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:
- Defines informal removals;
- Describes situations in which informal removals could indicate that a child’s IEP does not appropriately address their behavioral needs (Question C-3);
- Describes how informal removals could constitute a disciplinary removal (Question C-6);
- Highlights evidence-based practices that address behavior using proactive and preventative strategies.
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:
- Document the removal and ask whether the removal is a suspension.
- Immediately request an IEP meeting to discuss behavior and potential updates to the Behavior Intervention Plan.
- Connect with the Parent Center in your state to access training and individual assistance on your rights related to school discipline.
- Review Discipline and Behavior Guidance Webinar.
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.