Discipline Discussions: Preparing Future Educators to Proactively, Positively Address Behavior

Preparing Future Educators to Proactively Positively Address Behavior

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

Recently, I asked my sixth-grade son to complete this sentence: School is a place where I ______.

Without hesitation, Matthew responded, “School is a place where I go to learn and have fun.” Matthew is my 12-year-old son who happens to have Down Syndrome. His journey has been shaped by the dedicated educators and instructional support personnel who have held high expectations for his success and growth, and I see their efforts echoed in Matthew’s perspective about school.

The impact an educator can have on a child is profound, which makes statistics about personnel shortages in education, particularly special education, alarming:

  • Current Shortages: 40% of public schools hiring for open teaching positions in special education in 2020–21 reported having difficulties filling the opening, compared with 17% in 2011–12, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Report on the Condition of Education 2023.
  • Pipeline Challenges: Between 2013–2020, there has been a 30% decrease in the number of individuals completing traditional teacher preparations programs, according to the NCES, Report on the Condition of Education 2023.
  • Educator Diversity: Only 1 in 5 teachers are people of color, compared to more than half of K–12 public school students who are young people of color. Representation matters, and all students should have the opportunity to be taught by diverse educators. Raise the Bar: Boldly Improve Learning Conditions | U.S. Department of Education
  • Future Need: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 37,600 openings for special education teachers will be needed annually between 2021–2031.

To help address these challenges, the Administration unveiled Raise the Bar: Lead the World, an initiative that focuses on achieving academic excellence, boldly improving learning conditions, and creating pathways for global engagement. As part of the effort to improve learning conditions, the Department has worked to:

  • Stabilize the profession through $122 billion in American Rescue Plan and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to eliminate educator shortages, and strategies to sustain these investments.
  • Improve Teacher Compensation, Working Conditions and Promote Career Ladders for Teachers through use of Title I and Title II investments, and other strategies
  • Support Effective New Teacher Induction and Ongoing Professional Learning through investments in high-quality programs for new and experienced educators
  • Support High-Quality and Affordable Educator Preparation through partnership with the Department of Labor and initiatives that expand registered apprenticeship programs, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and TEACH Grants for educators.
  • Promote Educator Diversity through a range of federal grant programs to support teacher diversity throughout its efforts to recruit, develop, and retain teachers.
  • Leverage Partnerships to Support Teacher Recruitment through Department partnerships with organizations to address educator shortages through private — and nonprofit-sector actions focused on connecting job seekers and school districts.

Additionally, OSEP’s past work on personnel shortages, outline innovative strategies States and local communities can take to address these shortages. Moreover, our current Part D personnel development investments are taking an exciting and innovative approach to this issue. I want to highlight the critical role of teacher preparation programs in supporting our future educators in proactively and positively addressing the behavioral needs of children with disabilities.

Supporting children starts with building systems that listen to what our educators are saying. According to NCES data from the 2021–22 school year:

  • 79% of public schools reported needing more support for student and/or staff mental health;
  • 70% of public schools reported needing training to support students’ social-emotional development; and
  • 51% of public schools reported as needing training on classroom management strategies.

In recognition of this pervasive challenge, last month the Biden-Harris Administration announced nearly $100 million in continued support for mental health and student wellness through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Much of this investment will support increasing the pipeline of mental health professionals in our nation’s schools, and builds off of the seven recommendations highlighted in the Department’s Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs. Additional information about current opportunities for OSEP funded personnel development grants can be found here.

We know our educator preparation programs have a role and responsibility to best prepare future educators to answer the realities of a classroom, including how to best support the social-emotional development and behavioral needs of students. When we provide educators with evidence-based practices, paired with systems that support their implementation, the result is often a reduced reliance on exclusionary discipline.

It is my belief that truly inclusive schools and early childhood programs, where all children and educators feel a sense of belonging, must start at the earliest stages of educator preparation. To start, OSEP’s guidance on IDEA’s discipline and behavior requirements should be shared in educator preparation programs. Addressing the behavioral needs of a child with disabilities is rooted in IDEA’s requirements but is realized through the implementation of evidence-based practices, many of which are highlighted in OSEP’s technical assistance guide, Positive, Proactive Approaches to Supporting the Needs of Children with Disabilities: A Guide for Stakeholders and the Department’s Guiding Principles for Creating Safe, Inclusive, Supportive, and Fair School Climates.

I am pleased to further explore this topic with the OSEP-funded Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Center. The CEEDAR Center helps reimagine educator preparation programs and state policies and programs to support improved outcomes for children with and without disabilities. With a focus on state and local educational agencies, and institutes of higher education, the CEEDAR Center has produced a wealth of resources and technical assistance.

I hope this information helps you start or continue conversations about how preparing our future educators can help reduce a reliance on exclusionary discipline.

Click on the questions to view the responses.

CEEDAR Center: The CEEDAR Center has partnered with the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) to identify 22 high-leverage practices (HLPs) that support students with disabilities. The HLPs constitute foundational practices known to improve outcomes for students with disabilities and are applicable across grade levels and content areas. Structuring educator preparation around the HLPs provides programs with focus so teacher candidates’ opportunities to practice are tightly structured and scaffolded over time.

A select group of the HLPs focus on social/emotional/behavioral practices and include:

  • HLP 7: Establish a consistent, organized, and respectful learning environment;
  • HLP 8: Provide positive and constructive feedback to guide students’ learning and behavior;
  • HLP 9: Teach social behaviors;
  • HLP 10: Conduct functional behavioral assessment to develop individual student behavior support plans.

