Five-year-old J.P. started kindergarten at his neighborhood school in September. Like many kids, he had never been to school before. Two days into the year, his mother received a phone call from the assistant principal complaining that J.P.’s behavior was disrupting the class. His offense? Getting out of his seat and playing with his shoelaces.

While the rest of the class would attend the full day of school, J.P. would now only attend half-days indefinitely, the family was told. After consulting with Advocates for Children, his parents asked for a specific action plan to target J.P.'s behaviors so that he might be able to return to school full-time. At his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting in November, school staff told them, “We’re not behavior specialists.” 

The school’s actions were not only unfair; they were illegal. Schools are mandated by the state to perform "Functional Behavior Assessments" (FBAs) and develop  "Behavior Intervention Plans" (BIPs) when the actions of a student with a disability or a student referred for an evaluation are impeding learning or leading to disciplinary action. The problem is, most school personnel (and parents) have no idea what these assessments are.

Thanks to a recent ruling by the New York State Department of Education (NYSED), schools like J.P.'s can no longer claim ignorance. J.P.’s story is one of 20   cases cited by Advocates for Children (AFC) in a complaint filed with the NYSED in April about the Department of Education’s failure to adequately use these behavior tools.   NYSED ruled that the DOE has made serious errors and ordered officials to take specific steps to overhaul the program.

“I get it,” said AFC’s Director of Litigation Rebecca Shore. “A teacher is in a classroom with 25 kids and there’s one kid who is demanding all her attention. There’s an instinct to get that kid out of your class. But I’ve also seen that if you address that child's behavior positively, you can reduce a lot of that interference.”

The complaint detailed case after case in which families were denied FBAs and BIPs or the plans were vague and inadequate. “The FBA is an assessment that by definition requires collection of data and observation over a number of days in multiple settings,” said Shore. Pinpointing the reasons or motivations behind the behavior can help staff come up with a plan. If a disruptive behavior always happens during writing activities, for example, maybe the student needs to sit close to the front of the room or receive extra support to help him stay focused and lessen frustration. “I hope that because of this [ruling], more schools will be addressing issues positively,” said Shore, “and less students will be punished and excluded from the classroom because of their behavior.”

When done right, experts agree that FBAs and BIPs can be incredibly helpful. Suzanne, the mother of a 6th-grader who preferred not to give her full name, said her son has struggled with his behavior in the classroom for years. He is highly gifted, but prone to extreme anxiety and physical outbursts. “He’s the kind of kid who should have gotten a behavior plan immediately when he was in 2nd grade,” said his mom. “Instead, they tried to kick us out.”

After things “got really bad,” in the middle of 2nd grade, Suzanne and her family began considering medication. When the staff at their son's school, NEST+M, said they didn't know how to perform a behavior assessment, the family decided to pay privately for one first. The behavior plan included making time for exercise breaks and finding a safe space for alone time, said Suzanne, who recalls how her son would often feel the need to hide or run out of the room when he was upset. Teachers also created a chart in which he could earn points toward a prize for specific behaviors such as sitting quietly on the rug or putting his book away when asked. "Things went from being out of control to within the range of normal in a week,” said Suzanne. Medication was no longer necessary. 

Carmen Alvarez is vice president of special education for the United Federation of Teachers. She and her staff field about 30 complaints each week, mostly about behavior problems and students not receiving services stipulated by their IEPs. "Behavior issues don't usually explode all at once," Alvarez explained. "When a kid presents with a difficult behavior, you either escalate it or diffuse it."

Alvarez believes that schools need a broader approach to behavior. “Schools need an infrastructure that allows for the staff to convene, discuss and write in a productive way. People need time to understand who this young person is and where the breakdown occurred so they can avoid the problem again.” Alvarez said that staffing shortages are a problem, noting that the number of school psycholgists has hardly changed since 1988 while the number of schools has nearly doubled. "It's not fair to expect someone to come out of a teacher training program with specialized knowledge about behavior," she said. "It's the DOE's job to give you that skill set."

When asked how Deputy Chancellor of Special Education Corinne Rello-Anselmi’s office plans to tackle the state demands, DOE spokesperson Marcus Liem wrote, "The DOE supports positive behavior by providing targeted supports to those schools that need it most as well as professional development, including mandatory training for all schools on behavioral supports and interventions for students with disabilities."

The DOE must meet specific benchmarks for improvement in January, May and June of 2014. Twelve schools will receive targeted training and submit detailed professional development plans. Still, for Alvarez, this may not be enough. “My fear about the ruling regarding FBAs and BIPs is that we will have documentation in which all the blanks are filled, but does it help the child? Not necessarily,” she said. “One child’s plan doesn’t change the culture of a school or the mood of a classroom.”