The Individualized Education Program (IEP): A Powerful, Often Overlooked Solution to Behavioral Problems at School
Behavior problems at school are among the most frequent reasons that parents contact me about their children. Acting out in class, lying about having completed assignments, talking back to teachers, fighting with other kids, and even refusing to go to school are some of the issues that I am routinely presented with. If these sound familiar to you, then you’ve probably heard school staff use words like “oppositional” or “defiant” to describe your child. It’s also likely that your child has been given a variety of consequences for his or her defiant behavior: being held inside at recess, sent to the principal, or even suspended.
Although we all know kids do best when feedback is immediate, schools often expect parents to fix the problem. Of course, if parents could, they would. The reality is, as parents, we can’t provide immediate feedback to our child because we are not in the school building when the misbehavior occurs. It’s no wonder that most parents in this circumstance feel helpless and frustrated. In an effort to help our child, it’s not uncommon for us desperately to resort to issuing lectures, threats and punishments to try to get our kid to behave at school. What I’ve noticed in my professional (as well as personal) life is that our efforts to control our child, though understandable, rarely improve the school situation — but almost always create problems in our relationship with our child. It’s lose-lose.
What, then, can we do to help our child? The first step is changing our understanding of what the problem is. Viewing these behavioral issues as matters of discipline and responding with punishments (as schools often do), typically leads to an escalation of the child’s problems. Misbehavior at school frequently is caused by unrecognized emotional, cognitive, or learning problems: examples include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder, Executive Functioning Problems, Anxiety, Depression, or subtle learning issues (such as Dyslexia or Nonverbal Learning Disability). These conditions can make it extremely difficult for a child to comply with the academic and behavioral requirements of school. In other words, misbehavior doesn’t result from the child intentionally defying the rules, but because his or her emotional, cognitive, or learning problems make it so that he or she has a very hard time paying attention, sitting still, reading social cues, or understanding assignments. It is these missing skills, and their associated frustrations, that can quickly escalate into serious behavioral issues.
The misbehaving child needs supports and special education to develop the emotional, cognitive, learning, and social skills needed to handle the demands of school. No amount of punishment can ever teach these skills. Once we understand the real causes that lie behind our child’s misbehavior, we can utilize one of the most powerful tools for solving school behavior problems: the Individualized Education Program (IEP). In my experience, behavior problems rapidly improve once an IEP is in place.
What is an IEP?
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), if a child’s disability prevents the child from learning the general education curriculum, the child is entitled to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Under the IDEA, ADHD, emotional problems such as anxiety and depression, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and specific learning difficulties such as nonverbal learning disability and dyslexia are considered to be disabilities (for a full list of eligible disabilities see https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/special-education-basics/conditions-covered-under-idea).
An Individualized Education Program, as the name suggests, is an individualized (or customized) program of supports and services designed to enable a child to learn the general education curriculum. This program is created by the IEP team – composed of the child’s parents, teacher, special educators, and school administrator – who work together to construct an educational plan based on their knowledge of the child’s unique needs and abilities. An IEP is typically composed of accommodations (changes in how the child is taught so that the child can successfully learn the same material and meet the same expectations as their classmates), modifications (changes in assignments, usually to reduce demands on the child), special education services, along with OT, PT, speech and language therapy, counseling and other supports as necessary. Children as young as 3 can qualify for IEPs and receive services such as attending special education pre-schools free of charge.
You might not think that your child has one of these eligible conditions. He or she might seem to be doing “fine” academically. Your child might also be able to focus intently on video games or other preferred activities. It can seem like he or she is lazy or stubborn, and “just wants to do what (s)he wants to do.” However, one of these disabilities still may be present masquerading as a lack of motivation or oppositionality. The disabilities can be subtle and difficult to identify – even by experienced teachers – and require an evaluation by specially trained mental health clinicians. This evaluation typically involves cognitive and educational testing.
You might worry about your child being subject to stigma as a “Sped Ed” kid, or his or her Special Education record will make it more difficult to get into college. I have never seen either of these things happen in over 20 years of practice. Successful IEPs improve a child’s behavior, self-esteem, motivation and lead to much more success over the long run. Without an IEP academic and discipline problems can get much worse. The child starts to feel stupid or like a “bad kid.” Kids can develop a dislike for school, get angry, depressed, not try and act out more. When these negative effects occur, the child’s self-esteem and prospects for the future truly suffer.