Implementing HLPs does not mean evidence-based practices (EBPs) are ignored. In fact, when used together, HLPs and EBPs can provide even more effective instruction for students with disabilities, as described in High-leverage Practices and Evidence-based Practices: A Promising Pair.

When considering how to reform educator preparation programs so they include best practices, a good first step is to assess what content is already emphasized across programs and professional development opportunities. The CEEDAR Center’s Innovation Configurations (ICs) provide teacher educators with information on the major components of a practice or innovation and a tool to evaluate the extent to which the major components are included and at what level of implementation within preparation experiences. CEEDAR has published two ICs related to the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students with disabilities and how teacher educators can and should emphasizing proactive, preventative approaches as opposed to behavior reduction strategies exclusively:

Teacher educators looking to bolster coursework, field experiences, and professional development in the area of classroom and behavior management will find the CEEDAR Content Enhancement Module (CEM) on this topic useful.

All CEEDAR CEM’s focus on EBPs and provide educators with sample syllabi, PowerPoint slides with accompanying speaker notes, multimedia supports, and additional resources and references that can be customized for a variety of preparation settings and needs. The CEM on classroom and behavior management is ideal for educators interested in learning more about evidence-based behavioral interventions such as “Check In Check Out” and evidence-based behavior curricula such as “Second Step Violence-Prevention Curricula.”


Reform efforts, whether at individual educator preparation programs or across entire states, must center on a clear vision and buy-in from individuals representing a variety of stakeholder groups. The CEEDAR Center supports educator preparation programs and their state and local education agencies in implementing an eight-step reform process outlined in the Roadmap for Educator Preparation Reform:

Step 1: Engage key leaders

Step 2: Facilitate needs assessment

Step 3: Determine program review focus

Step 4: Review programs

Step 5: Develop an action plan

Step 6: Implement reforms

Step 7: Practice continuous improvement

Step 8: Scale impact

A cornerstone of this reform process is collecting and analyzing data from multiple sources (Step 2) to understand the current context and identify goals for reform. Educators and leaders interested in a deeper dive on data and outcomes as they relate to educator preparation will find CEEDAR’s Data & Outcomes PD Pack useful.


With most students with disabilities spending 80% or more of their school day in general education classrooms, preparing general educators to effectively respond to the needs of students with disabilities is a critical endeavor in promoting inclusive schooling. Therefore, it is crucial general education preparation programs provide teacher candidates with field experiences that include students with disabilities. CEEDAR’s Policy Snapshot General Education Teacher Preparation: Field Experience Requirements with Students with Disabilities provides information on states’ policy requirements for general education teacher candidates to have experience working with students with disabilities.

For students with disabilities to be successfully included in general education classrooms and make progress with the general education curriculum, collaboration and teaming among general education and special education teachers is necessary. General education preparation programs should ensure their candidates learn about and practice effective collaboration, and the collaboration HLPs can guide programs as they infuse this content within coursework and field experiences.

Although general education and special education teachers are often prepared separately within educator preparation programs, many states support dual certification and licensure so that teacher candidates exit a program certified to work as special educators and general educators. CEEDAR’s Policy Snapshot Dual Certification Programs provides state-by-state examples of approved dual certification programs that may serve as helpful examples for how such programs might be conceptualized and structured.


The CEEDAR Center provides many free resources that can assist states and local education agencies respond to personnel shortages in special education. The CEEDAR Center, in partnership with the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, created Educator Shortages in Special Education: A Toolkit for Developing Local Strategies. This toolkit provides a comprehensive guide for state teams to evaluate and respond to shortages across the career continuum. The tool kit provides:

The CEEDAR Center also offers the professional development (PD) pack Special Educator Licensure/Shortages. This compilation of resources includes recorded webinars by leading experts in the field, PowerPoint presentations, and additional resources that focus on mitigating special education personnel shortages.

Educators and policy makers interested in learning more about addressing special educator personnel shortages through the use of teacher registered apprenticeship programs (RAPs) will find the brief Take a Seat at the Table: The Role of Educator Preparation Programs in Teacher Registered Apprenticeship Programs helpful. This brief defines RAPs, offers potential funding mechanisms for RAPs, and highlights example programs from across the country.


  1. There’s a lot of gray areas in the school system when it comes to policies on student removal, suspensions, and expulsions . How does the school system continue to educate a student who has been removed from the education system for any of the above reasons ? How is an aggressive student in school, educated while still keeping the school staff from undo harm ?

  2. This is great but not the reality for the many students with Autism or behavioral disabilities. We need more educators to observe, ask and assume that these kids are having a hard time not giving them a hard time (Thank you Dr. Greene). Please ensure that ALL educators and ALL school staff have not only the support (financial and time) they need to make the difference for these kiddos and avoid the secondary trauma to peers! Educators need additonal resources and training they need to make a systems change!

    • This is absolutely true, my son is only 4 years old, has behavioral issues but is still not yet diagnosed, I have an IEP with the district and have been requesting support for him since December os last year, his teachers are already overwhelmed anf undertrained, which has caused escalation in his behavior, and only a month into school and they have sent him home twice and suspended him once. Teachers, staff, principals all need to be trained, to deal with these situations, I am a highly involved parent and I make sure that they know that I am a phone call away if they need support, but I am also a full time employed single mom so forming a support system is the most important thing for me to build for my child and if the support is only one sided we will not successfully help these children. Something needs to change.

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