The IDEA requires that if a student with disabilities exhibits problem behaviors that impede his or her learning or the learning of others, then the student’s IEP team shall consider “strategies, including positive behavioral interventions, strategies, and supports to address that behavior” (IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1414 (d)(3)(B)(i)). Comments to the federal regulations indicate that if a student has a history of problem behavior, or if such behaviors can be readily anticipated, then the student’s IEP must address that behavior (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300 Appendix A question 39). This requirement applies to all students in special education, regardless of their disability category.

Neither the IDEA nor the regulations indicate what behaviors should be addressed in the IEP. The lack of specificity is consistent with the IDEA’s philosophy of allowing IEP teams to make individualized decisions for each student (Gorn, 1999). It is up to the IEP team, therefore, to determine which behaviors are significant enough to require interventions formally written into the IEP. Drasgow, Yell, Bradley, and Shriner (1999) inferred from previous hearings and court cases that these problem behaviors may include (a) disruptive behaviors that distract teachers from teaching and students from learning, (b) noncompliance, (c) verbal and physical abuse, (d) property destruction, and (e) aggression toward students or staff.

These problem behaviors should be addressed in the following manner. First, when a student exhibits problem behavior, the IEP team must determine if the behavior impedes his or her learning or other students’ learning. Second, if the team decides that the problem behavior does interfere with the student’s learning, they must conduct an assessment of the behavior. Third, the IEP team must develop a plan based on the information gained from the assessment to reduce problem behaviors and increase socially acceptable behaviors.

The results of the team’s decisions must be included in the IEP. This means that the IEP of a student with serious problem behaviors must include the information from the assessment in the present levels of performance section of the IEP. Because educational needs must be addressed by developing appropriate special education programming, the IEP must also include (a) measurable goals and objectives and (b) special education and related services that address the problem behavior. Moreover, if the student’s behavioral program involves modifications to the general education classroom, these modifications must be included in the IEP. When an IEP team addresses a student’s problem behavior, the needs of the individual student are of paramount importance in determining the behavior strategies that are appropriate for inclusion in the child’s IEP (OSEP Questions and Answers, 1999).

If an IEP team fails to address a student’s problem behaviors in the IEP, then that failure may deprive the student of a FAPE (Drasgow, Yell, Bradley, & Shriner, 1999). This could result in legal actions against the offending school district. The importance of including positive programming that addresses significant problem behavior in students’ IEPs was emphasized by Thomas Hehir, former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, who stated that “the key provision in (IDEA) is using positive behavioral interventions and supports” (Letter to Anonymous, 1999, p. 707) in the IEPs of students who exhibit significant problem behaviors. Failure to do so “would constitute a denial of the free appropriate public education (mandate of the IDEA)” (IDEA Regulations, Appendix B, Question 38).