This new series of articles is intended to help parents and caregivers learn how they can help their child with challenging behaviors successfully navigate through the services and supports available in the public school system. It is also intended to give information about the process to get appropriate help, who to contact if you disagree with assessment or services or have a complaint, and to give parents and caregivers information about where they can access information about the many services and supports available to help students succeed.
Children may have challenging behaviors as a normal part of childhood and adolescence. They may have problems learning or may get into trouble from time to time; they may have imaginary friends, seek attention from adults with negative behavior, have a number of fears, show off or use bad language to get attention, or exhibit aggressive behavior toward peers or family members.
Adolescents may forget their homework or fail to turn it in, refuse to follow directions, have a bad attitude, get failing grades or even get into trouble at school. All of these behaviors are typical behaviors that you might expect to see in adolescents at some point in their school life.
If these are typical behaviors, how do you know when the behaviors are a sign of a problem that requires a closer look? The answer is whenever a child’s problems at school are ongoing and interfere with their learning.
Additionally, if your child is intentionally harmful to themselves or others, is unusually fearful, is overly aggressive, exhibits dangerous behavior such as starting fires or is cruel to animals, these are also behaviors that require a closer look. Other indications that your child’s behavior requires a closer look are if your child repeatedly gets suspended, has few friends, and keeps to himself or herself all the time.
Unexplained cuts or bruises, mood changes, sadness, excessive anger, confused thinking, strange ideas, and difficulty completing daily tasks, are all signs that something more serious may be going on.
There are three things to look for in behavior that causes concern: intensity, frequency and duration.
Intensity refers to how much the challenging behavior interferes with the child’s daily life.
Frequency is measured by how often the challenging behaviors occur.
Duration refers to how long the challenging behavior lasts.
Generally, if the behaviors get in the way of your child learning at school, an intervention is needed.
The first place to start is with your child’s teacher. He or she may have already contacted you about the behaviors. Meet with the teacher to find out what is going on and to come up with a plan. Keep in mind that a child may exhibit behaviors at school and not at home, and vice versa.
You will need to work with the teacher to come up with a plan and to develop a way to communicate with each other about how well the plan is working. This could be with a weekly check-in notebook that goes between school and home, email, or scheduled weekly phone calls. Either way, identifying the specifics of how you will communicate is essential to the success of the plan.
If the child improves, then continue to stay involved. If not, your child may need more help.
At this point the school may have a meeting with you, the classroom teacher, and/or the school psychologist, behavior specialist, social worker, special education teacher, or nurse to develop pre-referral interventions. A pre-referral intervention plan is a structured plan of strategies to help a child who is struggling before making a referral for a special education evaluation. The plan is developed with input from the entire team and a future meeting date will be set, usually around 30 days from the initial meeting, to evaluate if the plan is working.
If the child improves, then continue to stay involved. If not, your child may need more help and should be evaluated to find out if he may need special education.
If your child is still struggling at school after the pre-referral interventions, or if you feel that your child’s needs are so urgent that the pre-referral interventions should be skipped, the next step is to request your child be evaluated for special education services. Special education services help students learn and do well in school. Having the right special education services can make a big difference in a child’s academic achievement.
You can request an evaluation by talking to your child’s teacher, principal, school social worker or psychologist. You can talk directly to staff or put the request in writing. It is recommended you put the request in writing, making sure you sign and date the request and keep a dated copy for yourself.
Once you have requested an evaluation, the school has 30 school days from the date the district receives your permission to conduct the evaluation to complete it. (Note: the 30-day period excludes holidays, weekends, and days that school is closed.)
The school must evaluate your child in all areas that may affect their learning. The evaluation my include hearing, vision, social and emotional health, general intelligence, and school performance.
When the evaluation is completed and if it has been determined that your child needs special education services, a meeting must be conducted within 30 days to develop an IEP. Services should begin as soon as possible after development of the IEP.
A child may not qualify for special education services if she has missed a lot of school and the evaluation determines that she has had a lack of appropriate instruction in reading and math. Clearly, ensuring that your child is at school every day on time and ready to learn is essential to a student’s academic and emotional success.
Good school attendance is also important in helping discern if a child’s problems at school are due to missed instruction or some other reason. Children who miss a lot of school may find keeping up or catching up difficult. Classroom instruction is a critical element in learning, and actually being in class has social benefits for students.
Next column: Special education — what it is, who is eligible for it, and how it may help a child.
Cynthia Fashaw is Children’s Program and Multicultural Outreach director for NAMI Minnesota. For more information, call 651-645-2948 or go to www.namihelps.org.