Assessing Problem Behaviors in Special Education Students

In previous posts, we’ve talked about what “serious behaviors are” and how they can interfere with a child’s receipt of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). In today’s posting, I want to discuss how assessment of behavior can and should take place.

As with any other type of assessment in special education, the assessment of behaviors that interfere with learning must be done by a qualified professional. Specifically, the implementing regulations of the IDEA (see 34 CFR  300.304(c)(iv) and (v)) requires that assessments be administered by “trained and knowledgable personnel” and “in accordance with any instructions provided by the producers of the assessments.” This is particularly the case with standardized assessments, but you also have to bear in mind that, as a result of NCLB and its influence on the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA, the use of scientifically research-based methodologies and practices must be used to collect relevant data and develop appropriate programming for all children, including those with handicapping conditions. (See 34 CFR  300.35 and the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (aka NCLB)  9101(37).)

Many parents have attempted to litigate the issue of what constitutes appropriate assessment, arguing for the use of Applied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”), with mixed results. Many of these cases, however, have had to do with the pursuit of a scientifically research-based methodology proven to yield positive outcomes for children with Autism as an across-the-board instructional strategy. ABA is actually a method of analyzing behavior and applying that knowledge to whatever contexts are appropriate to the individual being served, hence the title “Applied Behavioral Analysis.”

What is known, regardless of what you call it, is that behavioral interventions are most successful when the function of the behavior is identified and addressed rather than the structure of the behavior. I can remember as a child getting into trouble for fighting with my younger sister and being told to “stop fighting” but no effort was made to actually resolve the disputes we were having. We were simply ordered to quit interacting in a displeasing manner, leaving our actual conflicts unresolved for many years. This is a perfect example of the adults in the situation addressing the structure of the behavior – what it looks like – rather than the function served by the behavior – that is, the behavior’s purpose. It’s treating the symptom rather than the disease.

For example, one of the students we have been representing is a high school student with sensory integration issues, high anxiety, and Autism. He is easily overwhelmed by noisy and busy environments and is tactile defensive, particularly once he reaches an agitated state. At that point, he will put his head down on his desk until he processes through whatever mental log-jam has occurred and is ready to return to his situation. When this happens, people need to leave him alone rather than add more stimulation to his experience so he can clear through all of the inbound data and return to a point where he is receptive to additional input. He’s gotten very good at self-regulating this way and will immediately return to his school work once he has mentally checked himself out by putting his head down on his desk for a couple of minutes or so.

This has been known for many years, now, but it seems to be the case that every so often a new person will be placed in his learning environment who disregards what is already known and thinks that he or she can somehow overcome this student’s neurology by doing things his/her own way. The last time this happened, our student had become, once again, overwhelmed by a very chaotic learning environment over which his teacher exercised poor control; he put his head down on his desk. While the aide assigned to him and the teacher left him alone, another aide in the classroom took it upon herself to go over to him and try to “speed up” his recovery process by “talking him through it.”  She didn’t understand that she was actually giving him more data to process and making it take longer for him to recover. She was actually making the experience increasingly painful to the student and when he told her to leave him alone, she made the mistake of putting her hand on his shoulder.  She intended it to be an encouraging gesture, but it was sensory overload for him at that point and his automatic response was to slug her.

There was no thought in his actions. It was a fight-or-flight response. When he realized what he had done, he was mortified. As with many people on the Autistic Spectrum, he is a very rules-based person and he has been raised by good parents who have made it clear that hitting is not appropriate. He knew what he had done was wrong and he was terribly remorseful. This put him into a psychological tailspin and the anxiety, which was already heightened in the first place, kicked into high gear. He developed somatic complaints of severe headaches and painful gastro-intestinal problems and began engaging in school refusal behaviors. His clinical psychologist found that the physical symptoms were tied to the anxiety he had about returning to that classroom and recommended home/hospital instruction until the situation could be resolved. The District arranged for a home instruction teacher to come to the house while things were worked out, which held him over academically and aided in his recovery from his emotional trauma, but he was unable to work on his socialization skills at home being away from the other students with whom his social skills work was being done prior to this event.

