Looking Beyond Behavior: Schoolwide Discipline and Individual Supports for Students with ASD

By — Autism Society
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

Consider the following scenarios: A student with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a behavior meltdown, in the school hall way. He begins to scream and hit other students. An adult is able to redirect the student and thus eliminate the behavior. Afterward, the team mets to discuss behavioral approaches for the future and to try to find out what led to this behavioral incident. As the team discusses potential reasons for the behavior, they discover that the student has been the victim of intense bullying and teasing. In response, the team questions what they can do in the future to eliminate behavioral dificulties. The issue of dealing with the bullies is never discussed .

Another student has a history of behavioral challenges that were minimal during elementary school, but have intensified in middle school. The team realizes that middle school presents special challenges because of changing classes and working with multiple staff. Accommodations are discussed that may assist the student in making numerous transitions throughout the school day. Despite these efforts, behavior incidents continue to occur. The behaviors are most likely to occur in the cafeteria or in hallways, which are incredibly noisy. It is suggested that in the future, in-school suspension be considered when there is a behavioral challenge. This is the approach used with other students, and the school has a strong zero-tolerance policy. The student is warned repeatedly. Despite these warnings, behaviors continue and actually escalate, resulting in removal from the educational setting.

Responding to Problematic Behavior

When a child with ASD engages in problematic behavior, a typical response includes trying to identify what is going on within the child that leads to this behavior crisis. Questions are asked, such as, “Why is he exhibiting this behavior?,” “Why is she hitting others?,” or “What will stop this behavior?” All too often, this last question keeps us focused on consequence procedures that are student specific. However, simply focusing on the student as the sole source of the behavior provides limited insight into potential solutions and problems. In these situations, there are multiple issues to consider.

First, the federal law guiding special education services, the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), requires special procedures and safeguards to be used when considering discipline for students with disabilities. These IDEIA provisions regarding discipline were designed to ensure that children with disabilities maintain their ability to receive an appropriate education, even though the symptoms of their disability may include behaviors that require interventions. These provisions consider the amount of time a student may be removed from class or school due to behavior, and require the school team to analyze whether the behavior is related to the student’s disability. This process is called manifestation determination. If the behavior is determined to be due to the disability, the law requires that a functional behavior assessment be conducted that results in an individually designed behavior support plan. This plan should use positive behavioral interventions, strategies and supports to address the behavior and teach alternative ways of responding.

When conducting a functional behavior assessment, professionals and family members examine setting events or triggers that may increase the probability of these behaviors. These setting events may not be readily apparent. For example, a student with ASD is ill, has had a difficult morning ride on the bus or has not slept. These conditions will increase the likelihood that a behavior incident will occur. For most of us, stresses in life, changes in morning routines or skipping our morning coffee may set us up to be moody and agitated. These are setting events. Setting events that we often do not consider are related to the culture of the school. Schools that struggle with bullying, high rates of suspension or expulsion, or even high staff turnover may be settings that promote problematic behaviors. If this is the case, then schools should take a systematic approach in creating a school culture that is responsive to students and staff.

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