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IEPs: How IEPs can help with behavior challenges

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Does your child have trouble following the teacher’s rules? Are you getting a lot of calls from the principal? 

An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, can do a lot of things to help with behavioral challenges in school. 

But as you explore getting an IEP and putting it into action, things can get confusing. Along the way, you might run into wonky terms like FBA, BIP, and manifestation determination. 

Those terms might all sound confusing now. But in this episode of Understood Explains, host Juliana Urtubey will help you understand what they mean and how they can help your child make progress in school. 


[00:46] Does my child need behavioral support at school?

[04:20] Can my child get an IEP for ADHD?

[05:50] What is a functional behavioral assessment?

[06:58] What is a behavior intervention plan?

[08:50] Can schools discipline kids with IEPs?

[10:33] Key takeaways

Related resources


Juliana: Does your child have trouble following the teacher's rules? Are you getting a lot of calls from the principal? IEPs can do different things to help with behavior. Along the way, you might run into some wonky terms like FBA, BIP, and manifestation determination.  But by the end of this episode, you'll understand what these things mean and how they can help your child make progress in school. 

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains IEPs." My name is Juliana Urtubey, and I'm your host. I'm the 2021 National Teacher of the Year and I'm an expert in special education for multilingual learners. And a quick reminder all of the season's episodes are available in English y en español. OK, let's get started. 

[00:46] Does my child need behavioral support at school? 

Does my child need behavioral support at school? This is a really important question, and as a teacher, I wish more parents would ask about this. Many families have a pretty old-fashioned idea of what special education is. They may think it helps mainly with academics or services like speech therapy, but there's a lot more that special education can do. 

If your child qualifies for special education, the team will customize your child's IEP or Individualized Education Program, and this plan can help with pretty much any type of behavior challenge like how to get started on tasks, how to get along with other kids, and even how to ask for help. The important thing to keep in mind is that behavior is a form of communication. Kids often have trouble expressing how they feel or what they need, and the IEP team can help translate what your child is trying to say. 

So, if you're debating whether your child needs behavioral support, here's a key question to ask, "Does my child's behavior interfere with their learning or with other kids learning?" If the answer is yes, then by law, the team must consider ways to address those behaviors. And in particular, the team needs to consider using a system called PBIS Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. I'll put a link in the show notes if you want to learn how PBIS works. 

But the big picture here is that there's a positive way to help kids with behavior challenges instead of just disciplining them. Schools can teach kids how to behave and reward them for meeting expectations. And this is all really important because behavior challenges can get in the way of making progress at school, even if it's something that doesn't seem like that big of a deal. Like cracking jokes to get out of schoolwork. 

Whatever the behavior challenge is. Talk with the IEP team about it. Together, you and the school can develop IEP goals that can help your child learn how to replace challenging behaviors. Now, earlier this season, we talked about using the SMART acronym to help develop annual goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound. The team can use this acronym when developing annual goals for behavior, too. 

And let me give you an example of a behavior goal for a fifth grader who has trouble getting started on tasks. It might read "By June 1st, when Ariana is given a task or direction, she will start that task within one minute, and with no more than one verbal prompt from a school staff member. She will succeed in doing this in four out of five opportunities as measured by a teacher or paraprofessional."

Here's another example, and this one's for a 10th grader who often calls out in class. "By April 30th, Jalen will track his behavior for a week and wait to be called on in five out of seven daily classes, as measured by his teachers." Now, what do we like about these goals? They're specific. They're measurable. They're all the things you want in a SMART goal. And if you want to learn more about how to set annual goals in your child's IEP, go back and listen to the previous episode. 

And remember, you are an equal member of your child's IEP team. So, if you have an idea for a behavior goal, suggest it. And if a new behavior issue pops up after you've already finalized the IEP, you can always request another meeting and talk about adding more goals. You don't have to wait. You can advocate for what your child needs now. 

[04:20] Can my child get an IEP for ADHD? 

One question I hear a lot from parents,"Can my child get an IEP for ADHD?" And the answer is yes. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, has 13 disability categories, and ADHD is part of the category called "Other Health Impairments," which we talk about in episode five. 

We also talked about how IEPs can include more than one disability. So, let's say your child has dyslexia and ADHD. It's important for the IEP to include both. The big thing to remember here is that to qualify for an IEP, the disability needs to affect your child enough to need specially designed instruction and supports. And with ADHD, that instruction could involve being taught skills or strategies for things like organization or impulse control or task completion. 

But if the ADHD symptoms are relatively mild, your child might not qualify for an IEP. And if this happens, the school might recommend a 504 plan instead. This type of school support is easier to qualify for and can provide classroom accommodations, like sitting near the teacher and taking tests in a quiet room with fewer distractions. 