This is the kind of stuff that can result in a denial of a FAPE. One person who fails to take a student’s IEP seriously can undermine the entire program if he/she doesn’t respond to the behavioral issues appropriately. But the first step is identifying the function of the behaviors. What useful purpose do they serve to the student?  This information is needed not only to develop an appropriate behavior plan for a student, but also to appropriately implement it and suggest improvements to it over time.

In the example given above, the behavior in question was the student withdrawing from academic instruction. This behavior serves a useful function for the student and putting his head down on his desk was a positive replacement behavior taught to him when he was much younger at a time when his only response to over-stimulating situations was “I gotta get outta here!” and he would elope from the classroom, running across the campus as fast as he could to get away from the overwhelming situation. There were clear-cut environmental antecedents and behavioral antecedents that cued the adults in the room that he was reaching the point where he was going to need to “check out” for a couple of minutes. The consequence and, thus, the function of the elopement behavior was to permit the student to both escape from and contend with the sensory overload he experienced, as well as self-regulate. His nervous system just can’t take that much inbound data at once. It’s a manifestation of his disability.

What he needed, and what he ultimately got, was a more socially acceptable way of self-regulating in a situation like that. Essentially, he needed a socially acceptable tool that would let him go off “autopilot” and “steer the ship manually” as it were, making deliberate decisions about what to do with many pieces of incoming data, putting it all away in the proper processing centers of his mind, and clearing through the bottleneck of sensory information before returning to the academic task at hand.

That’s how behavioral assessment and intervention planning is supposed to work. From there, it’s all about training the staff on the intervention plan, implementing it in the day-to-day course of affairs, and collecting on-going data on its efficacy so that improvements and needed tweaks can be made to it as time goes on. The plan has to evolve at the same pace that the student makes progress towards the behavior goals in which the inappropriate behavior is not only extinguished, but replaced with a more appropriate coping strategy that sees the student’s evolving needs met.

Please keep your eyes open for our next posting, in which we will discuss the differences between FBAs and FAAs, and when each is meant to be used. As always, if you have any questions, please post a comment or email us at

0 thoughts on “Assessing Problem Behaviors in Special Education Students”

  1. My school district said that a behavior assessment and a manifestation determination were required before they could consider a 1:1 aid. And then they plan to put a 1:1 aid with my daughter for a 30 day trial and then do another behavior assessment. Is this a requirement? My daughter is in 1st grade and they have been trying to place her in a self contained room due to her low IQ. However, she socially functions higher than the other students in the self contained room and her behavior would obviously regress due to her pro social and extreme copy behavior. My daughter has had a few discipline referrals where she has said a few bad words. The children on the playground taught her some words, told her to say them and then turned her in. This went on for a little bit until we could figure out where it was coming from. Other than that, there havent been any severe discipline infractions. Is a manifestation determination and a functional behavior assessment needed or should I suspect this is documentation to prove that my daughter should be in a more restrictive environment. I hate to be negative, but I have lost trust in my schools special education director. Yes, I am from Arkansas ;-(

    1. J,

      The federal regulations have no such requirement and Arkansas’s regulations pretty closely mirror the federal regs for the most part. To get a better handle on your situation, I researched Arkansas’s regs knowing that there is no federal requirement under the IDEA to conduct a behavioral assessment and/or a manifestation determination before assigning an aide as a special education or related service. I looked to the regulations for Arkansas and found that the language describing situations under which a manifestation determination must be conducted says it is only in response to a serious behavioral issue that results in a suspension of more than 10 total days or a cumulative total of more than 10 school days of suspension in a given school year (see pages 30-32 at, which is consistent with the federal requirements for manifestation determinations.

      That’s the thing: a manifestation determination is required under the IDEA in every state when you’ve got kids missing more than 10 days of school due to behaviors. There has to be a team decision regarding whether the behavior is the manifestation of something related to the student’s disability or not. If it’s related to the disability, then the IEP team must create IEP content to address this area of need. If it’s not related to the disability, even indirectly, then it can be treated as any non-disabled student’s discipline issues would be. That’s the purpose of a manifestation determination – to determine if the behavior is the manifestation of the disability.

      1:1 aides are assigned to kids’ IEPs all the time without a behavioral assessment or a manifestation determination. Reading between the lines, I can only presume that your district is reserving aides only for children with behavioral problems and, even then, only once they’ve become severe enough to warrant a manifestation determination – meaning, only after a lot of avoidable suspensions that not only failed to remediate the behavior but also which resulted in much missed academic instruction. This isn’t okay, if so.

