CA Dept. of Education


On Haitus

Behavior Archive 2008


Dru Saren, Ph.D
Behavioral and Education Specialist

I have taught pre-school through graduate school; general and special education; in public, private and psychiatric hospital schools; in New York City, New Mexico, and California. I received my doctorate in education, with a specialization in working with students with behavioral and emotional disorders, from the University of New Mexico in 1986.

Much of my success and failure in implementing behavior strategies, as well as maintaining some sense of humor about it all, can be credited to a 27-year post graduate course offered by my daughter, who has Down Syndrome, and her younger brother and sister, who have substituted when things were going too smoothly.

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  • When is it okay to restrain a child?


When is it okay to restrain a child?  His behavior plan says that we should restrain him (hold his arms) when he doesn't want to do what we've told him to do.  We are supposed to hold him until he is ready to comply.  This doesn't seem right, is it?  PS He is a 10 year old boy with autism.


Dear Friend,

Thanks so much for this important question.

The question: when is it okay to restrain a child is, I assume, asked from the standpoint of the law (though the ethical issues are huge). In general, in the United States, it is safe to say that physical restraint can be used:

  • Only when it is needed to protect the student and/or a member of the school community from imminent, serious, physical harm
  • When nonphysical intervention would not be effective in this protection
  • It is administered only by trained school personnel (“training” should be defined by the state or district but typically requires in-depth training)
  • Written follow-up procedures and reporting requirements are in place
  • The parent is notified within a day of the restraint

Typically, a state and/or a district develop policy and definitions regarding restraint (and seclusion). However, the federal government also weighs in on this question in both legislation and judicial rulings. More complete information can be found at the resources below.

Clearly, in the case you cite, it is NOT okay to restrain this student! It does not meet the primary requirement, that of protecting someone from harm. Moreover, the bulk of legal opinion supports the supposition that restraints should never be used to punish or force compliance with a rule just for sake of compliance (unless that rule involves protecting a student from imminent harm).

The student you cite warrants a Behavior Plan that is developed by examining the function of the behavior and the context in which it occurs and focuses on positive interventions. Teaching replacement behaviors for the inappropriate behavior is a major goal for all students with challenging behavior. Consider manipulating environmental issues, since setting, task, and/or the adults and other students present in the environment often contribute to problem behavior, particularly for a student with autism.

School staff should strive to be proactive problem-solvers. If, after a reasonable trial period, an intervention is unsuccessful and behavior is not changing, try another approach, and then another. Do you still feel you understood the function? Can you modify the environment even more, e.g., the physical setting, curriculum, presentation style, the interaction of others, etc. Did the reinforcement you chose seem to be reinforcing for this student? Is the plan being followed consistently? Readers of this page are most likely familiar with my link to a manual for writing effective behavior plans at

Aside from legal and ethical issues, an efficacy issue is bound to surface. Specifically, I will bet my mortgage payment that using restraint to force compliance didn’t work!

A good rule for evaluating your own behavior that you might share with this student’s IEP team is:

Would you be comfortable if you were filmed performing this intervention and appeared on 60 Minutes ?


For a comprehensive yet easily digestible review of the entire subject, see Denise Keller’s PowerPoint slides at

You can purchase Scott Johnson’s Preventing Physical Restraints in Schools: A Guide for Parents, Educators & Professionals (book and CD) for about $35 at

Thanks for your question. I appreciate your concern.

Dru Saren

  • I'm hoping you can shed a little light on the definition of defiance for me.



I'm hoping you can shed a little light on the definition of defiance for me.  I have a sad situation at my school where a teacher has referred sixth grade children to the principal for what she lables "defiance."  Some of these children have shown up to class without supplies and she has referred them for being "defiant."  Her comment was, "I told him to be prepared and he wasn't.  That's defiance."  She's a piece of work as it is, but what is happening now is that she is battling the principal over the definition of defiance and using ed. code to back that up.  So, what is the definition of "willful defiance" as it relates to ed. code?

Please help.



Dear Lisa,

Thanks for your question. It raises two topics very worthy of consideration.

1. The inexactitude of language when trying to describe behavior

Behavior that some people might define as “oppositional” or “defiant” is a stage of normal development, first in two and three year olds and again in early adolescence, or in other words, sixth graders!

