Behavioral needs and IEPs/504s

For a student whose behavior is impacted by their disability, it makes sense for the IEP to include behavioral goals indicating what changes may be valuable to see in the student’s behavior and what instruction and supports will be in place to work toward those behavioral changes. 

If your child is getting into a lot of trouble at school and this is causing them to miss out on learning (because they are being removed from the classroom, etc.), there are steps the IEP team should take to try and figure out how to address these concerns. 

Functional Behavioral Assessment

One of the first steps is to complete a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). This is an assessment that should be completed by a qualified school staff (usually the school psychologist, a behavior interventionist, or sometimes a cross-categorical teacher) in collaboration with the IEP team, which absolutely includes the parent/caregiver. The purpose of an FBA is to identify the specific behaviors that the child exhibits in the school environment and then determine what purpose those behaviors are serving for that child. 

The theoretical underpinnings of the FBA process is that, all behavior serves a purpose, and that there are four basic functions of behavior:

  • Behaviors to get something (such as attention, power or control, acceptance, or revenge); 
  • Behaviors to get away from something (such as task avoidance or escaping from a stressful situation); 
  • Behaviors that communicate something (such as crying or yelling to express anger or frustration); and
  • Behaviors that are reinforcing (such as behaviors that make a student feel better by helping them self-regulate or provide sensory stimulation).

Applied Behavioral Analysis

The FBA process will use a method called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) to understand the function of the child’s behavior in the context in which it is seen. This FBA study guide explains that ABA uses the “Antecedent → Behavior/Response → Consequence (A → B/R → C)” paradigm to fill in the blanks in the following sentence: When ___________ occurs, the student _________ in order to _________. 

Antecedent means “whatever was going on in the environment just before the behavior occurred”. Behavior/Response is exactly what the student did. Consequence means “what happened immediately after the behavior occurred?” - the consequence should include things that happened spontaneously, not just the “punishment” the student received for their behavior. 

For instance, if the behavior was that the student yelled, swore, and threw a chair, the consequence would include the responses of the other student, the immediate response of the teacher and any other staff present, as well as whatever happened after that (being sent to the office or spoken to by a different staff person).

School staff will begin work on the FBA through observation of the student in the classroom environment, but they should be presenting their assessment to the rest of the IEP team and gathering input in that context as well.

The importance of environmental factors

It is important to note that the “Antecedent” in that A → B/R → C model should consider environmental factors surrounding the student before the behavior occurred. In thinking about the antecedent, the IEP team should be considering things that may have triggered emotions and reactions in the student. This is a moment when a parent/caregiver often has insight that the school staff may not - you know what your child comes upset about at the end of the school day, and what may be likely to trigger emotional reactions in them and why. 

You may also be aware of a teacher or fellow student acting in a racially or culturally insensitive way toward your child. When it comes to intervention in behavioral patterns, it is incredibly important for the IEP team to be thinking about what proactive changes could be made to avoid triggering reactions in a student that lead to behavioral challenges, in addition to supporting the child to find ways to react adaptively. The onus here is not just on the student to make changes, it is also very much on the staff supporting that student. 

Avoiding patterns, not just reacting

Additionally, the goal from the FBA should be to identify strategies to avoid the behavioral patterns being discussed - not just different ways to react when those patterns take place. Another way in which you, as the parent/caregiver, are the expert is in recognizing when your child’s behavior may be misinterpreted by staff due to cultural differences between your child and their instructors. It is important for instances like this to be a part of the conversation when an FBA is completed.

Avoiding generalities

Be aware - the FBA process can be taxing and you may hear staff misinterpreting, minimizing, or mislabeling your child’s needs. For instance, staff might say that an “antecedent” or “trigger” for the child’s behavior is “when they don’t get what they want,” when really, the behavior occurred because the student was aware that they were being treated differently than a white peer in their class, or because someone was rude or unfair to them, or because the teacher spoke to them in a harsh tone that was triggering. 

Another common “label” applied to children who exhibit big behaviors is that they are “avoiding schoolwork” or are “work avoidant”. This is a very broad label and does not capture what needs to be figured out by the FBA. What type of work is the student avoiding? It it group work, because they are being bullied by other kids in the class? Is it presenting in front of the class, because they are very nervous about public speaking? Is it writing, because they continuously receive negative comments on this type of assignment?

The IEP team should be using strengths-based rather than deficit-based language to frame your child’s behavior. 

Behavior Intervention Plan

Once the IEP team has completed an FBA, it typically makes sense to also create a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) for the student to support changing the behavioral patterns that have been interfering with their learning. A BIP should be based very directly on the FBA conducted for that student, and should include specific strategies and supports. 

The intention of a BIP is to support the student in replacing behaviors that haven’t served them in the school environment with new behaviors to meet the needs their previous behaviors were meeting. Once a BIP has been created, it becomes a part of the student’s IEP, and school staff are responsible for implementing it as written.

This “Functional Behavioral Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plan Toolkit”  is a great resource to learn more about FBAs and BIPs. Appendix B of this document also has a number of tools and worksheets that can be used to complete both the FBA and the BIP. 

There is no legal requirement for schools to use certain forms to complete the FBA or the BIP - each district has choice in what forms and tools they will use. If you are just starting the process of an FBA and BIP for your student, it’s a good idea to ask the school to provide you with the tools they will be using to complete the FBA. If you believe there are gaps in their plan to complete this assessment, you can suggest that they supplement their process with other tools from this toolkit or other resources.

It is also important to know that there are certain times when the IEP team is required to complete an FBA and a BIP. 

  1. If a manifestation determination is conducted and the conduct in question is found to be a manifestation of the student’s disability.
  2. If the IEP team anticipates that seclusion or restraint may be used to manage the student’s behavior.
  3. If seclusion or restraint has been used with a student who has an IEP for the first time.

Manifestation Determination

As mentioned previously, a process called a Manifestation Determination exists to protect students with IEPs from being excluded from school due to behaviors that are a manifestation of their disability. 

This type of exclusion is referred to as a disciplinary change of placement define better - to clarify, this is not ISS, which refers to a student being removed from their current placement for 10 or more days in a row OR when there is a pattern of removals of 10 or more cumulative days over the course of a school year. 

According to this site, a pattern of removals exists if the student has been removed for more than 10 cumulative days in a school year and the student’s behavior is substantially similar to previous incidents. This document also indicates that factors like the length of each removal and how close together the removals happened can be taken into account when determining whether a pattern exists. 

A manifestation determination is an IEP meeting that takes place after a disciplinary change of placement is proposed, in which the team determines the answer to two questions:

  1. Is the behavior in question caused by or does it have a direct and substantial relationship to the student’s disability?
  2. Was the conduct in question a direct result of the student’s IEP not being implemented? 

If the answer to either of these questions is found to be “yes” by the IEP team, then the school may not follow through on a disciplinary change of placement.

A manifestation determination meeting must take place within 10 school days of the decision to make the disciplinary change of placement - either 10 days from the date that a notice of expulsion is provided, or 10 days from the date that the school district determines that a pattern of removals has taken place.

A manifestation determination is a difficult process to navigate, because the IEP team as a whole must come to a decision about whether or not the student’s behavior was a manifestation of their disability. This can put a parent in a difficult position at times, because they are typically outnumbered by the school staff at the meeting. The process is not supposed to be a vote, however, it is supposed to be a discussion among the entire team. 


The following is a bulletin from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction that provides information on the manifestation determination process:

The following is a guide for attorneys when preparing to support a family in a manifestation determination. It includes minimal legal language, so it can also be a helpful resource for you as a parent/caregiver and your support people when preparing for a manifestation determination: