were free to come verbally explain it to her instead. You can’t imagine the difference this makes for a child. We just have to stop looking at behavior as choice and instead see it as communication. Demand from the district no less than what these kids deserve and if they don’t give it to you, find a way to do it anyway. Investing in alternative ways of showing understanding will pay off faster than any other strategy. Look up Universal Design for Learning for deeper content. Bless your heart for the work you give to each and every kid.

  9. This disparity of expulsions with challenging behaviors in early childhood is what led to my major in college. My passion now is supporting child care providers who use my mentoring to help build skills instead of giving up and experience the children

  10. I am a retired educator, licensed as a Special Education Teacher. I
    decided to earn my license in Special Education due to the many children with whom I had come in contact during several years as working as a paraprofessional in a school whose population was 100% of students in need of Special Education. Most of these students were African-American males.
    I noticed with concern those students, mostly male, had little to no interest in their education. I made a point to “get to know” these students and the reason(s) they had little interest in learning. Often, few of these students ever engaged in instruction. They would become disruptive, walk out of the classroom, taunt their classmates, sing, etc. They were not in school to learn and they showed all of us that they wanted “out.”
    That is, unless it was a during recess, or one of the special classes, library, art, music, physical education, workshop, etc. The more I interacted with them I was able to get close enough to them and thereby, learn the reason(s) they only came to school because they “had to come.” On the other hand these same students often engaged in behaviors that were inappropriate during instruction. Later, I realized that this was their only way to “escape” being invited to participate in instruction. It was at this point that I decided to return to college to earn my Master’s in Education. Two years later, I returned to college to earn my endorsement as a Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant (NJ) My desire was to learn how to work with the “Whole Child.”
    It was at this point that I decided to write my Masters’ Thesis on Strategies to Change the Behavior(s) of Behaviorally Challenged Students. My emphasis was on African- American students who were disproportionally classified as in need of special education services.
    We must endeavor to get to the “root” cause of children who have little to no interest in receiving a good education. As educators, we must meet them where they are, and discover a way to reach them prior to their dropping out of school and ending up in the Juvenile Justice System.
    I have never regretted my decision to concentrate on the special needs population (male & female), it appears to have been “my calling.”

  11. Que estan aciendo por estudiantes que estan osufrieron por parte de escuelas y que distritos escolaleres pasan por alto ?
    que hay de nuestros estudiantes con discapasidades que estan sufriendo acoso, abusos fisico por que el personal castiga aun estudiante por su discapasidad . mi familia a sufrido el acoso de un principal de escuela.
    y en una reunion de IEP rechasan el tema . que estan asiendo para proteger y guiar alas familias con informasion presisa y eficas y

  12. Thank you Mrs. Williams for your blog and information with resources. Engagement and strong programs of support are key foundations for students to remain motivated and focused on learning. Every Student, Every Classroom, Every Opportunity. Keep up the great and inspiring work!

  13. My son was never diagnosed of mental disability when he was on 4th grade due to his abnormal behavior. His teachers never complain to us about his unusual behavior because he was just a quiet boy to the extreme that even during Physical Education he never participated with active sports instead he was just hiding in one place, never social with peers. During recess time he stayed in the bathroom and never eat his meal. We knew this when our son reveal his attitude when he went to middle school. This middle school refer us to special education when he became a high school. We were a busy parents working double jobs as a caregivers in an assisted living , Has limited time to interact with our son.
    Until our son grew older he didnt change. He has no self-esteem, no social life and was never diagnosed of mental disorders until after the age 21 yrs old. We tried to apply him for SSI he was denied. He was receiving GR for just $221 a month but they cut him that benefits too. He is just depending on us, his retired parents who is living with social security. We dont know what will happen to him when we expire. He was never help.

    • Eliza, please don’t give up. There are training and residential programs available. They may vary depending on the state you live in, but your son should be diagnosed by a professional (doctor, psychologist, counselor, etc.) who can provided the proper referrals to both local and governement agencies. The Employment Development Department should be able to help him find training, counseling, and mental health assistance. Even if he didn’t get it in school, Federal laws under IDEA (mentioned by several other commenters) will allow him to have a 504 Plan in place that will allow accommodations in the work place.
      But you need to get him into the “system” in order for these benefits to be available. I am assuming that he is covered by state insurance for medical treatment. Don’t be afraid to ask for a new doctor, a new evaluation, and a case worker to help navigate all this.

  14. In my district, I have found that black students are not being referred for services or receiving any discipline due to the disproportion. While it looks good on paper, these students may not be receiving help they desperately because of their color. How will this be addressed? And how will parental accountability be addressed as well?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *