Discipline Discussions: Informal Removals Matter

Discipline and Behavior: Informal Removals Matter

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

When my cell phone rings in the middle of the day and I see my son’s school is calling, I immediately have a moment of unease: did Matthew get hurt, is he sick, what happened that warrants this call in the middle of the day? Matthew is a sixth grader with Down syndrome, but I know these feelings are shared by parents of children with and without disabilities alike.

I count myself lucky that with each of these calls I am relieved to hear about situations that, while important enough to call, are typically intended to share information about my son’s day or report on a minor issue. I am thankful that the school staff overcommunicate and keep us informed, as well as share potential solutions if a problem arises. In short, they are proactive, so after a brief chat with school personnel, I resume my day.

But for many parents of children with disabilities, the middle-of-the-day phone call carries a different message and results in a different outcome. As the Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP’s) director, I have heard parents share stories that follow a strikingly similar and concerning plot line: their child’s behavior has caused a disruption and they must be picked up immediately to help their child “calm down.” Forced to abruptly abandon their workday commitments, these parents rush to their child’s school and take their child home. Sometimes this removal from school is for part of a school day, sometimes longer.

These removals often go uncounted, are not reported as suspensions, and fly under-the-radar built to ensure that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA’s) discipline protections are exercised.

Until now, OSEP had not given these removals a name. Now, we call these removals “informal removals.”

In July 2022, OSEP released the most comprehensive IDEA discipline requirements guidance package since the law was passed in 2004. Notably, this guidance:

The bottom line is, informal removals matter. They matter to the child being removed, to the parent/guardian being called, to the school personnel who lack the tools and strategies to address the behavioral needs of children with disabilities more productively, and they matter to OSEP.

As discussed in my January blog, when schools rely on informal removals to address the behavioral needs of a child it is often the case that school personnel lack access to evidence-based strategies that can help prevent or mitigate interfering behaviors. Informal removals that occur again and again can be the result of a child exhibiting similar types of behavior. Removing a child from their learning environment without putting into place measures that will address their underlying behavioral needs perpetuates this cycle.

Instead, OSEP urges state educational agencies, local educational agencies, schools, early childhood programs and parents to use the guidance package to better understand informal removals. The guidance can help stakeholders understand how informal removals may overlap with IDEA’s discipline protections and requirements and how they can prevent informal removals through implementing positive, proactive approaches to address the behavioral needs of children with disabilities.

To help share additional information about informal removals, I am pleased to have OSEP’s Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) join in this conversation.

CPIR provides family-friendly resources to the national network of nearly 100 Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers, which are located in each state and territory, and are designed to work with families of children and youth with disabilities birth through age 26 to support effective parent advocacy and participation in the special education process. OSEP provides over $30 million annually to fund CPIR, four Regional Parent TA Centers, and the national network of the Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers.

I asked CPIR to shed some light on informal removals, and I hope their responses support you in your own conversations about disciplinary practices.

Click on the questions to view the responses from CPIR.

CPIR Response: When students with disabilities are removed from the learning environment for part or all of the school day without the discipline protections afforded to them under IDEA, it is an indication that their educational program may not be meeting their needs.

IDEA recognizes that a student’s behavior can be due to their disability and provides considerable protections to ensure that students with disabilities are not excluded because of their disability and any related behaviors. Yet, we hear that many students are routinely subjected to informal removals, and we continue to see the disparate use of exclusionary discipline practices in schools relative to race, ethnicity, income, and disability. These practices can have devastating effects on students and their families, who often must take time off from work.

Instead of being removed from school, students should be taught the skills they need to address their behavioral challenges. Schools should put into place the training and other supports needed by teachers and other school personnel to effectively prevent, reduce, and address challenging behaviors.

During this post-pandemic time, Parent Centers across the country are reporting a significant increase in the calls they receive related to challenging behavior, discipline, and informal removals. Schools and families must work together to ensure that students who need positive behavioral support have access to the services to which they are entitled. This will help ensure they are receiving the educational services they deserve.


