« Digital Gender Divide? | Main | Generation Gap »

Special Ed Concerns


A growing number of special needs students is creating new pressures on public schools and teachers, according to an Associated Press story. In some states, court decisions and legislation are barring special education instructors from aggressively restraining or secluding disruptive students. Michigan lawmakers, for example, outlawed holding students facedown on the ground after a disabled student died from being subjected to this type of restraint. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is campaigning to eliminate restraint and seclusion in special education classrooms. But existing laws make it hard to expel or suspend disabled students, and some educators say they sometimes have to use severe methods to protect other students and teachers.

How can public school best handle the increased number of students with disabilities? Do special education teachers need to use aggressive methods, like restraint and seclusion, to discipline misbehaving students? What is an appropriate punishment for especially unruly students with special needs?


I've been in situations where students have attacked others, endangering them. Was I supposed to watch this go on and wait for security as these situations unfolded before my eyes? HECK NO!!! If it were my child I would handle it the same - restrain until there danger has passed. Which is why I could never work with kids I couldn't handle physically...

To take away seclusion or restraint totally would be a mistake. Perhaps very defined guidelines and expectations are in order. In our district, inclusion is the standard now. Some children, like my grandchild, need to be secluded at times as a way to calm down and refocus on productive activity.

We must remember that all students are the responsibility of public education especially those with Special needs. Early and intense intervention with highly qualified teachers and therapists and continued behavioral interventions can eliminate the need for restraint. These therapies are expensive. Public education needs to invest in special needs students from early on and look to specialists outside the system to support these students. Money spent early can greatly reduce what is needed as students grow. This makes for a better outcome for disabled children who are more prepared to live in the community. Early and intense interventional and ongoing behavioral support also provides school professionals with the tools they need to deal with them. School professionals need ongoing support from behavior specialists. Many of the Special Education issues are truly brain involved and should be covered by medical insurance. Sadly, most are not. This puts a tremendous burden on the public schools to educate as well as provide medical services that they are not trained or prepared to provide. I am an educator in a public school at the administrative level and also the mother of a 10 year autistic son.

I think we are recognizing, finally, that restraint and exclusion are not effective solutions to behavioral concerns.

Regardless of child's placement, he/she has no right to disrupt nor endanger others. The answer lies in providing the child with a supervised alternative educational setting that could last from a very few minutes to several years - as necessary to appropriately meet needs. Whatever happened to the "Life Space Interview?" A cost and programmatically effective technique.

Many student behavior problems are exacerbated by institutional rigidity. The school forces children into the mold of preconceived programs. Little room is left to adjust to the individuality of students -- particularly those whose needs fluctuate.

Consider the successs rates of many alteernative schools and charter schools. They tend to have the flexibility needed to adjust to the ebb and flow of student needs, behavior, emotions, while moving forward in their planned programs of instruction.

Punishment doesn't work. Treatment does.

The community and the school must be committed to serve the needs of the special education child, and one of the ways to do this is within inclusion classes. Such classes have two teachers, one general ed and one special ed, whose job is to modifiy the curriculum and provide adaptations and accommodations for the special child. Many student behavior problems occur due to inability to understand the task and/or complete the assignment, low frustration tolerance, extreme anxiety,and environmental overstimulation. Understanding this and making needed changes results in less acting-out behaviors and the need for punishment, which doesn't work. Short time outs, within the classroom, allows for the child to take a break but still be near support. The idea is always to include the child in some way, and find ways to increase their feelings of self-respect and competence.

With the NCLB Act in place, public schools are penalized if special needs students fail to help the test scores go up. This is a pressure on special needs teachers and students that leads to much frustration on the part of both. Special needs educators know their students - what they are capable of doing, and it would benefit public education to insure that special needs students real needs are respected. The teacher is the best person to make those decisions. Passing a law that says you cannot force a disabled student face down on the ground is a shocking bit of legislation, in my opinion. For the situation to have gotten to that point some other decisions to secure all the children must have failed. Teachers who are trained to teach special needs children must advocate for their children, in a system that demands standardization. Only those with special training and intimate connection to the special needs student can know how to handle that student. The needs of these children are extremely unique and trying to overcrowd their environment is a detriment to all. Many schools bring special needs students into classrooms with 30 children. That is a set up for disaster. Acting out in that situation is normal behavior for many. We need to be sure that the environment for special education students is
comfortable to their needs, then the teachers can function and teach them all that they are capable of learning.