A lot of kids with ADHD have IEPs, and a lot of kids with ADHD have 504 plans. If you want to learn more about the difference between these kinds of school supports, go back and listen to Episode 2. 

[05:50] What is a functional behavioral assessment or FBA? 

What is a functional behavioral assessment, or FBA? This is a term you might hear if your child is having behavior challenges at school. And the goal of an FBA is to figure out why a child is behaving in disruptive or challenging ways. As part of the FBA, the school interview the student and family, observe the student in class, and analyze any behavior incident reports, like getting sent to the principal's office. There might be some additional testing too. 

Sometimes schools will do an FBA as a part of the evaluation process to see if a child qualifies for special education. And the school may need to do an FBA for a child who already has an IEP if a new behavior concern arises. But as a parent or guardian, you can also request an FBA. And it's a good idea to put this request in writing and to keep a copy for your records. 

Remember, the goal of an FBA is to figure out what's fueling the behavior. This information will help the school develop a support plan, and we'll talk more about that in the next section. 

[06:58] What is a behavior intervention plan? 

So, what is a behavior intervention plan? This is a formal written plan that teaches and rewards positive behavior. Lots of teachers like me call it a bip, but you might hear it called BIP. BIPs are designed to help prevent behaviors that get in the way of learning. There are three key parts to a BIP. It names the challenging behaviors, describes why they're happening, and it puts into place strategies or supports to help.

For example, BIPs can be great for students who struggle with social skills and aren't sure how to connect with others. One of my former students, who we'll call Eduardo, often hit others and called them names because he had trouble expressing what he needed or wanted. So, as a part of his behavior intervention plan, I taught him how to take turns and interact with his peers. I also made a daily chart where the words would reflect on his goal of speaking respectfully to others. 

There was also space in his chart for his general education teachers to give him feedback. And every day we'd write a quick note to his family to celebrate his growth. We also set up his BIP so he could earn special activities to help him stay motivated. But the ultimate motivation was the positive connections he started making with his peers. Eduardo made so much improvement that year thanks to his BIP and like an IEP, a behavior intervention plan will bring together a whole team of people to focus on your child's needs. 

And this team approach can help address teacher bias too. If you look at federal data, it shows that Black and Latino students get disciplined more often than other kids. So, if your child is having behavior challenges, a BIP is one way to make sure that your child is treated fairly and gets the support that they need in school to succeed. 

[08:50] Can schools discipline kids with IEPs? 

Can schools discipline kids with IEPs? The answer is yes, but IEPs come with some protections if kids break school rules. These protections kick in if a child gets suspended for more than ten days total, or if there's a pattern of suspending a child for the same behavior, even if it's less than ten days. If either of these things happen, the school needs to have a special meeting. This meeting is called a manifestation determination. And there are three things that I want you to know about this meeting. 

First, the team will decide if the behavior is caused by the child's disability, and if so, the team needs to create a BIP and the child can return to school. This is why earlier this season, we mentioned the importance of documenting all of your child's disabilities in the IEP. 

Second, if the team decides the behavior was caused by not following the IEP, the school has to fix the situation right away and the child can return to school. 

And third, if the team decides the behavior wasn't caused by the child's disability, the time away from school can continue, but the child must keep getting the services in their IEP. For example, if a child has dyslexia, the school needs to keep providing specialized reading instruction even while the child is suspended. 

The key thing to remember is that the school needs to figure out what caused the behavior, and look for ways to address it. I'll put a link in the show notes if you want to learn more about school discipline and the rights of kids with disabilities. 

[10:33] Key takeaways

Okay, before we go, let's sum up what we learned today with a few key takeaways. 

Behavior is a form of communication, and schools can take a close look at it to figure out where kids need more support. As a parent, you can ask the IEP team to include annual goals for behavior. You can also ask for a functional behavioral assessment and a behavior intervention plan. And if your child gets suspended, you'll want to know what special education law says about manifestation determination, and discipline in kids with IEPs. 

All right. That's it for this episode of "Understood Explains." Next time, we'll talk about resolving IEP disputes, including what to do if you think your child's IEP isn't working. 

You've been listening to "Understood Explains IEPs." This season was developed in partnership with UnidosUS, which is the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. Gracias, Unidos! 

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at


Understood Explains IEPs was produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, with editing support by Daniella Tello-Garzon. 

Video was produced by Calvin Knie and Christoph Manuel, with support from Denver Milord.

Mixing and music by Justin D. Wright.

Ilana Millner was our production director. Margie DeSantis provided editorial support, and Whitney Reynolds was our web producer. 

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Special thanks to the team of expert advisors who helped shape this season: Shivohn Garcia, Claudia Rinaldi, and Julian Saavedra.


  • Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA

    is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. As a special educator, she believes all kids have a right to be included and celebrated in what she calls a “joyous and just education.”

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