Discipline Discussions: Our Discipline Policies Reflect Our Priorities

Discipline and Behavior: Our Discipline Policies Reflect Our Priorities


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


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).

I hope the questions and responses below will support your own discipline discussions with colleagues and families.

Click on the questions to view the responses from NCPMI and the Center on PBIS.

Center on PBIS: A preventative model of addressing behavior shifts the focus from reactive to proactive supports with a focus on building social, emotional and behavioral skills versus simply to reduce problem behavior. We often think about this framework as a continuum approach:

  • Educators implement universal prevention (Tier 1) to set all students up for success in all school settings.
  • For students who need additional support, educators target their support (Tier 2) to meet common needs of some
  • For students with intensive needs, educators individualize support (Tier 3) to meet a few students’ unique needs.

This tiered approach, which is typically referred to as a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Two specific examples of MTSS are Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and the Pyramid Model designed for early childhood settings (see below), which can be implemented in a classroom (see MTSS in the Classroom). The benefits of these systems are maximized when implemented consistently throughout a school, program or organization. Research indicates that students and educators benefit when schools implement PBIS with fidelity (for example, Why Implement PBIS).

NCPMI: The Pyramid Model provides a multi-tiered framework of promotion, prevention and intervention practices for early childhood programs. Programs that use this model have reported that they do not use exclusionary discipline practices (Fox, Strain, & Dunlap, 2021). Experimental research on the implementation of the approach has demonstrated the following:

  • Teachers rated children in Pyramid Model classrooms as having greater social skill growth than those not implementing the approach (Hemmeter et al., 2016, 2021).
  • Preschool children identified with or at-risk for behavioral disorders made greater improvements in their behavior and social skills in classrooms using the Pyramid Model than children in classrooms not implementing the model (Hemmeter et al., 2016, 2021).
  • Individualized interventions for children with persistent challenging behavior have resulted in significant reductions in challenging behavior and increased child engagement and social skills (Dunlap et al., 2018).

Center on PBIS: Educators can adopt a proactive and preventative approach by intentionally focusing on a few key evidence-based practices and implementing them well. For example, the following simple practices can support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs and prevent challenges when the practices are implemented in an effective and culturally responsive manner:

  • Identifying what behaviors educators want to see in their classrooms and teach them (along with common classroom routines and procedures) directly, instead of assuming students know what we expect them to do
  • Building positive relationships through intentional strategies, such as positive greetings at the door and culturally-responsive behavior specific praise
  • Actively engaging students through relevant academic instruction that is differentiated based on student need

To learn more about each of these evidence-based practices, check out Supporting and Responding to Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs: Evidence-Based Practices for Educators. This resource provides guiding principles and a structure to organize practices; critical features, examples and non-examples for each practice; links to additional resources (e.g., videos, podcasts); and tools to self-assess and action plan to support implementation.

NCPMI: Early educators can start by examining their relationships with each and every child, their families and their classroom environment.

A prevention approach works best when teachers have established nurturing and responsive relationships with all children in the classroom, have strong partnerships with families, and have designed their classroom environment and routines to promote children’s social-emotional development. This practice checklist can help preschool teachers reflect on their strengths and identify the practices they might improve.

When children have challenging behavior, teachers should view the behavior as sending a message. For young children, that message might be that they don’t feel safe, want help or attention, don’t understand the expectations, don’t want to participate in the activity or have some other need. Once you identify the why of the behavior (i.e., the child wants help, attention, to get out of an activity or to feel increased safety), you can use strategies to prevent the behavior in those situations while teaching the child the social, emotional or behavioral skills to get their needs met.


Center on PBIS: The first steps often include forming a leadership team, gathering information on what evidence-based practices are already in use, assessing areas of strength and need, and getting connected with local leaders to learn more about resources to support implementation. Learn more at Getting Started with PBIS.

NCPMI: NCPMI offers multiple resources for implementing PBIS in early childhood settings. For example, a program might start with gaining the buy-in of staff by using videos to illustrate the value of the approach in classroom-based programs or family child care homes. Another place to start is offering professional development to staff on strategies to understand children’s behaviors (including the impact of trauma) and to promote social, emotional and behavioral skills in young children using the training modules provided by NCPMI.

At the leadership level, program leaders can use this guide to strengthen their family partnerships, systems for assisting teachers when children have behavior challenges, and use of data for decision-making. Programs might also begin formally tracking responses to child behavior incidents (i.e., BIRS) so that they can use data as they eliminate the use of exclusionary discipline. Programs might also explore how to integrate implementing the Pyramid Model with a trauma informed approach using this guide.