My additions to the comments thus far are:
1. A special education teacher should be able to phone for immediate support from a staff member to remove the other students in the room to an alternative location. This will eliminate the possibility of having classmates injured. Hopefully, the special education teacher, staying behind with the student who is acting out, will have been trained in both ways to ensure his/her physical safety,and ways to de-esculate the anger cycle. The school site needs to establish a procedure for such incidents and review the procedure much like a fire drill. The plan should cover all of the "what ifs."
2.Special education teachers should be aware that they need to reinforce approximations of the desired behavior, and not have the student who may be trying his or her best, be spiritually smacked once again, with the feeling that their improving behaviors, even the slightest ones, are still not good enough. Flexibility is
human. Positive and specific behavioral recognition would point the student in the right direction.
3. Remember that "to teach is based on the ability to reach out," not the ability to hold back.

I do not feel it is a teacher's place to ever punish a student - but it is only our place to teach and in so doing with students who have behavior issues, we must teach them alternatives to their outbursts or defiance. Sometimes these are merely their only way of refusal or to let someone know of a desire. So, to hinder these outbursts or aggressive behaviors, we need to get to the root of the reasons for them and then teach them how to respond differently. I had a student who spit on the floor until he had to mop the men's restroom floor. Now he understands that spitting on the floor is a dirty behavior and he must not do that. He learned two things. Spitting is not ok; and custodial care of the floor. He might be good enough in the future to hold down a job that consists of mopping the floor. Who knows?

While the questions posed above engender impassioned responses, I don't know that they are fair responses to either reality, or the article that was referred to. The article provides a very in-depth portrait of teaching methods (such as hand-over-hand instruction and time-out) misused and abused as punishment mechanisms and resultant behavior regression in an autistic student.

Certainly it is reasonable for courts to put limitations on forms of restraint that result in serious injury or death. This is not the same as providing a free pass to the (growing??) numbers of students with disabilities. There is an enormous amount of mythology regarding discipline and students with disabilities. Meanwhile, students with disabilities are OVER (not under) represented in suspensions, expulsions and referral to the court system. There is a lot of hand-wringing over the dangers to the "students who really want to learn" when students with disabilities are included in regular classrooms. Yet, when examined, the educational neglect of such students is frequently frightening.

Most have heard of the teacher whose neck was broken by a student in Philadelphia. How many know that not only did this student have special needs, but that services specified in his IEP (intensive counseling) were not being provided. How many know that the student's parent had agreed to and signed permission for the student to be transferred (back) to a more intensive placement 3 months earlier (but no one had time to update the expired IEP)? How many know that the student did not attack the teacher "for now reason," but responded violently when the teacher was either pushed or tripped into the student as he loitered in the halls?

The point is--far more is known than implemented regarding the discipline (not punishment) of both special and non-special needs students. It is very easy to take a headline and run with it to create opposing camps. This is not serving us, or students, well.

We can have a nice rational discussion about these issues when a school has a managable number of special education students. But what about inner city secondary schools where 25 to 35% of students are on IEPs?

An investigation of the Philadelphia assault determined that 80% of that city's special education students who commit violent acts or other behaviors that merit referral to an alternative school were not processed. The prime reason was that the schools were not in compliance with the students' plan. That's certainly the norm in my school. Administrators do not ignore those offenses because they are incompetent or bad people. They simply do not have enough hours in the day to process violent, much less chronically disruptive special ed students. Our principals are instructed to not even attempt a Long Term Suspension of a student on an IEP if the offence involved a knife with a blade of 2 1/2 inches or less because our lawyers have learned that our people can't handle that complexity.

Most special ed students behave with great dignity. We have plenty of violence committed by students who are not on IEPs, but we do a decent job of assessing consequences for them. In every case that I can recall where victims were sent to the hospital but no real consequences were assessed, the perpetrator was on an IEP. Ironically, the victims usually are special education students, but who is going to stand up for their rights?