CPIR Response: The school-family collaboration is a critical part of helping a child with a disability thrive. Here are a few points for schools and families to consider:

  • Keep the lines of communication open;
  • Remember that behavior is a form of communication;
  • Inappropriate behavior may be attention seeking, avoidance, or due to a lack of skill or frustration;
  • Ensure that school staff are appropriately trained and supported to prevent, ameliorate, and effectively respond to challenging behavior in the classroom and other school functions throughout the day;
  • Recognize that additional data may be needed to identify the function (purpose) of the behavior, such as through a functional behavioral assessment (FBA);
  • Develop a Behavior Intervention Plan:
    • Include environmental modifications;
    • Teach new skills and replacement behaviors;
    • Use planned responses to unwanted behaviors;
    • Model and reward desired behavior; and
  • Identify and provide supplemental aids and services that enable a student with a disability to participate in the general education program to the maximum extent appropriate to the student’s needs.


CPIR Response: There is an urgent need for schools to shift to a more preventative model for addressing behavior. Informal removals can result in countless hours of lost instructional time and do not solve to behavioral challenges. Schools need a better approach.

Schools should review their policies, practices, and procedures and prioritize a preventative approach at both the school and student levels. OSEP funded technical assistance centers such as the Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations and the Iris Center provide schools and school districts evidence-based resources and practices, including professional development for teachers and school staff, to support this preventative model.

Additionally, schools must remember that IDEA requires an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to address a student’s behavioral needs. The IEP team should meet to conduct a review of the IEP to ensure the services, supports, interventions, and strategies in the IEP are being provided and are appropriate to meet the unique needs of the individual student rather than relying on exclusionary practices for students exhibiting challenging behavior.

Failure to identify and address a student’s behavioral needs when developing and implementing the IEP is a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and a violation of IDEA.


CPIR Response: First, it is important for parents to recognize these instances as informal removals and they may be a denial of FAPE. Parent Centers offer a wide range of training, information, and resources to help families understand what is happening when the school calls and what questions they should ask to ensure their rights are being protected.

Second, here are some helpful tips for parents to consider:

Lastly, although the information regarding discipline of students with disabilities is complex and may be overwhelming to families, Parent Centers can work with families to help them understand the requirements and their rights and the rights of their child.

There are nearly 100 Parent Centers in the U.S. and territories, supported by four Regional Technical Assistance Centers, working with families of infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities, birth to 26. This network of centers has free, reliable resources, and partners with professionals and policymakers to improve outcomes for all children with disabilities.

Parent Centers help families participate effectively in their children’s education and development while partnering with professionals and policymakers to improve outcomes for all children with disabilities.

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. Let’s also remember that “behavior” is a result of a communication issue. There’s always a story BEHIND the “behavior” that is not being communicated. As a parent of a son with ID and autism, I’ve learned this very quickly. And yet no child wants to purposefully misbehave. As adults when we react versus respond, this is what happens with children being sent home. Schools need mental health support to help adults do better. Our students will continue to miss out on their education every time we send them home and not take the time to identify what’s not being communicated.

  2. Hello
    I saw my child and many children struggle in a system of education where there were demands so high and the bargaining was top priority where having new furniture mattered. Expelling students dismissing behaviors as a way of answering for the lack of any instruction behooves me to say the many lives lost to suicide, theft, homelessness and addiction parade through communities of some U.S. states. This is a very unfair way to treat people engaging in a system where society is to make progress and provide successful aid to others from nations abroad that come, to form the fabric of AMERICA. I really do hope we can seek out education and solutions in education flaws to make the difference of positivity stick.

  3. I do agree that informal removals, done improperly, can reward the very behavior that is least desirable. However, done with a _plan_, worked out with parents/guardians to give the child a rest, combined with an intentional plan to gradually increase the child’s attendance until they can be successful in the classroom, it doesn’t have to be either punitive or rewarding of negative behavior.

    I get very frustrated with the assumption that early educators and administrators just ‘don’t know what to do’, heavily implying a lack of education as well as incompetence. Until the unbelievable ACE scores of some of these children and their families are addressed, informal removals may be the only way that teachers and administrators can serve a child at all without the child endangering themselves, other children or staff. Yes, even at the preschool level.