There are some children who are oppositional with such vehemence and regularity that they merit a mental health diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Symptoms of ODD in children include frequent tantrums, excessive arguing with adults over minor issues, and active refusal to follow adult directives. However, the behaviors you describe do not sound like these.

You also site a California Ed. Code definition. I’m not sure what section the teacher is referring to that defines “willful defiance”. The section like that that I am most familiar with is the one which defines the type of behavior seen as “serious” and requiring specific interventions. These behaviors are self-injurious, assaultive, resulting in significant property damage, or other pervasive maladaptive behavior. This terminology is specific to students who have an IEP and I don’t get the sense from your letter that these students receive special education.

In both cases, that of the ODD diagnosis and that of the Ed. Code descriptors, what to one person is “pervasive maladaptive behavior”, to another person is mildly annoying. The teacher at your school seems liable to attribute intent to behaviors that others might see as forgetful, or typical of the age, or due to other factors. And unfortunately, as in law, where, for example, terms like “cruel and unusual punishment” are interpreted in different ways by different people, so too, in talking about behavior, different people give different meanings to the same words.

2. The difficult job of working with difficult people

Let’s face it: some people that we work with are people with whom we do not see eye to eye, or are people who wear their problems to work. For me, it is very hard to deal with some one whose values or view point is significantly at odds with mine, particularly if I think hers results in the mistreatment a less powerful individual. I have to actively step away from my judgment place and put on my consultant hat. That includes doing things like:

  • Finding some area in which I can join with her, maybe about something totally outside of school
  • Believing that everyone is doing the very best she can; it may not be very good, but in this area, it’s the best she can do
  • Being aware that the teacher’s reaction says a lot about her own sense of security. If she is so threatened by a student forgetting his supplies, how uncomfortable she must be in so many of life’s situations. This view affords me some compassion in dealing with her.

Think about what you know about effective consulting. If you haven’t had any training in this area, start here: I recommend going through Adam Stein’s PowerPoint slides, “Overcoming Obstacles in Meetings”. It contains really good grounding principles and concrete pointers on establishing and maintaining a relationship with the consultee.

Well, Lisa, you can see I have so far avoided your actual question, what is defiance. That’s because I don’t like any words like that: defiant, noncompliant, manipulative, aggressive, etc., etc., etc.The only way to address a behavior that is seen as a problem in a particular context is to describe the behavior. For example, “when Jeremy is asked to bring his notebook and pencil to class, on average, he comes to class without those materials three days each week.”

Now we can start. Let’s try to figure out why this happens (e.g., he isn’t always coming to school from his home and he forgets), how we could change things at school so that it doesn’t tend to happen (e.g., provide him with a written checklist with attached pencil each day as he leaves school), what could Jeremy learn to do to improve his responsibility (e.g., teach him to make a organize his materials at school and encourage him to try this skill at home), and what reinforcement might help him solidify this skill (e.g., every day he remembers, he is the homework monitor). That is the bare bones of a behavior plan; a more formal version is available at

Best of luck. This is not for sissies!


  • Reactive attachment disorder and aspergers.


Hi, Thank You for doing what you do... I am a parent of 4 autistic boys, I try to help parents with school problems as much as I can, currently I am helping a grandma who has a 9 year old she cares for with Reactive attachment disorder and aspergers, the girl has behaviors such as pushing, slapping yelling out, the district says as soon as she touches another student they will suspend her, they are not helping this child, I really would love to have any help or opinion you have, how do I get them to see that at 9 she will have moments and they can not just stick her in NPS she has rights, please any help I would so appreciate it. Thank You, Dee


First let us express our admiration for you. It is truly remarkable that, with all you have to do, you have the energy and dedication to help others. You are an inspiration!

Understanding and addressing the needs of a child with such a complex and difficult dual diagnosis can be a major challenge. For this reason, two of us are teaming up to respond to your question. Marji Stivers, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, will provide an introduction to the diagnoses and Dru Saren, Ph.D., behavioral specialist, will address your question from a behavior/IEP standpoint.

