Behaviors that Interfere with Learning

Federal and state laws provide guidance to educators regarding their responses to children with disabilities who exhibit behaviors at school that interfere with their own learning or that of others. But, how do you determine whether a behavior meets the regulatory standard for triggering these provisions of the law?


I worked on a case just over a year ago in which the student had been found eligible for special education as only OHI (see our new acronym glossary) on the basis of her ADHD even though she was also clinically depressed and receiving psychiatric treatment outside of the special education process. We’d first attempted to get the District to also find her eligible as ED, but the District created an offer of services and placement that seemed at the time to be legitimately intended to address all of her issues regardless of her eligibility category, so we didn’t make a big deal about the secondary eligibility category after a while, which we later regretted.


The services offered to the student included on-site counseling with the school psychologist assigned to our student’s campus. The problem was, as nice and well-intended as the school psychologist was, she was grossly under-qualified to provide adequate mental health support to a tenacious young lady with a psychiatric disorder. Without making a single effort to coordinate push-in mental health services by qualified psychologists and therapists so that she could remain in the LRE, the school district kept pushing a COE-operated special day school for students with emotional problems, even though it wouldn’t find our student ED.


The parents refused to consent to the COE placement on a number of grounds, not the least of which was that their 13-year-old daughter who engaged in loud, over-sexualized dialogues with whomever would listen would have been the only girl in her class of 13 emotional disturbed teenagers. Those poor boys wouldn’t have stood a chance. She would have stood that class on its ear in the first five minutes.? No one would have benefitted from that arrangement.


We thought we had things worked out. The IEP seemed like a step in the right direction once we got it all wrapped up. The goals were measurable. Everyone had a game plan and people were assigned to contend with specific issues. But, our student had needs that were too severe and demanding for the staff assigned to her case, as it turns out, and entirely beyond her control. Her biochemistry was a train wreck. Her psychiatrist was challenged to find a blend of medications that worked properly. She was experiencing side effects from some of the medications. She was far more difficult and mouthy than usual for several months while the attempts to develop the proper medication regimen were being made.


At some point, she said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and got sent to the office to talk.  While sitting in the office waiting to be seen, she loudly announced that she and her boyfriend should just come to the school with guns and blow everybody away.? She was immediately sent home and school site taff instantly initiated expulsion proceedings.


In accordance with federal law, a Manifestation Determination IEP meeting was called to ascertain whether or not the student’s behavior was a result of, or was significantly impacted by, her disability. Her parents and I thought it was pretty self-evident. The girl’s various handicapping conditions, including those for which she was being treated outside of the special education system, were documented in various reports and letters from her treating doctors and therapists over the years as well as the district’s own assessment reports.



However, when we got into the meeting, it very quickly became clear that the meeting already had a pre-determined outcome. It was a total sham. The principal had collected letters from this child’s teachers vilifying her for the record, many of which described her as “disturbed” and “irrationally angry,” which, of course, were the untreated symptoms of her mental health disorders. Combine this state of mind with the poor impulse control that come part and parcel with many cases of ADHD and a smart mouth, and you’ve got one of the most difficult children in special education to serve.



She was too much for the school psychologist, who really was not qualified to serve her needs, as it turned out. In California, where this case took place, school psychologists are not, by default, real psychologists. The title is a misnomer.


All that is required to be a school psychologist in California is a Master’s degree in school psychology and a special credential, much like a teaching credential, issued by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. There is no license from the California Board of Psychology, which licenses holders of PhDs and PsyDs as clinical psychologists, or the Board of Behavioral Sciences, which licenses holders of Master’s degrees and PhDs in Educational Psychology to practice as educational psychologists.


As a result, California law, specifically 5 CCR  3030, fails to require any kind of clinical diagnoses by school psychologists and, instead, provides non-clinical criteria by which children are found eligible for special education. This is the case even when the school psychologist involved also happens to be a licensed clinical or educational psychologist.


Because most school psychologists in California are not qualified to render DSM-IV diagnoses, such diagnoses are not used in the special education process at all unless conducted under the auspices of a mental health evaluation by a licensed psychologist acting in that capacity and not in the capacity of a school psychologist. Mental health evaluations are done through interagency agreements between local school districts and county mental health agencies.



The problem with our student’s situation was that the school psychologist who was supposed to be providing her with in-school counseling support was not a mental health professional and as much as she tried to do the best she could, she simply wasn’t trained or equipped to contend with needs as severe as our student’s. And, she was more than willing to admit it. She was a good person. However, the district chose to stand behind the principal of the school who clearly hated our student and simply wanted her off the campus forever.



I’m not going to take the position that this child’s behavior should have somehow been tolerated. It was atrocious and had no place in a learning environment. The point that kept getting lost on the district, though, was that her behavior was being influenced by her medication changes and her defective processing. Her judgment was impaired by her biology plus a cocktail of psychotropic drugs that weren’t quite working out. 



She was crawling inside her own skin most of the day. This made her agitated and easily set off, which still didn’t make the behavior okay; but knowledge of what she was going through should have led the adults involved to come up with an appropriate offering of supports and services that would help her overcome these feelings and function more successfully at school. These could have included the district consulting with her treating psychiatrist to make sure that everyone knew what was going on, as well as everyone involved working collaboratively towards common outcomes and responding consistently across all settings to her behaviors.