      Like any other aspect of an IEP, aide support is supposed to be individualized to the unique needs of the student for whom the IEP is written. Some students have such poor attention spans that they need constant outside prompting and redirection just to receive basic instruction … including instruction on the importance of paying attention! It takes a lot of time to get through to these students the importance of paying attention to what is going on around them, mostly because they fail to notice many obvious things and struggle to understand cause-and-effect relationships.

      Life is a disjointed wreck for a lot of these kids out of the gate and it takes longer for them to mature as a result; maturity is necessary for them to appreciate that everyone else is not necessarily experiencing life as a disjointed wreck and that there is actually a fair amount of predictability in the world. Only then can they be taught how to force themselves to focus and better recognize how things are connected. Until then, they have to be prompted along with the external support faded as they become more independent.

      Some students don’t need so much hands-on support as there needs to be on-going data collection that general ed teachers don’t have time to handle. A lot of aides are now being used to collect data for properly developed data-driven behavior programs rather than simply shadow students. In the past, aides were often assigned for no other purpose than to shield kids from bullies or make sure kids got all their assignments and materials into their backpacks at the end of the day, which often inadvertently reinforced learned helplessness rather than taught independence. Now, aides can be assigned to settings rather than to students, completely outside of the IEP process, or they can be assigned to individual students to be used in whatever capacity is most appropriate to each student’s unique needs.

      Aides are not always used for children with behavior problems. When used for direct intervention with students rather than just data collection, aides are used to facilitate instruction, reinforce teaching that occurred during formal instruction once the student has to apply that knowledge to real situations or assignments, and assist with health or mobility issues. Aides are tools and how they are used is supposed to depend on the situation. If your district is limiting the use of aides to only children with behavior problems who have undergone formal behavioral assessment and a manifestation determination process, then it is limiting this service to a very narrow population of students and potentially denying a FAPE to any student who doesn’t fall within this population but who nonetheless needs an aide.

      All that said, there is nothing wrong with a district developing legitimate processes and procedures by which the information is provided that is necessary for the IEP team to decide if an aide is needed or not and, if so, in what capacity. What services and supports are provided to a student so that his or her IEP goals can be met is an IEP team decision. No assessment decides whether a child gets a service or not. Assessment data and information from the classroom are used to inform the IEP team as to what the student’s needs are and the services and supports that are most likely to result in a FAPE are selected based on what is necessary to meet the goals in the Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”).

      Having a 1:1 aide can be a stigmatizing social liability for some kids with special needs. The team is obligated to make decisions that help, not make things worse, so all factors have to be taken into consideration. Sometimes an aide really isn’t appropriate. Other times, it’s more of an issue of how the aide will be used than whether or not an aide is needed. Then you’re just talking about division of labor and logistics.

      As for what hidden agenda might be behind all of this, I have no idea. The district could be trying to make a case for a more restrictive setting. It may be warehousing kids as a supposed cost-saving maneuver, in which case, the system is set up to funnel kids with special needs into overly restrictive classrooms and this district aide policy could be part of that construct. Or, they could be pinching pennies by cutting aide costs, unlawfully limiting aide support to only the most severe situations – which happen to be the cases that have the highest likelihood of spurring litigation. Or, the district could be doing both and more. In the end, why it’s doing it doesn’t matter – it only matters than it’s doing it and it’s not supposed to be doing it. Your daughter is entitled to a FAPE in the LRE.

      If your child has a legitimate need for an aide, then assessment for aide services should include observation of your child in her school environments and analysis of the outcomes being targeted by her IEP goals. (This, of course, presumes that she has goals in all areas of unique need and that they are properly written.) If there are any goals that are at risk of not being met for which properly used aide support could be used to increase the likelihood of the goals being met, then the IEP team has to seriously consider 1:1 aide support as a possible intervention.