Understanding the Diagnoses:

A combination of Asperger’s syndrome and reactive attachment disorder is sure to create intense turmoil and distress for both the child with these diagnoses and for those who nurture and work with her. These two distinctly different diagnoses share a core feature; both are characterized by severe disturbances in social relatedness. Though children with either of the disorders engage in behaviors that interfere with building relationships, the behaviors associated with each disorder have different causes, take different forms, and serve different functions. For readers who are not familiar with these diagnoses, a brief summary of each is provided below:

Asperger’s Disorder:

Asperger’s is a developmental disability on the autism spectrum. In comparison with typically-developing children, children with Asperger’s show delays and differences in the course of their social development and engage in restricted, sometimes ritualistic, patterns of thinking and behavior. Although they are often adept in some areas of learning, they have a great deal of trouble understanding social roles and norms, reading social cues, and learning to initiate or respond appropriately to social overtures. As they get older, children with Asperger’s often develop an interest in having friends, but find the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of social interactions to be confusing and overwhelming. Not surprisingly, they are often more comfortable interacting with more predictable objects, such as computers or books.

Another defining characteristic of individuals with Asperger’s is that they show rigid, restricted, and repetitive patterns of behavior. As young children, instead of using toys to act out imaginary scenarios, they may sort or arrange toys by category (e.g. line up toy trucks be color) or develop a fascination with parts of an object (e.g. spinning a wheel). Through life, they may be unusually attached to having fixed routines and become unduly distraught by changes or interruptions. Or they may become fixated on particular topics of interest and only give their full attention and converse with enthusiasm when activities and conversations correspond to their areas of interest.

As a neurodevelopmentally-based syndrome, Asperger’s is considered to be “hard-wired,” or characterized by inborn differences in the ways a child’s nervous system is “programmed” to develop. Although these nervous system differences are present at birth, the behaviors associated with the syndrome may not be apparent until the child is observed to have unusual difficulty adapting to social environments such as day care or school.

Reactive Attachment Disorder:

In contrast with Asperger’s, the disturbances in social relatedness associated with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) are not caused by inborn neurodevelopmental differences, but result from a child’s early experiences and interactions with her environment. Infants whose basic needs are not reliably met by a consistent and responsive caregiver during the first months of life may fail to develop the strong bond needed to form a strong, secure attachment. are at risk of developing RAD. Early a bandonment, neglect, or disruptions in parenting due to family illness, crisis, or trauma can prevent secure attachment even if adults provide adequate food, shelter, and medical care. A secure attachment during infancy enables the child to develop the sense of safety and feelings of trust and lays the foundation for development of qualities, such as empathy and reciprocity, which form the basis of future social relations. A child with disordered attachment lacks the foundation to develop positive, trusting relationships.

Children with attachment problems typically show some of the following characteristics and behaviors:

  • Inability to trust adults in authority.
  • Resistance to nurturing or guidance.
  • Unwillingness to get close to others; resistance to positive overtures.
  • Ambivalent, approach-avoidance behaviors.
  • Words and actions that purposefully disappoint or provoke anger in others.
  • Poor self-control, frequent impulsive behavior.
  • Few or no close, long-term friends.

Their behavior often fits one of these two patterns:

  • Severely inhibited, guarded behavior.
  • Extreme vigilance; “frozen watchfulness” (the deer-in-the-headlight look).
  • Apathy; limited responsiveness to the environment.


  • Ability to be superficially charming and engaging, especially with strangers.
  • Extreme need to control others (which may worsen as a child gets older).
  • Destructive, cruel, argumentative, or hostile behavior.
  • Little or no expression of empathy, remorse, or compassion.
  • Manipulation, including pitting adults against one another.
  • Frequent tantrums and rages, often over trivial issues.
  • Lying or stealing. May sneak things he/she could have by asking.

It is very important to understand that as infants and toddlers, these children learned that they cannot trust adults to keep them safe. The closer they come to trusting someone, the more affection they feel, and the more they become invested in a relationship, the more vulnerable they feel. Their sense of vulnerability leads to intense anxiety or panic and they desperately try to protect themselves from being let down. For instance, they may withdraw abruptly when others show interest or kindness or resort to obnoxious behavior to push others away. They may reject others, often emphatically and dramatically, before others have a chance to reject or abandon them or suddenly turn against those who are getting closest to them. Working with these children requires tremendous patience, persistence, and perspective (ability to step back and not take the children’s reactions personally).

Behavior Plans and IEP Goals

The complexity of this student requires many layered approaches: behavior support, educational accommodations, and mental health services. I expect the district has personnel who are trained in providing the accommodations for autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome.