    Children who can be successful in a half day classroom are not always able to be successful for a full day, and children that can manage two or three days can’t always safely manage a full week. Trauma is underlying much of the truly dangerous behavior I have seen, and the children and their families simply aren’t getting the help they need. In most cases, a classroom is not a place for therapy, and it is inappropriate to expect it to be such. The common denominator for most of the informal removals I have been aware of is involvement, or a history of involvement, with child protective services. This should really tell us something.

  4. If “breaks” away from the LRE (outside of general education) are NOT specified in the IEP, is a school-instituted “calm down” walk with an adult (without other students) considered an informal removal? What if they do it every day? Do the removal minutes count toward the 10-day rule if the student is removed from instruction for a “break” due to behavior (removals or “breaks” NOT specified in the IEP)?

    • Hi, I am a parent of a student with learning disabilities and I’m curious as to what this 10 day rule is that you mention. I believe that the school is just pushing my child through the system as they would call me every Thursday to pick him up and not allow him back until Monday.

      • Look up your state law. the ten is a set number by rule in regards to discipline. You and your son have rights beyond that called procedural protections. Ask your childs school for the discipline policy and review it before accepting the request for removal or consult IDEIA and F.A.P.E (sites.ed.org)

  5. As an involved parent of a child on the ASD spectrum, informal removals rewarded my child’s inappropriate behavior and reflected poorly on the staff’s knowledge of dissipating his sensory overload. The signs were all there but no one bothered to see them at school – the only place where the meltdowns happened. I would get three calls a week! We left that district after a former employee tipped us off to what was really going on. Educators are the experts on child development so help me understand why a reward is used as an answer to undesirable behavior and then they expect kids not to repeat it.

    • Yes! I was called every Thursday to pick up my child and he was not allowed back until Monday. I asked the school what happened on Thursdays that would escalate him but now I’m betting it was a learned behavior. He figured out he could get an extended weekend. So my question is, how do we get the schools on board with training their staff? My children’s father loves our town and doesn’t want to move, but at what cost?

  6. I am a teacher and come to the classroom dripping with patience. I can typically outlast any behavior that a student brings to the table because I have the ability to relate and communicate. I do not, however, often have assistance and I do not have formal training. So typically I have to abandon another’s service time to address an immediate need. I don’t know how the algorithms work for funding special ed departments with enough people to handle a typical day, but I was placed alone in a classroom when 2 sped employees left. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

    • Thank you. Our educators are simply the best. It’s the administration, I’ve learned, that is lacking. My son moves to another school next year and I’ve recently learned that entire SPED department is quitting after this year. We’re all in trouble! And I honestly don’t know what to do.

  7. Schools are now a one stop shop for everything a parent needs. If we don’t set better boundaries and MANDATE parents become part of the TEAM approach than nothing will change. We can do all the positive/proactive interventions and it means nothing if parents won’t/can’t support the child and the team.

    This is much deeper issue than just “put better interventions in place. Until parents are forced to change we won’t have much luck.

    • So what if it’s opposite? I feel the school is pushing my child through. They “tolerate” him for a couple years then he someone else’s problem. I’m trying to become more involved and learn but I don’t feel that the school is willing to do the same. So what can I do in this situation?

  8. School districts should operate the RTI process to help in this area. Also, train their leadership team in staying abreast of the research in this area.

  9. This is truly a roundtable discussion needing a solution.

    My advice just off the top of my head would be a facility where the child could be transferred to. The mom or dad can pick them up after work!

    • Ms. Harris,

      This maynot be the immediate solution. The law dictates the circumstances for student removal. Oftentimes, the IEP team have not done a great job in addressing this issue.

  10. If congress pushed harder to fully fund education in general, and in particular required states to ensure annual science based behavior prevention and early intervention training for all teachers and admin, this problem would disappear. Without a shared understanding of behavior people tend to rely on what’s easiest and quickest to stop a behavior problem, even if it’s ineffective.

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