      If there are no other interventions that can achieve the same ends or if any of the alternatives would either unduly decrease the student’s placement in the least restrictive environment or create more barriers than it would eliminate if used in less restrictive settings, then it will often be the case that an aide is necessary. Aide support should not result in aide dependence. One-on-one support should be faded and kept at a minimum to facilitate student independence, but you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Withholding 1:1 support when it is needed and letting kids flounder unsupported on their own is recklessly irresponsible. For more info on aide support, see our blog. “‘Velcro® Aide’ vs. Learning Facilitator”, post at


      1. Wow! You are a wealth of knowledge! I have researched like you have and came up with very similar on IDEA and AR regs. Thank you so much for verifying. The most frustrating part is that I am trying to do all of this while keeping up with a full time job during the day and a full time job of taking care of my daughter in the evening. There is very little time to stay on top of all of this and it can be totally exhausting mentally and physically.
        I believe the district is interested in doing this primarily for a self contained placement recommendation. The background on this is that they did force a self contained schedule on my daughter even though her IEP said she was placed in regular classroom. They sent the schedule following an IEP meeting and said she would go to that placement…. I refused it, they said try it, I said it was inappropriate, ( and it was VERY inappropriate at the time due to construction of the building, she would have been with severe and profound students although she is mild. Anyway, I took her to school for her speech/OT and then took her home and then took her back for resource and specials. After 30 days they tried to force a “stay put” into self contained during another IEP meeting. It was a very bad emotional meeting where they were quoting laws and regs to me that I told them to check, they checked and said, ok, sorry our mistake. I explained that she had NEVER been in self contained… and that she had also not received the 90 min of OT a week for 3 years but instead had received 60 min a week. This I found as going through ALL records in a panic. After bringing this to their attention, she was immediately placed back in to her regular classroom the next day. The special ed director gave me papers with an offer to accept compensatory education at the rate of 30 hours regular instruction either after school or in summer to make u for the days she was not in regular classroom. They actually held an IEP, taped the meeting and handed me the paperwork to sign. I signed nothing….. it didn’t seem right to me and the paperwork was not correct. They have not acknowledged the OT yet, however, I made sure that I specifically brought it to their attention again on the tap. Because of these incidents, the school had really started documenting, but I feel like they are trying to protect themselves, place her in a self contained room and document. She has a low IQ … their full scale was in the 70’s I believe and also severe ADHD. She if failing miserably and has not had the appropriate support in the classroom since the first day of this semester. Last year she was in a co-taught classroom… she struggled, but she did make progress. ( she is 1st grade). There have been discipline referrals, but she has been suspended about one day or 1 ½ days all year. She has interrupted class by crumpling her paper or flapping a page ( she has commuciation/sensory issues similar to autistic features but is not diagnosed autistic), repeated bad language the kids at recess told her to say.

        I visited this site as my main concern is avoiding setting my daughter up for failure by allowing the school to do a functional behavior assessment on her that is poorly written or that is written in a way to meet their needs versus hers. I think a FBA is valuable, but only if carefully written. The district says that they send in their employee, she observes, they put a 1:1 aid in for 30 days, and then the 1:1 aid comes in again to see if the intervention worked and she writes her recommendation. I am not trying to force a 1:1 aid. I am trying to keep her out of self contained and maximize her support in regular education. I believe they want to document this help and that it didnt work as their placement decision as I kept seeing “placement decsions” when I looked up manifestation determination and also behavior assessement. That is what has alerted me to worry about motives.

        1. Wow! That’s a lot of stuff going on. I am so sorry that this is going on. Your daughter has a right to placement in the least restrictive setting she can handle with supplemental supports and services. There is a whole continuum of placement that IEP teams are supposed to explore. If you disagree with the District’s assessment data, you have a right to a second opinion at the District’s expense by the assessor of your choice – and that’s for any kind of assessment, including assessment of your daughter’s inclusion needs, which is basically what this aide assessment is. The only way the District can lawfully deny your request for a second opinion is to take you to hearing and prove that its own assessments were adequate. If their assessment data is flawed and they use it to argue for a more restrictive setting, you’re probably going to want to buck the system on that one. You may even have to file for due process to invoke stay-put so they have to keep her in the last consented-to and implemented placement until the disagreement is resolved. Hopefully things won’t go that far!!!!