You are also absolutely right to assert that this student has rights, and they don’t end even when she is older than nine. When a student has an IEP, which this child clearly has, she is entitled to supports and services to address behavior that interferes with her learning or that of other students. A Behavior Support Plan (BSP) is the first piece of this support. A BSP is an action plan, delineating what the steps the team has determined to take in order to replace the target behaviors with more positive responses as well as the procedures to follow when the problem behavior occurs. Well written goals and objectives and a system for keeping accurate data on the success of the interventions are other key elements of an effective BSP. Extensive information on writing BSPs is on the PENT website of the California Department of Education (

In California, whenever a student's problem behavior is deemed to be "serious," a Behavior Intervention Case Manager needs to be included in the team process to conduct, or supervise the conducting, of a functional analysis assessment. Forms that meet all legal mandates for data collection, plan development and plan review are also available on the PENT website. See for an overview of the process, and the forms themselves can be downloaded easily from this page: The behaviors you describe may or may not be seen as “serious” depending on the intensity and frequency of her hitting her classmates. Calling out is NOT a severe behavior though it is rated as one of the top nuisances by teachers.

Students like this child, who has mental health issues as well as behavior problems, present a major challenge. Behavior support plans are not designed to remediate mental health issues; they specify how students challenged by mental health factors will be supported in an educated environment. This student will also require treatment for mental health problems that underlie behavior problems and function as long-range triggers of problematic behaviors (e.g. the trust issues/ fears of abandonment associated with reactive attachment disorder). School counseling, referral to community agencies, and other interventions may be necessary. Understanding how to address both her long-range issues and the immediate predictors of problem behaviors will require a high level of staff collaboration and accountability. See, with a designated case manager coordinating communication.

In addition, this student has to deal with the challenges of an autism spectrum disorder, so her language and educational needs must be addressed as well. The complexity of the interaction of these diagnoses, assuming them both to be accurate, is immense. However, placement is an IEP team decision and the family is an important member of this team. Your friend seems opposed to a placement in a non-public school (NPS). However, she may want to visit the NPSs that the district is willing to fund to see if there is one that might provide better services for her granddaughter’s multiple needs. On the other hand, the behaviors, as you describe them, can be managed in a public school.

Apart from the services she is entitled to, this student is protected from multiple suspensions. Consult to see the procedure that must be followed if her suspensions exceed 10 days. It is the wise IEP team that reviews the girl’s BSP long before the 10 th suspension to see what is not working and to try to tweak the BSP to be more successful.

We hope this helps and, again, thank you for your advocacy.


Dru and Marji

  • Revising a Behavior Support Plan.

Question 1:

Dear Dr. Dru:  
I am writing a Behavioral Support Plan, but seems like I keep hitting road blocks.  So far, my team and I have spent several hours trying to put a feasible plan into place.  The teacher initially indicated that the problem behavior was that the student was banging books on the desk when he was frustrated with the work, which obviously disrupts the class.  We spent about an hour and half trying to write the plan and then decided to re-meet to finish up.  When we came back to re-meet...the teacher decides that "banging books on the desk" was not actually the problem behavior, but that now the student is doing XYZ. So now I'm thinking, do I need to totally revise what we've done?  I'm actually torn between re-writing this one, or writing a BSP for myself because I'm frustrated that I can't get these adults to focus!  What do you think?

Question 2:

Here’s one sent to Diana Browning Wright at the PENT website. The question and answer presume that the reader is very familiar with the concepts and writing of Behavior Support Plans. If you are not and wish to learn more, the BSP Desk Reference is the place to go: (

I wanted to ask you Diana, about the real need for anything other than a FERB (Functionally equivalent replacement behavior) goal.  When I work with my staff, I really only focus on those because I find the other two to be unnecessary; it's the replacement behavior I'm shooting for, and when I do that, I am instantly increasing positive behavior and decreasing negative ones.  The reason I ask is that I have been doing trainings in my district related to behavior. The training's aim is to familiarize staff with terms in our BSP trainings.  Anyway, I and almost all those on my training team all agree that the FERB is king, and don't see the point in writing the other types of goals on BSPs, or even introducing them to staff. Truly, besides mollifying some staff, most of us see the other goals as extraneous, without proof of an increase in a FERB. One person on our PENT team wants me to teach the reducing and the increasing behavior goals, to keep in line with PENT trainings.  I wonder if you can address these issues. 