Center on PBIS: The Center on PBIS has a range of fidelity tools to assess fidelity at each implementation level. For example, school leadership teams complete the Tiered Fidelity Inventory with an external coach to assess their implementation of Tiers 1, 2, and 3. They then can use the Integrated TFI Companion Guide to develop an action plan based on their data. District and state leadership teams can complete the District Systems Fidelity Inventory and State Systems Fidelity Inventory, respectively, with an external coach to assess their implementation of key systems to support and sustain implementation.

NCPMI: Early childhood programs should use two types of fidelity tools as they implement PBIS. First, an “implementation fidelity tool” to examine the system supports needed in the program to guide implementation, promote partnerships with families, train and coach staff to use evidence-based practices, address equity, support a trauma informed approach and use data for decision-making. These tools are called the Benchmarks of Quality and are available for early childhood centers, early intervention programs and family child care. The second type of tool is an “intervention practice fidelity” tool that measures whether teachers and early interventionists implement practices with fidelity as they support children and families (e.g., Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool for Preschool Classrooms, Teaching Pyramid Infant Toddler Observation Scale and Early Interventionist Pyramid Practices Fidelity Instrument).


Center on PBIS: Authentic partnerships between educators and families are critical. As a starting place, schools can include families and students on leadership teams and ensure meaningful representation and marginalized voices in decisions related to selecting, implementing, monitoring, and adjusting implementation of PBIS practices. To learn more about effectively partnering with families, check out our free e-Book, Aligning and Integrating Family Engagement in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS): Concepts and Strategies for Families and Schools in Key Contexts.

NCPMI: More positive outcomes are achieved when families are meaningfully engaged in a collaborative process to understand a child’s behavior and to address the child’s emotional, social and behavioral needs. Families are essential partners who know the child’s history, relationships, preferences, medical conditions and daily routines. They bring that knowledge to the collaborative process used to understand the child’s needs (i.e., functional behavioral assessment) and offer important insight about their child that can be used in the design of the intervention plan. Once the plan is developed, families also assist in helping the child learn new social-emotional and communication skills.

Schools and early childhood programs can set the stage for this collaborative process by investing in developing strong relationships with families before behavior is identified as a concern. When children are identified as having behavioral support needs, families should be welcomed as partners in developing and implementing the behavior support plan.

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 for these blog posts. Behavior and discipline of students served under IDEA, particularly Black students served under IDEA, is an issue in my community.

    Can OSEP please provide clarity about how IEPs are to be used to support behavior to prevent suspensions, and what the role of the regular education teacher is?

    Regular education teachers are not attending full IEP meetings in my community and are not being appropriately excused. Consequently, they are not present to contribute to the selection of behavioral supports. Regardless, there is resistance to supporting behavior through the IEP in favor of supporting behavior through MTSS instead.

    It seems to me that it is not a coincidence that a 2016 Dear Colleague Letter requires that IEP-based behavioral supports be considered in the areas of special education and related services, supplementary aids and services, program modifications, and supports for school personnel, and those areas (other than special education and related services) are exactly what regular education teachers need to contribute to in the creation and revision of the IEP per the IDEA regulations.

    Are those areas that the regular education teacher is required to contribute to (and that need to be considered as part of behavior management) part of the regular education teacher’s “area of curriculum” that triggers the need for parental informed consent (as opposed to “agreement”) for their excusal?

    Also, there is no need to wait until after the tenth day of suspension for an FBA to occur and for behavior to be supported via the IEP, correct? The point of that Dear Colleague Letter was to say that behavior needs to be supported sooner?

    Clarity would be helpful. Thank you.

  2. I am glad you are understanding the situations of removal. It is a pitiful situation and many schools do not conduct meetings or come up with behavior plans and interventions for the students. A lot of schools are afraid to mention that this might not be the right placement for a child because they may not have other placements ready. Which could lead into the parent asking and demanding that the school district pay for another setting or a different school. You also need to understand that SPED teachers and special education staff do not get paid enough money to be the victims of abuse from students. Without the correct strategies in place, the right trainings and the money not allocated for these trainings as well as no hazard pay, you create an environment where staff do not want to be hurt, want to help students, but then go back again to not wanting to be hurt. It can be exhausting working with students who have special needs whether there are strategies in place or not. And still the pay is not there. We are not doctors who get paid big amounts of money, but are expected to work with students and know it all and take the abuse. The paraprofessionals make even less. So why not increase the pay for all, increase the learnings, and increase the benefits and hazard pay. The blame game of who’s fault is it, is getting very old. put things in place to help all and pay the sped staff more money and get them more trainings.

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