Discipline Discussions: The Power of Asking “Why”

Discipline and Behavior Series: The Power of Asking “Why”

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

In the 2021–22 school year, 84% of public schools reported that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted students’ behavioral development, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In schools across our country, for children with and without disabilities, this can look like classroom disruptions, rowdiness, or acting out. Indeed, the pandemic’s impact continues to affect all ages, from our youngest learners to adolescents and has often resulted in disciplinary removals.

While the pandemic’s effects are felt by children with and without disabilities alike, one approach to addressing these challenges originates from research and study into supporting the behavioral needs of children with disabilities. Known in the research community as a function-based approach, I simply think of it as “behavior as a form of communication.”

Thinking of behavior as a form of a communication forces us to shift our mindset and consider the purpose of a child’s actions by asking the critical question of why the child is using behaviors that are inconsistent with school or early childhood program expectations. This seemingly simple question can lead educators and families to a much deeper conversation about what a child may be trying to express and communicate through this behavior.

When we think about behavior as a form of communication, we begin to see a child’s actions through a different lens. In some situations, a child may be attempting to obtain something such as adult or peer attention or access a preferred activity, sensory experience, or social interaction. In other situations, a child may be trying to avoid or escape an undesirable experience, activity or interaction. With this perspective, educators can tailor supports to directly address the root cause of the behavior. The result is often a much more thoughtful, informed, effective and lasting approach to address interfering behavior rather than simply relying on exclusionary discipline.

In July 2022, OSEP released the most comprehensive IDEA discipline requirements guidance package since the law was passed in 2004. Importantly, the guidance reminds stakeholders that IDEA includes many requirements related to addressing behavior, such as:

  • Individualized Education Program (IEP) Teams must address the behavioral needs of a child with a disability through evaluation, re-evaluation, IEP development and IEP implementation;
  • IEP Teams must consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and other strategies for any child with a disability whose behavior impedes their learning or that of others;
  • When a child with a disability demonstrates behavior that impedes the child’s learning or that of others, appropriate behavioral supports may be necessary to ensure that the child receives a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Despite IDEA’s requirements, the rates of exclusionary discipline for children with disabilities, particularly children of color with disabilities, remains disproportionately higher than their peers, as I shared in last month’s blog. This trend starts as early as preschool and extends throughout high school.

I challenge us all to shift our thinking, view behavior as a form of communication, and dare to ask why. Embracing a preventative approach is a collaborative effort between educators and families and starts with adding more “tools to the toolchest.” With this in mind, I am pleased to have the IRIS Center join this conversation. The IRIS Center, funded by OSEP, provides educators with turnkey professional development they can access for free 24/7.

I hope the resources featured below will support you and your colleagues in your own discipline discussions as you embark on the power of asking why.

Click on the questions to view the responses.

A shift in mindset can be beneficial for several reasons. First, as stated by OSEP Director Williams in this blog, behaviors are often a form of communication. For example, students who lack the communicative ability to express their thoughts or feelings might cry or hit to indicate that they don’t want to do something.

Simultaneously, educators should understand that most student behaviors are learned. For example, young children learn early on that if they look at a caregiver and raise their arms, there is a strong likelihood that they will get picked up. Similarly, children learn that even if they engage in undesirable behaviors there is a strong likelihood that the people around them will respond in predictable ways. A student who yells at the teacher has learned that they’ll get sent out of the classroom; if they were trying to avoid doing classwork, then leaving class is actually what they wanted. Since the student was essentially reinforced for this behavior, it’s likely that they’ll continue to yell at the teacher in the future.

Finally, a shift in mindset can help educators remember that they shouldn’t take a child’s behavior personally. We recognize this can be hard—the student may say and do things that can feel hurtful, but taking the emotional component out of the equation allows the teacher, paraeducator, or other professional to better focus on what the student is communicating through their behavior.

The good news is we can learn to analyze the situation to figure out why a student is behaving a certain way and then engage in effective methods to address that situation and teach the student more appropriate behaviors.

The IRIS Center has a very helpful instructional module for just this purpose: Functional Behavioral Assessment: Identifying the Reasons for Problem Behavior and Developing a Behavior Plan. This free, self-paced, interactive module takes educators through a carefully scaffolded instructional sequence where they learn the basics of behavioral principles, how to collect and analyze data to determine the function that the behavior serves, and then how to design, implement, and evaluate effective behavioral interventions.Like many of our most popular IRIS Modules, educators have the option to earn a free certificate of completion for this module. In order to do so, educators would first create a free account, select their module, take a short pre-test, work though the module, and then take a post-test to earn the certificate.

The module also has a wraparound suite of supporting resources that allows learners to deepen their knowledge and even practice these skills. For example, there are two activities that allow educators to practice their observation and data collection skills:

With each of these activities, educators can learn more about types of behavioral assessments and then download data-collection forms to use while they watch a video of students engaging in various types of behaviors.

IRIS has a lot of resources on classroom behavior management, which can be found under the “Behavior and Classroom Management” topic on our IRIS Resource Locator. In particular, there are two sets of modules about addressing challenging behavior; one set is for educators in elementary classrooms and the other is for those in secondary settings.



In addition to providing instructional content, each of these IRIS Modules contains classroom videos that depict teachers engaging in proactive measures that can prevent many challenging behaviors. They also explain several strategies that can be used effectively to de-escalate situations when problematic behaviors do occur. Each of these modules also has its own wraparound suite of supporting resources and the option to earn a free certificate of completion,

Educators who just need a quick primer or refresher on some of these behavioral strategies might find the following IRIS Fundamental Skill Sheets helpful. Each sheet details the steps for a particular strategy, gives tips for implementation, and includes video examples and non-examples for both elementary and secondary classrooms:

Finally, two OSEP-funded technical assistance centers have a wealth of resources that focus on addressing the behavioral needs of children with disabilities. The resources from these centers can benefit every educator, whether they are new to the field or are seasoned veterans:

See the January Discipline Discussions: Our Discipline Policies Reflect Our Priorities blog for more from NCPMI and the Center on PBIS.


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. I definitely can use the resources for my child because she has an IEP ;Learning Disability) and the school she attends now is not honoring that. They give her 2nd grade work when she’s struggling with 1st grade work. Please help

  2. I usually don’t comment, but this blog really resonated with me since I saw and read so many things that I constantly repeat as part of my training with my 70+ school districts (I am a SE law attorney).

    I regularly explain that behavior tells you something, and it is a form of communication (not a good one) which lets you know that the student does not like something, or wants something, and if you can understand it, then you can remediate, remedy or redirect the student to a different way to get what they want or need. Once you look at the behavioral function, then you can start to see how there is the communication breakdown, and then look to address the underlying issues- building the skill for better communication avenues, control the environment to minimize the triggers, teach and reinforce use of appropriate strategies and approaches, and constantly review the efficacy of the strategy to determine if it is working. Without data and analysis, all the intent in the world will not change things. It is about learning from the student what they respond to, how to teach them what they need to know, and to make it advantageous or even more desirable for them to perform the task/skill/activity/response that is requested. Then when you reinforce and reward them, they see an alternate choice to get the attention/support or outcome they need in a positive way. I look at training on FBA/BIP and discipline and behavior as a strategic approach to avoid removals and to support students remaining in their program and services, which is where you have the supports, strategies and services available and they are able to access FAPE. Discipline is an option, but it should be the last one, not the first one. Collaboration and communication with parents and other stakeholders (including staff/teachers/providers/other agencies) is key.

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