Answer 1:

Dear Marsha,

How frustrating! Here’s what I might do: I’d say, “Wow, Karen. That IS another behavior worthy of a full Behavior Support Plan. Kevin sure is a handful!

Here’s an idea. The team spent a good deal of time and energy on the book banging BSP. We got some good things going on in that BSP and we learned a lot about writing one. How about if we stick with this one for now? It will give us an opportunity to implement one that we wrote, and I hope, be successful in decreasing the problem behavior.

Once the data on Kevin’s book banging decreases to the level we have set, we will get together as a team and attack this next behavior you have brought to our attention. Can you live with that?”

If she says she can, breathe a sigh of relief. It is likely that there will be some head nodding and other nonverbal signs from the other team members that will push her in that direction. If she says no, then I would sigh (and curse) inwardly and set a new time to write the new one. That gives you time to mellow out and Karen doesn’t get immediate reinforcement.

Writing a BSP by yourself is the first and greatest temptation of the behavior specialist! We can do it quicker and better! But it’s like the parent who gets impatient with the child’s inefficiency or ineptness in doing a household task like loading the dishwasher and takes it over. We want our colleagues to know how to create BSPs and if we do it for them, they won’t ever master the concepts.

Also, if you hand them a completed BSP, you’re a sitting duck; if it doesn’t go right, it’s all your fault. Buy-in is everything, even if it means you put things in that are not technically “behaviorist”, such as using labels like “defiant” (as long as you define what that looks like too).

In my experience, many school personnel have had little education in the basic concepts of behavior. I shudder to ask this, but if there is any time or any support in the administration, you could present one of the PowerPoint presentations (in segments) on writing BSPs that can be found at the PENT website, e.g., and

Answer 2: 

Diana's response-

Consider these variables before you make a decision on the number and types of goals for a BSP:

  1. Consider social acceptability for families and teachers: We need to show that general positive behaviors are increasing. It is not just about tolerable alternatives, though you are right, we MUST have goals for the functionally equivalent replacement behavior (FERB) we have taught and supported. But we are also supporting environmental changes so the student won't need a FERB at all! Some FERBs we want forever, some we hope are temporary. 
  2. What if FERB is used but there is little or no change in General POSITIVE behavior: What if the student uses the FERB frequently, but isn't improving general positive behaviors (task completion, etc.) By having both, you have checks and balances. 
  3. Consider bottom line accountability: For some behaviors, you want to be sure they AREN'T occurring. If the student bullies (calls students names, pushes to the ground, etc.) and you have a FERB for getting social attention with appropriate behaviors, some kids can do BOTH. They satisfy our FERB, but then sneak around and do the problem behavior as well. We want to measure presence of FERB and absence of problem.
  4. What about the student who now RARELY uses FERB; we changed the environment so effectively that s/he doesn't need it. Now what are we reporting on? If no FERB was used, wouldn't we want to report on why? That either problem behavior went to 0 or general positive went way up? Otherwise we don't have objective reporting data---we only have 1/2 the picture.

Remember, all behavior plans have two strands: environmental changes to produce general positive behaviors and FERB to achieve the same function with a different form. (e.g., we want students to finish seatwork, learn the material and get good grades. That's general positive. We also want them to stop the problem behavior of swearing and running away (escape function) and we will tolerate escape (functional equivalent behavior) through using a break card.

It is my belief, supported by behavioral literature: ultimately, when we have the whole package---all 3 goals, we best monitor the results… But, that said, in many cases a FERB goal and either an INCREASE or DECREASE goal will suffice much of the time. See chapter 3, last page of the BSP Desk Reference manual for the contingency pathway chart. You want to monitor all 3 pathways.

In conclusion, if you only train on FERB, you may end up with distorted implementation and insufficient data to support the claim that the plan is "working" or "not-working."

Strive on Behavior Workers!


  • What do you do if the function of a behavior is not an acceptable function?


Dear Dru,

I am a high school teacher for students with severe disabilities. “Robby” is an 18 year old student in my class. He is significantly retarded and essentially non-verbal. He has a long history of non-complaint behaviors. For example, sometimes he doesn’t’ want to get on the bus to go home and his family refuses to come and get him. Or instead of saying no, he’ll push things off tables and others could get hurt. He knows what he is supposed to do but he is very stubborn.

However, the most serious behaviors are trying to touch me (especially) and female classmates inappropriately. When I don’t allow this, he takes off all his clothes, and sometimes masterbates. I remove the other students and staff from the classroom and the male principal has to come in.