That's a tough one. We need to be trained into using different methods in the classroom.Sometimes you have to restrict them as they are endengering all individual's lives. Say for example a child gets violent and runs out of the room. The teacher runs after him / her and then the class goes unsupervised, leaving more children at risk. It's hard. The teacher has to protect foremost herself/ himself.

For John Thompson--I think the first question that needs to be answered has to do with why the number of students with disabilities is so high (35% is about twice the national average, I believe). While there may be some slight uptick in certain disabilities in relation to poverty--what you are describing is epidemic, if accurate. Of course, one of the accuracy problems has to do with limited screening for the role of appropriate education (or lack thereof) in producing the kinds of educational outcomes that frequently result in special education referrals. One study confirmed that school psychologists NEVER (not seldom) determined that school factors accounted for learning discrepancies, although they all agreed that school factors were among those that could explain poor learning.

Another study showed that one factor that influenced special education referrals was teacher efficacy (teachers perceptions about their own abilities). Teachers who had a high sense of efficacy were more likely to persist in teaching struggling students, while those with low efficacy were more likely to refer students to get them out of the classroom. Couple that with what we know about the steep teacher learning curve for the first five years and the differences in teachers hired by urban and other districts, and there is another possible cause.

Tackling these kinds of problems is likely to lower that too high percentage to a more manageable level.

However, the "out of compliance" situation with regard to IEPs is a further problem. While many teachers regard IEPs as "meaningless paperwork," without that document, there would be no way of determining whether schools are in or out of compliance. This is significant in determining whether a student with disabilities can be suspended for more than 10 days, or expelled, for behavioral issues. The two key legal questions (BTW--its more than a little frightening that the legal department thought this kind of stuff was too complex for staff to handle--unless the reality is that they didn't want to create records of how often they are out of compliance) are whether the behavior was related to the student's disability, and whether the district had followed the IEP in order to support the student in dealing with that disability.

Administrators who don't have enough hours in the day to "process" violent or chronically disruptive special education students (a small percentage) really begs the question of whether any special education students in the district are receiving Free and Appropriate Public Education.

“…use aggressive methods, like restraint and seclusion, to discipline misbehaving students…”

I have a problem with this statement. Is the child “misbehaving” or is the behavior a manifestation of the child’s disability? First question needs to be asked:

What was the child doing before the behavior?

Is it a child with sensory integration disabilities? If the answer is yes then is the behavior from the child going into sensory overload a manifestation of the disability. Restraint and seclusion will increase the sensory overload and send the child into more aggressive behavior. The child should be instructed to do a sensory diet activity to relieve the sensory overload and calm the child down. A child needs occupational therapy to learn a sensory diet which includes counseling and training for teachers and the parents. Problem is school districts refuse to recognize sensory integration disabilities and provide occupational therapy and parent counseling and training on how to do a sensory diet.

Is it a child with Central Auditory Processing (CAP) disability? Is the misbehavior the child did not follow directions and did not as they were told? This would be manifestations of CAP because the child my not be able to follow more then one or two step directions and did not remember what he/she was supposed to do. Repeating the directions and asking the child to repeat directions back will help the child to do what they have to do. Problem is school districts refuse to recognize CAP as a disability and provide speech therapy and parent counseling and training on how to overcome CAP.

Behaviors are manifestations of disabilities and how a child is responding to their environment. Behaviors are because a child has not learned copping skills and alternative appropriate accepted behaviors. Aggressive behaviors come from frustration, confusion and not being able to control what is going on in the environment the child is in. Appropriate counseling, therapy, methods and technology used and taught to a child can reduce and stop many aggressive behaviors.

The problem is school districts refuse to provide the services needed for these children. Everything is done by school district staff to distort the behaviors of what a child is doing in school. Denying and refusing to accept outside testing and evaluations that parents pay for on their children. Most of all claiming all therapies are medical and not educational as the excuse to delay and deny therapy in school. Until school districts are willing to provide appropriate services children are going to continue to be mentally and physically abused by school staff for manifestations of their disabilities and some children are going to die.