That’s not what happened, though. What happened was that the district decided to limit its examination of whether the behavior resulted from, or was impacted by, her disability to only her ADHD. The district argued that she had only been found eligible for special education as OHI on the basis of her diagnosed ADHD and, therefore, the examination was limited to that disorder only. We argued that the IDEA requires that once a child is found eligible under any category, all of the child’s educational needs must be met even if they are not normally associated with the disability for which the child has been found eligible.



Even if, arguendo, she really hadn’t met the eligibility criteria of ED, she nonetheless carried a clinical diagnosis of depression for which she was receiving medication in addition to her severe ADHD. Looking at the language of the statute, it seemed pretty straightforward to us: we had to determine whether the behaviors were the result of, or were impacted by, her disabilities, not her eligibility category(ies). And, her disabilities included ADHD, depression, and possibly bi-polar disorder, for which she had a provisional diagnosis.



It was never our intent to suggest that her placement remain unchanged or that everyone should pretend like what she did never happened. We simply believed that expelling her for something that wasn’t entirely within her control, being that it was, at least in part, a manifestation of her disability and depriving her of intervention, was counter-intuitive to what the situation required. We needed to beef up her programming, not kick her out of school and place the burden on her parents to figure out how to remediate her educational delays themselves. The school was just sick and tired of dealing with her and simply wanted her gone.



The whole thing ultimately got resolved in a confidential settlement agreement that achieved a more appropriate placement without expulsion. She also got her meds straightened out shortly afterwards, which made a huge difference in the success of her program.


My point here is that we got burned by accepting the earlier argument that “Once she’s in, she’s in and we have to serve all her needs regardless of her eligibility category; you don’t need us to find her ED to give her what she needs.” We didn’t push for the ED eligibility category back when we first realized that she qualified for it because we believed the district was nonetheless making a good faith effort to address all of her needs, including her behavior.



It wasn’t until later that we realized that our trust had been abused. The reason the district didn’t want to find her eligible as ED on the basis of her diagnosed depression was to leave itself what it thought would be a loophole it could exploit to get rid of her down the line and force the COE placement on her parents, which it again tried to do at the manifestation determination meeting.



On the record, the district vehemently denied that it had done any such thing, though it still couldn’t reconcile its story against the evidence otherwise also available on the record. Assessment reports, the hate letters collected by the principal from the student’s teachers, incident reports, comments on her report cards, IEP meeting notes and indications of teachers’ and parents’ concerns, audio recordings of IEP meetings – all of it captured the symptomology of the very things with which she had been diagnosed as well as our initial attempts to add the ED eligibility to the IEP prior to our decision to let that issue go.



The record also made clear the kangaroo court-style nature of the manifestation determination meeting. The district would have had some explaining to do had the case gone to litigation.



Children who have behaviors that interfere with their own learning and/or that of others are some of the most difficult students to serve. We’re going to devote several postings to the topic of behavior because it is such a complex issue. There are so many considerations and even more theories of how things should be done that it becomes confusing and overwhelming even to people who have been working with these issues for a while.


Both the IDEA and Section 504 have rules about how behaviors are to be dealt with when they involve children with disabilities. You can download the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ notice regarding appropriate interventions under Section 504 and the ADA by clicking here.

The IDEA’s implementing regulations include 34 CFR 300.304(b)(3), which states that the schools must use “technically sound” tests that “may assess the relative contribution of cognitive and behavioral factors, in addition to physical or developmental factors.” [Emphasis added.]? 34 CFR 300.4(c)(10)(iii) states that, as a related service, psychological services include “obtaining, integrating, and interpreting information about child behavior and conditions relating to learning.”


34 CFR 300.324(a)(2)(i) states that IEP teams must give consideration to special factors, including behavior. It literally reads: The IEP Team must … [i]n the case of a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior.”20 USC  1415(k) explains when a child’s placement can be changed on the basis of behaviors and describes the process by which the determination is made regarding placement when behaviors are the issue at hand.

State laws can vary. In California, we have The Hughes Bill (5 CCR 3001 and 3052).It’s pretty specific about what can and cannot be done.

Minnesota has some pretty straightforward regulations when it comes to identifying and serving children with behavioral problems. (See MAR 3525.1329.) Indiana’s special education rules contain language that define behavior-related terms and spell out processes for assessing and serving the behavioral needs of children with disabilities. (See Title 511 Article 7 Rules 32 – 47 and search the PDF using “behavior” as your search term.)


Research your own state’s rules and regulations to learn more about how the behavioral challenges of special education students are supposed to be responded to by schools in your area. You can access your state’s department of education, which should have a link to an online source for the rules and regulations, or at least a method of ordering a hard copy of them, by going to the US Department of Education’s directory of state agencies.


Please be sure to subscribe to our feed so that you can receive our next few postings, which will also be dedicated to dealing with behaviors that interfere with learning. If you have any comments or questions, please do post them.

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