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.

What can an IEP do?

An IEP may include accommodations, modifications, special education services and other services (such as OT, PT, counseling, Behavioral Assessments and Plans, Speech and Language Therapy, Reading help, Social Skills groups), and assistive technologies. IEPs frequently assign a special educator to the child who acts as a liaison between teachers and parents to help keep track of assignments and to deal quickly with academic or behavioral problems that arise in a manner that fits with the child’s specific developmental needs. IEPs also typically include access to a learning center where the student can receive tutoring and support to finish assignments. What your child’s IEP would include depends on the specifics of his or her situation; it is an individualized program that is created just for your child with input from the people who know him or her best: your child’s teachers, special educators, and school administrators. As specified in the IDEA legislations, the goal of the IEP is to set your child up for academic, social, and behavioral success at school and to prepare him or her “for employment and independent living” in the future.

How do you get an IEP?

For your child to qualify for an IEP, he or she needs to have a disability which interferes with your child learning the general education curriculum. The process for applying for an IEP is complex. Understood.org and Wrightslaw.com both provide excellent overviews. You can find a detailed discussion of IEP law and the IEP application process in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy: The Special Education Survival Guide, by Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright.

Many families choose to consult with a Special Education Advocate as they embark on the path of seeking an IEP for their child. Special Education Advocates are professionals who guide families through each step of the IEP process from the initial request for an IEP evaluation from the school, to helping hire experts (psychologists, psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, lawyers) to conduct independent evaluations, to attending IEP meetings to offer advice and advocacy, and finally helping determine whether to accept or reject the school’s proposed IEP (or the school’s determination that the child does not qualify for an IEP).

Hiring an advocate and experts can be quite expensive. However, it is an investment in your child’s future. Special Education services are expensive and schools have limited resources. Even the most supportive schools can have a subtle bias towards restricting access to IEPs. Therefore, having your own advocate and your own independent evaluations is essential. It is important to find a qualified and experienced Education Advocate. Other parents at your child’s school who have been through the IEP process are the best source for recommendations. Another resource is the Yellow Pages for Kids (www.yellowpagesforkids.com).

To sum up: school behavioral problems are stressful for parents and distressing for children. Frequently, this misbehavior occurs because a child is struggling with an unrecognized cognitive, emotional, or learning issue. Treating the effects of these issues as if they were a discipline problem is counterproductive and makes everyone more miserable. Parents are often unaware of IEPs, or they think IEPs are only for children with severe disabilities. IEPs, however, can be a powerful solution to educational and behavioral problems in children with mild to moderate needs.