I can say all of this because I am a special education advocate who has done well over 1,000 days of due process hearings and have listen to the testimony of school district staff justifying why they delay and deny therapy to children. Here is an example:

3/4/03 page 262-263, lines 25, 1-10, Rebecca Johnson assistant coordinator of ESE of Highlands County School District Florida being questioned by John McClure school attorney: "Q. Would you briefly explain what is meant by a educationally relevant therapy? A. Yes. In the past 15 years approximately, the State has really refined school therapy. When we first started delivering therapy. OT and PT, to our students 20 some years ago, the emphasis was more on a clinical, on the clinical aspects. And we were looking at serving children with very severe unique needs. In fact, when we started services in our District, some 20 years ago, we contacted with agencies because the services were so scarce at that time." page 264 lines 2-20: "When I said briefly, we don’t need the whole history. All I really need is what is educationally relevant therapy in a nutshell. A. The educationally relevant therapy that we provide for our students allows our students, allows us to look at how our students function, how the student functions in the environment. The school environment consisting of bathroom, lunchroom, moving around campus, transportation, playground. All of those environments and areas that the student would operate within. And the therapy is designed to assist that student to access special education if they are needing and requiring therapy to be able to function in their Special Education program. We focus on the outcomes that are desired for that child for the goals. WE look at what that student needs to achieve and what that student needs to operate within the school environment. And those goals are determined by an I.E.P. team. If a student requires and needs therapy—"

9/17/03 Page 2711 lines 14-18, Highlands County School District, Florida, Connie Tzovarras ESE coordinator of ESE “Q. Isn’t it true that IDEA does not guaranty that that disabled student is going to receive those educational benefits, but just have access to them? A. That’s correct.”

It is cheaper for school districts to restraint and seclusion a child then provided them with the special education services they need. Every child who is being restraint and seclusion is a child who is not receiving a Free Appropriate Public Education. When the school districts what to help children with disabilities and address their needs we won’t have a need for restraint and seclusion in the schools. Linda D. Montalbano

I have worked in adult MRDD services, provided home instruction to Autistic children and managed in a self-contained MH classroom. All of which I have had to give up due to my own physical limitations.

I had some very successful interventions in my professional career but I had to leave traditional school setting due to 1 very difficult case. My classroom was consumed by the agressive violent behavior of one particular student. He was self abusive to the point he often injured himself at home. He would physically engage the classroom assistants or me. Administration and the parent would not concede the child needed and alternate placement-and the district did have such a placement.

I have worked with adults and children who engaged in defiant/oppositional behaviors. Students and adults in home, school and community settings who would act out due to sensory overlaod or communication frustration and managed to redirect to an alternate behavior or coping strategy without restraint.

I think School Psychologists and Behavior Specialists need to come down from on high and actually manage student behavior. Most of the comments I have been reading say classroom staff need to be appropriately trained. But most districts pay higher salaries to 'consultants' who have the certification to support the children in need. But in my experienece these people are themselves secluded in offices and only manage occasional visits to showcase a districts attempts to provide for student and teacher needs.
I became a teacher to help children learn and grow. I could have never imagined that would mean becoming a prison guard or mental health professional for students and thier families.

You need the cooperation of administrators and parents in order to establish expectations and guidelines for the students. They should not be subjected to anything unusual. They should be expected to cooperate, just like other students. They should be "punished" with in-school suspension, Saturday school, or whatever else is used for the regular students. They should be subject to the rule of law. They are citizens, and must learn to take their place in society.


I don't what school you teach in, but parents be ware of your child is in her class. As educators and there are many that are good and understand disabilities you would know that we set the example for our children. If teachers unnecessarily restrain these students then the students learns that when they are upset they should do the same to others, including teachers. Hello? Children learn what they are taught. Don't you understand that you are teaching the kids the same thing you are complaining about? As for the "rule of law" - if some teachers followed the "rule of Law", then perhaps we wouldn't be in this predicament. Let's stop pointing a finger at the kids and take responsibility for our own actions and come up with solutions. I'm sure you agree with taking responsibility for our actions. Pointing fingers at children may be easier, but if you don't have the patience to teach these children, then do the children, parents and society a favor - get another profession and stop making the problems worse and in part contributing to violence in our society.

I find it interesting that not one of these students that educators complain about only attack "certain" teachers and not others. hmmmm.

Carmen A.

I was interested in the contrast between replies from Carmen A. and Suzanne, both directly above mine. I did not see anything in Suzanne's response that should attract such venom as was displayed by Carmen. We should be working as a TEAM, here, not at loggerheads because of our different positions.

The first class I took in my Mild Disabilities curriculum was given by a professor who herself was the parent of a child with a disability. Her comments were that as educators we need to expect, teach, and model certain acceptable societal behaviors for ALL children, with or without disabilities. One of her examples was the child with mental retardation who is fairly high functioning but still regresses into infancy because of poor social skills. Her comment was that sometimes parents lower expectations and let kids "get away" with certain unacceptable social behavior that is deemed "cute" or "understandable because of the disability." The professor then went on to say that the behaviors which are unacceptable but allowed in childhood often remain with the individual into adulthood, when it no longer becomes "cute" or acceptable. In order to help students become well-adjusted and fully functioning adults in society, it is one of the jobs of educators to teach and model and expect certain social behaviors. While there are some things that students with disabilities may never be able to accomplish (none of us does everything perfectly!), it is in their best interests to give training for the future citizens with whom not only we but others in our community will be living.

I see it this way: each one of us, with or without disabilities, has had some training or behavior modeling of some kind. Our parents or guardians probably taught us that it was impolite to chew with your mouth open, rudely blurt out "You look funny!" to a guest, burp loudly, pass gas and laugh hysterically to draw attention to ourselves, cut in line in front of others, and etc., etc. As a mom I always cringed when my kids did some of these things in such an obvious way as to draw the eyes of all around them in a situation like this.

I understand that we need advocates to help guide, support, and protect the rights of those with disabilities. THat is an amazing committment, and I wish that others would consider doing the same thing. However, even advocates must see that to simply excuse ALL bad or rude or poor behavior is not in the best interest of their clients. Your client (our student) may lose a job because of their inability to cooperate with other workers, or may be kicked out of an apartment if they do not follow rules set up in the housing complex in which they live, or other such things.

While physical restraints are a last resort, in my years of teaching I have seen attacks on teachers who had not even opened their mouths to TALK to a student. One of my friends had her back to a student who ran clear across the room and began kicking, puching, and attacking her. The child had been working with another adult and something had set them off in such a way that they attacked my friend. Another (substitute) teacher told about a 3rd grader who had only the week before intentionally slammed a heavy classroom door on an assistant's hand and then smirked and said, "You can't do anything to me!" Now, balance that with the child who may be physically restrained for no reason at all, simply because a staff member is tired of dealing with them or unfit to teach, and you can see that there should be a real balance in how we deal with children.

Yes, if you are continually frustrated with your clients or the students with whom you work, maybe it is time for a break. But done condemn a professional who works day in and day out with these kids and has many challenges to face about which an advocate knows nothing. THe advocate often sees the child and his/her parents only when a situation arises. The teacher faces life with these challenges every minute of every day. No matter how an individual loves their job, it can be an emotionally draining committment. We need to support one another and not be so judgemental and ready to shoot someone down.

I would be interested to hear how much time Carment A. and Suzanne actually spend in daily, continuous one-on-one time with a difficult student. It is hard to do, but I believe that no matter what happened the day before, every morning should start our chances again...do not hold one bad incident yesterday against our students and show resentment towards them. Forgive and become wiser from the experience.

Martha Raye--perhaps I can elaborate on the Carmen's viewpoint, as I did not find it at all surprising, albeit blunt. You note that it is appropriate for teachers to "expect, teach, and model certain acceptable societal behaviors for ALL children, with or without disabilities." The problem that many of us as parents or advocates see is that 2/3 of this is ignored. Many teachers and administrators who speak as Suzanne did, "expect" behaviors without teaching or modeling them. IDEIA continues requirements that students with disabilities be TAUGHT behavioral expectations in ways that are appropriate to their disability. Now, despite these requirements, students with disabilities are OVER represented in suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to the juvenile justice system in nearly all states (in fact, I do not know if there are states where this is not true). The behavior that is modeled is flauting the law (backed up by statements such as those made by Suzanne).

While students with disabilities do have some protection under the law, fighting a school system is tedious, expensive and long. It rests on the ability of the parent to know and understand the law and to obtain legal representation (or represent their child themselves, as the Supreme Court has just allowed them to do). Meanwhile, students get older, and generally the fight that is won by one student has no impact on what is faced by other students.