I have other students who are very high functioning and well behaved and Robby is really interfering with my teaching them. I think he should be moved to a more severe class but his family wants him to stay here. Any suggestions?


Frustrated HS Teacher


Dear FHST,

Thanks for writing. I’m afraid that you are not going to get quite the response you want, but I must start by saying that in looking at the behavior of an individual like Robby, consider these grounding principles:

  • Robby is not to blame for his inappropriate behaviors; he has learned to get his needs met as best he can. The staff, not just you, but the IEP team and other specialists as needed, is responsible for developing the proper conditions for him to acquire more acceptable behaviors.
  • Behaviors are value-neutral. An adolescent removing his clothes hits many sensitive buttons but from a behavior analyst viewpoint, it is addressed the way any behavior is: look at function.
  • Robby should have a Behavior Support Plan or Plans (BSP) and it should be reviewed regularly (as often as each grading period at the minimum) or more immediately if he demonstrates a few instances of the more severe behaviors.
  • Robby’s family is not a part of enforcing his school behavior. If he is not successful, the team needs to look at all areas of the BSP to manipulate the parts that may not be working.
  • Increase praise dramatically for all desired behaviors. Keep it specific and light-hearted. Do not delay reinforcing a desired behavior.
  • Focus Robby’s communication goals on increasing the likelihood that he will communicate “No” (verbally, non-verbally, or with a Voice Output Communication device) and that he begin to make requests. Start by giving him choices to teach him to make requests.

Robby has two primary behaviors that interfere with his success. The most serious is touching others in unacceptable ways. The function of that behavior seems to meet sexual desires.

Behavior I – Inappropriate touching

This is a prime example of a behavior that cannot be treated in the usual way, which is looking for a functionally equivalent replacement behavior (FERB) for an inappropriate behavior. Sexual behavior is never appropriate at school and never appropriate if not mutually consensual. Since a FERB cannot be considered, the behavior needs to be eliminated from this setting.

Environmental change:

  • Robby’s classroom should be a “No Touch” zone. Teachers should not hug or touch other students. It is not age-appropriate in high school. Teach students to ask each other for a non-sexual touch (not hugging) and teach them to honor “No”.

New Skill:

  • Teach Robby to understand rule cards that say “Hands Down” and “Step Back”. Accompany the words with pictures and hand and feet movements. Review daily.

Reactive Strategies (what to do if he touches):

  • Staff carries Rule Cards and uses them to prompt him if he begins to touch, using a neutral voice that sounds like you expect him to comply.
  • Praise enthusiastically, “You put your hands down. GREAT!”; be specific and don’t say “Good boy.” He is a young man.
  • If he doesn’t comply, go back to step 1 and use a sterner voice, making sure you have eye contact, but just say it once.
  • If he still touches someone, wait a few moments and then have him sit down (not with the person he touched) and review the cards again.
  • If it is deemed necessary to follow district policy that results in suspension, be aware that Robby will not connect his behavior to the consequence (staying home), so it has no teaching value.
  • If he touches more than two or three times, review the plan and try changes to make it more successful. Look at the time and place it occurs and see if more interesting activities or less unstructured time could prevent the behavior.

Behavior II – Not following directions

Many students with severe disabilities wear tee shirts and sweat pants all the time. To avert his stripping, suggest that his family to take Robby shopping for jeans or other pants with a fly and for button-down shirts. Not only is it more like the clothing worn by peers, it is also much harder to remove. Stripping is another socially unacceptable behavior that can’t be replaced.

Why he uses this behavior : He does not yet have effective means to reject or protest and few ways to express his preferences.

What to do when he MUST COMPLY with a direction : Sometimes when Robby does not follow directions, the directions are imperative for him to follow (e.g., refusing to get on the bus). These times can be treated in one way:


  • Provide choices throughout the day to increase his feelings of efficacy.
  • Teach him to follow a schedule.
  • Give him advance notice when he will be transitioning to a less preferred activity and visual information about time passing (use a TimeTimer or an egg timer).
  • For situations where a problem has frequently occurred, have an enticement waiting, such as a MP3 or Walkman with headphones on the bus.
  • Praise compliance (“Awright, man. Good work. You followed the schedule.”)

