Solutions to High Suspension Rate for Students With Special Needs

A misbehavior incident should be seen as an opportunity for the school staff to reflect on which interventions are currently in place and shore up the school supports they can lean on.
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A recent New York Times article reported that students with special needs are being suspended almost twice as often as their nondisabled peers. The Times cited a new analysis from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies: 13 percent of disabled students in kindergarten through 12th grade were suspended during the 2009-10 school year, compared with 7 percent of students without disabilities. For a group of students already at-risk, these statistics are disheartening and alarming.

Suspensions are a reactive punishment commonly used in situations where preventative measures are called for. Once the behavior incident has occurred teachers and administrators have far fewer strategies at their disposal. To achieve behavior change we need to focus on prevention so students don't have a reason to resort to inappropriate behavior. A misbehavior incident should be seen as an opportunity for the school staff to reflect on which interventions are currently in place and shore up the school supports they can lean on.

The school staff uses suspensions to deter behavior problems in students, however just the opposite is typically achieved. In fact, suspensions contribute to increased anti-social behavior in students, as well as an increase in drop-out rates. These special needs students face a lifetime of inequality. They are already at risk for suspensions and higher drop-out rates, so it's important to refrain from widening the gap between them and their non-disabled peers. A greater detachment between school and students with disabilities results in dire consequences for both the students and the larger community. Over a student's lifetime, the loss of income and costs of possible crime and incarceration are devastating. When we push these at-risk students out of school we condemn them to bleak futures.

The schools aren't to blame. Disrespectful, defiant and disruptive behavior is definitely on the rise, which leaves teachers struggling to provide safe learning environments. The suspension rates for students with disabilities reflect a lack of knowledge about effective strategies for dealing with these students. Obviously, overlooking unacceptable behavior is not an option. Schools are looking for effective alternatives that will reduce the students' behavior problems.

Suspensions should only be a last resort. Typically they should be the final response to behavior that has been accelerating. Most likely, suspended students had been exhibiting lower level behavior issues for some time, but despite best efforts no one had intervened effectively. Without intervention the underlying cause of inappropriate behavior isn't addressed and the incidents may escalate.

Students can be taught necessary skills when schools attend to the underlying causes to the student's behavior and try to curtail the behavior problems early. These accommodations in addition to explicit skill instruction will pay off with the desired increase in appropriate behavior. Once staff members proactively look at misbehavior incidents as puzzles to be solved -- instead of reacting to the actions of a "bad child" -- they will be off to a good start.

Today, schools can benefit from the expertise found within their buildings, such as school psychologists, social workers and special educators. These talented people, if freed up, can consult with the teachers. Districts can also pool resources, supporting students with special needs who exhibit challenging behavior by creating systems where more help can be provided. Professional development offered to teachers and specialists on successful strategies and preventative techniques for student behavior should be a priority among the daunting numbers of school initiatives.

The good news is the solutions are available in most school systems. When teacher training and expert intervention are combined, the rates of suspension for students with special needs will begin to fall. This will ensure a more productive school environment and a more positive future outlook for students with special needs.

Jessica Minahan, M.Ed, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator in the Newton, Massachusetts public school system. She is the co-author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, written with Nancy Rappaport, M.D. (

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