Possibly the special ed teachers should learn more about the children they're teaching. Restraining, removing,isolation? This is the sad reality of the special ed system on our public schools. No wonder parents are looking for private school money! In my experience the road has been long, hard and at least half won at this point. My son was in a classroom with a spec ed teacher that made it impossible for him to do anything BUT act out. She gave him the same homework for a year and a half. Yes...SAME homework. day in and day out! When he rebelled, she punished him. He was terrified at school. He had an aide in her classroom. She wouldn't let his aide work with him. She had the aid working as her assistant. We got a non-public aide. The NPA was in tears every night and threatened to quite the assignment. During that time my son had no grades, the teacher didn't adhere to anything in the IEP. I'll skip the really ugly parts. Bottom line is, I found out that in our state, a special ed aide only needs 1 and 1/2 hours of training to work with kids with ASD. They have little to no training in other disorders of the children they're aiding. The teachers have what they learn in the classroom. They have no skills to deal with these kids so they isolate, ignore, remove and then say, "well what do you expect from these kinds of kids" Shame on spec ed teachers that have no passion or interest to teach. If they can't handle 6 or 7 kids with aides and TA's then they shouldn't be teaching. My vote is they need several years of training how to work with these kids. My child by the way, was finally removed from this woman's classroom when my new private aide threatened to quit. My son was doing school work that was 2 years behind his grade and the teacher allowed other students to steal from him and never said a word. My son is now in a mainstream classroom where he is shining. He's calm, including himself with the other kids, stepping with success into math and science that he lost two years on and beaming with pride and excitement each morning and night because he's actually being treated like a human being. His mainstream teacher has taken steps to talk with me personally about what he can do to recognize anxiety or to refocus in the classroom. Taking my direction he's successful. Unlike the Spec Ed teacher who told me she didn't nee/nor want my input. In fact, in the 1 1/2 years my son was in her classroom she spoke to me twice with a quick hello as she brushed by me in the morning as she scurried on her way. The other two times she talked to me we were in the IEP meetings where she did nothing but pat herself on the back. Incredible. I think students need protection under a law from spec ed teachers! And no..she not the only one I know....There's a handful and all they ever do is complain about how tough they have it. gimme a break.

I found this comment very interesting "You need the cooperation of administrators and parents in order to establish expectations and guidelines for the students. They should not be subjected to anything unusual. They should be expected to cooperate, just like other students. They should be "punished" with in-school suspension, Saturday school, or whatever else is used for the regular students. They should be subject to the rule of law. They are citizens, and must learn to take their place in society."
My response- How do you expect a child with a disability to cooperate just like other students...when they haven't ever been given the training/tools needed to do this?? We all learn by what is "modeled" to us...but for some, other factors have to be considered. Sensory Issues is one area...if a room is noisy and overstimulating to a child and this child acts out and is placed in "ISS" what have we "taught" this child? hmm lets see- "If I need a place for down-time, I act out, I get placed in a cubby by myself!!!" Well, that was really effective!! Sorry for the sarcasm... As a parent with a child with autism, and as a disability advocate I find that it is so easy for someone who has not had to "Fight the Battle" to give such broad, discriminating statements such as this. My mother has been a teacher for over 30 years, has her Master's Degree in English Lit AND Special Education and she as been a constant advocate in my son's IEP meetings...She has commented herself many times...that bad behavior doesn't mean a child is a behavior "problem" Every behavior is a way of communication!! Find out what is being communicated...show what is an acceptable way to communicate! I wish some people could walk a day not only in my shoes, but my childs!!!

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Natalie Mobley Proud Mom of Caleb (HFA) and Disability Advocate`: I found this comment very interesting "You need the cooperation read more
  • Mary Simons/ Parent: Possibly the special ed teachers should learn more about the read more
  • Margo/Mom: Martha Raye--perhaps I can elaborate on the Carmen's viewpoint, as read more
  • Martha Ray/Special Education teacher: I was interested in the contrast between replies from Carmen read more
  • Carmen - Advocate: Suzanne, I don't what school you teach in, but parents read more




Technorati search

» Blogs that link here