What to do when compliance is more arbitrary: Directions should be followed because the skill of following directions will be useful for his future residential and employment options. However, the consequences of not following some directions (e.g., working at his desk) are not dire. This situation requires a different approach:


  • His Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP) is the point person for deciding how best to teach Robby to “say” no. A variety of methods is possible.
  • If he says no, honor his rejection.
  • Tell him you are pleased that he used words (or a device) to tell you.
  • That afternoon, examine the activity he rejected to try to understand why: did it come after similar work? Was it boring or hard? Did he not understand what was wanted? Did he need a break? Was it a task that really was important in increasing his independence? Try to make changes that will make him more likely to comply.
  • If he uses behavior to refuse (throwing objects off the table), remind him that he can tell you “no”.


  • Increase frequency of praise and attention for desired behavior. You didn’t mention that Robby is autistic, so I can assume he likes attention, and when feeling appreciated he is less liable to be contrary.
  • Increase general praise and warm comments for no reason at all.
  • Use access to preferred activities such as computer programs and music.

Thanks for your question, and the opportunity to explore some interesting territory. First of all, what do you do if the function of a behavior is not an acceptable function? Secondly, as Skinner would say, the subject is blameless. We control the variables, hard as that is to hear. Good luck!

  • Manifestation Determination.


Hello Diana Wright, Gail Cafferata, Denise Keller and Dru Saren:

I was wondering if I might ask for a little help from the four of you.I am preparing a Research Paper for my Level II Special Education Credential on Manifestation Determination. Could any of you give me some ideas on where I might find some good material on this issue?  Of course I have used search engines to get some information on Manifestation Determination, however, I was thinking you may know of a wealth of information that I could not get to with a simple search engine on the Internet.

Please let me know if you can help me out.

Thank you. 
Jim Boling, 
Resource Teacher 
Riverbank High School


Dear Jim,

For those who may wonder what the heck “manifestation determination” (or MD as it is commonly referred to) is, here is a quick and dirty overview of a very complex legal issue that lacks clear interpretation.

An MD refers to a process that occurs following suspensions or a proposed change in placement due to serious behavior problems that a special education student has engaged in. The process is used to decide if it is reasonable to attribute the behavior to the disability that qualified the student for special education services.

Prior to an IEP team meeting, the team must review various types of assessments, record reviews and other pertinent information. They must then decide if they have sufficient information to make the determination or if further assessment is needed.

Once enough information is gathered, the team must decide:

  • If the IEP, placement, supplementary aids and services were appropriate
  • If the IEP services and behavioral intervention strategies were consistently implemented 

  • Was the behavior caused by or did it have a direct and substantial relationship to the student’s disability

If the student’s behavior is not a manifestation of a disability, the disciplinary procedures applicable to students without disabilities may be applied to this student.

If the behavior is determined to be a part of the disability, the IEP team makes an appropriate plan to address some or all of the following areas:

  • Consistently implement the IEP as written.
  • Change the IEP as needed (e.g., adaptations, service, alternative consequences, etc.).
  • Complete additional evaluations to provide additional service, if needed.
  • Conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment to develop more effective behavior intervention strategies.

There are many sticky wickets inherent in this process and few clear cut answers. For example, does a student with an attention deficit lack the impulse control to stop himself before he engages in a problem behavior? Does a student with mental retardation understand a rule well enough to obey it in when circumstances are a little murky? This is where the courts have gotten involved. So Jim, the short answer is No, there are no brief overviews because you get into legal decisions that are ever-changing and can be at odds with each other.

Some of the legal intricacies are explained in Walsh, Jim (2007) Manifestation Determinations: Avoiding Needless Conflict and Common Mistakes LRP Publications

The resources below describe MD in greater detail:'s%20Legal%20Mandates/

  • My grandson is 3 years old and does not know how to release his frustrations when he does not get his way.


My grandson is 3 years old and does not know how to release his frustrations when he does not get his way. He throws things and now hits and bites. Time outs does not work ( max. 1 minute per years of age). Now he has to be restrained in order for him to stay in time out. When restrained he kicks, hits and bites. We have removed him from the scene: We have tried talking to him... and now we are at wits end. Can you please advise.