          1. she has been diagnosed with mild/moderate cognitive challenges, sensory challenges, ADHD and anxiety. She is on medication and the majority of this is under control. I believe that with proper supervision and re-direction she is easily managed. She is easily managed a lot of the time without re-dirction and by just attending class. However, she is not passing the class. The behavior became more of an issue this year when I asked for an IEP meeting to discuss her regression and failing grades. She is below grade level and way below reading level that she should be on.

            after i refused placement in self contained, the documentation on behavior seemed to change and increase. ( and at this time their self contained placment was very inappropriate for her with severed to profound students in it)

            does she need to be at grade level to stay in regular classroom? can modification be made to the curriculum and she stay? how much is allowed? the biggest difference in accomodations and modifications is? How much is allowed and how much is realistic?

            I am not understanding the middle ground when an aid is needed or how this would work for/against me. I dont think that an aid is always a good idea, but i do think it gives the parent some peace of mind knowing that someone is there. Because of the actions of the special education director in the past, I am uncomfortable about putting this in her hands. She doesnt seem sincere when searching for solutions, she seems to be documenting to prove a placement.

            what is the deciding factor on behavior and cognitive ability that would place a student in regular or self contained? Is this a gray area or is it easily defined? I know that you said, least restrictive that she can handle, how do they assess if she is “handling” it? is some of this tied to the tolerance of the teacher and district or is it easily assessed?

            by incorporating the 1:1 aid for 30 days and seeing if it shows improvment, should they tell me in advance what they are assessing and what areas they are looking for improvement? shouldnt these things be identified in advance and shared with me? I am learing of them just saying ” do we have your permission to just send someone in to assess behavior” without sharing additional information with me or without the assessor having information from me.

            they said that they do not want me to talk to the assessor in advance as that might make her assessment more biased. is this normal and best? i had just assumed that talking in advance would keep everything more accurate and allow her to look for behaviors that matched the diagnosis.

          2. Well, these kinds of questions are matters of substantive appropriateness rather than procedural law. This is the kind of stuff that gets left to expert opinion rather than regulation. The way you tell what a kid can handle is through assessment, which may include observations in various school settings to see how she does with help and without it. And, these assessments have to be conducted by qualified experts.

            Here’s another related question for you, though: has the District assessed her for an autism spectrum disorder? I know the law in Arkansas for identifying kids as eligible for special ed due to autism is a catastrophic disaster requiring something like 3 different diagnoses from 3 different professions (which is diagnostics, not identification for special education, so I don’t understand how the feds are okay with this), but the handicapping conditions you’ve described lead me to suspect an ASD. Of course, she’s more likely to get help under her current eligibility and jumping through Arkansas’s autism hoops would probably not gain you anything, but the principle of it just chaps my hide. Her needs are what are supposed to drive the content of her IEP, not her eligibility.

            Really, what it sounds like you need here is an outside expert who has no investment in the outcome one way or the other to make recommendations for what constitutes as the least restrictive environment for your daughter and what supports she would need to be successful in a less restrictive setting than the one the district is trying to cram down your throat, presuming she could be successful in a less restrictive setting with appropriate supports. An educational psychologist with an understanding of placement in the LRE would likely be able to help you with this. You need evidence of your child’s actual needs and professional recommendations for what constitutes the LRE relative to her unique needs in order to clear this obstacle. You could disagree with the district’s assessments and ask for an IEE at public expense (i.e., a second opinion paid for by the district), but they may fight you on it. The only way they can turn down your request for an IEE is to take you to hearing to prove their assessments were appropriate, but then you’re going to have to produce evidence to show why the district’s assessment was poor, which means hiring someone at private expense to do the independent assessment and going after the district for reimbursement of the assessment costs after the fact.

            The reason I bring up a possible ASD as an assessment question is because if this is a legitimate area of suspected disability and the district failed to assess for it, it could be grounds to disagree with the district’s assessment and ask for an IEE at public expense. In the process, you can also point out that the district’s assessment failed to adequately inform you regarding your daughter’s placement needs, which could be asserted to have deprived you of meaningful parent participation in the IEP process as well as an overall shortcoming of the assessment that has compromised the IEP team’s ability to develop an IEP that is reasonably calculated to render educational benefit, including placement in the LRE.

            This is all very, very involved, however. I’m inclined to recommend that you get an attorney involved and see what he/she has to say.

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