Suspending Disbelief: Moving Beyond Punishment to Promote Effective Interventions for Children with Mental or Emotional Disorders
By Bazelon Center For Mental Health Law
In 1997, Congress amended the federal law that mandates “free and appropriate education” for all children with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). One of the most significant changes targeted services and supports for children and youth with emotional and behavioral problems. The IDEA ’97, as the amendments are known, specifically mentioned two important tools for addressing these problems: Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBAs) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). The inclusion of these concepts in the statute was both revolutionary and unremarkable—revolutionary because the federal government had never before explicitly required use of these practices, and unremarkable because professional literature reports the successful use of these techniques for more than 25 years.
Research demonstrates that FBAs and PBIS, when used correctly, reduce the need for traditional school discipline such as suspension and expulsion—procedures that are unsupported by research. Despite the evidence, however, many school districts balked at the new requirements, complaining that their personnel had neither the training nor the time to learn to implement FBAs and PBIS.
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