B. Karafky


Dear Grandma B,

Thanks for your question, one that I think has wide applications. “Time-out” has become a national panacea for many behavior problems, at home and at school. Like any solution, it cannot fix all problems. Many behaviorists, and I am one, would argue that it doesn’t really solve any problems at all, for the following reasons:

  • The child being timed-out feels punished; the child does not necessarily understand why and consequently feels more frustrated or angry.
  • When a bigger person imposes a punishment on a less powerful person, the weaker one learns that the bigger/stronger prevail. That isn’t the lesson you are trying to teach.
  • Time-out doesn’t teach the child what he should do when he acts on an emotion in a socially unacceptable way.

In the case of a three year old, I would add the following problems to time-out:

  • He may not yet have an understanding of cause-effect deep enough to link his behavior to the consequence.
  • The normal development of impulse control makes it hard for even the most mature three year old to stop himself. Once into the cycle (of hitting, biting) he doesn’t even know how to get out of it.

In a study of two-, three- and four-year-olds in child care centers, children were interviewed about their views of school, remembrance of causes of time out, and feelings and perceptions of being in time out. When asked how they felt about being in time out, children reported negative feelings of sadness and fear, as well as feeling alone, disliked by the teacher, and ignored by peers. Fewer than half of the children could accurately recall why they had been placed in time out, suggesting that children were not contemplating their misbehavior, guilt, or alternative behaviors - all of which time out is meant to provoke.

From "Young Children's Perceptions of Time Out," C.A. Readdick and P.L. Chapman, Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Volume 15, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2000.

The use of restraint exacerbates all the problems mentioned above and should never be used unless the child or another person is liable to be injured. Even in this case, needing to use restraint is a good indicator that things have to be handled differently so that the child does not get to this point again. Not only will this method become ineffective as soon as the child is big enough so that he cannot be restrained, it is also a scary place for the child himself to get to. Self-management is one of, if not the most, important tasks that the young child must begin to master.

So, what should you do instead?

  • The first step in changing a behavior is to figure out what the person is trying to say. It sounds like you have a good idea why your grandson is throwing things, kicking and biting. You think he is frustrated. Children his age often are. They can’t use language well enough to express frustration or to negotiate for a different outcome (“I am not yet ready to stop playing with my trains, Grandmother. Perhaps if you could let me have ten more minutes, I would be willing to stop then.”!!).
  • Is there something else going on at home or at preschool that is causing him stress? If so, recognizing this influence may be useful in understanding the behavior and perhaps in moderating its effect.
  • Now figure out when this problem occurs. It is more likely to happen when your grandson is tired, hungry, bored? If so, can you change the environment before this takes place? If he has difficulty with transitions in general, can you prepare him for them by giving him advance notice and a visual reminder of time passing? For example, “In five minutes, we need to clean up for supper. I will set the timer and put it here where you can see it so you will be ready”). In other words, what actions can take you that might mitigate his need to behave in this way but are reasonable changes to make?
  • What could he learn to do instead to express his frustration? Could you model acceptable language to use, perhaps augmented with pounding his fist on the floor? While this may not be the final way you want him to express frustration, for now, it is better than behaviors that hurt others.
  • Another new skill he could learn is Time Away. While Time Out is a consequence imposed by an authority figure, Time Away is an option the child uses to remove himself from circumstances that have become overwhelming and negative. You might set up a big comfy pillow with a favorite book or stuffed animal off to a corner of the room and teach your grandson to choose to go take care of himself there when he is feeling upset. Practice this with him when he is doing fine (“When you feel upset, you can go here to your comfy corner and just get feeing better and quiet inside. Then when you are ready, you can come back to what you were doing.”). At first, when he is starting to lose control, you may entice him there with your presence but ultimately you want him to be in control of taking care of himself.
  • Reinforce him every time you see him to exert control over himself in circumstances where he might have lost it. Praise him and tell him exactly what he did (“You were upset that you had to put your Leggos away but you used words to tell me [or you went to your comfy corner]. I’m so proud of you, and I bet you are proud of yourself.” You might want to accompany this with some tangible reinforcer such as a hug, a cookie, a sticker, and a marble in a small jar that, when filled, will result in a bigger prize.

One last comment: the family members of children who bite are often embarrassed and feel there is something very wrong with their child. In fact, biting in preschoolers is not unusual.

Resources: Countless sources support the use of Time-Out. Below are some views that are closer to mine!

There are countless books on parenting. I would start with Jane Nelson’s books and or CDs on positive discipline with young children:

Good luck. Thanks for writing.