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Behavior Today Newsletter 40(3)



From the President’s Desk
Timothy Landrum

I’m exhausted.

In a strange way, I hope you are too, because perhaps that means you were as fortunate as I was to attend the recently concluded CEC Convention in Louisville.  It was indeed a full week, including productive meetings, enlightening sessions, and of course the chance to socialize and network with new and old friends and colleagues. As exhausting as it was, I was reminded once again just how valuable I find these in-person professional opportunities. Sitting in sessions and meetings (and presenting some!), I was reminded again and again just how much important work the professionals who make up our membership are doing. I am reminded that this is a vibrant field-- and a division-- of extraordinarily dedicated, hard-working professionals who are doing amazing things. Cheers—and sincere thanks -- to all for that hard work. Whether you were able to make it to Louisville or not—know that your work is impactful and is noticed.  

Here are a few quick notes on the conference, and DEBH activities generally. We began with a half-day Executive Committee meeting, where in addition to typical reports and updates, our substantive focus was on using our extended time for deeper discussions about our strategic plan, as well as activities we need to prioritize as we move ahead. The latter—activities we wish to prioritize—obviously flows from the first—what are our strategic goals? Revisiting our mission statement (more on that below) and engaging in strategic planning is something we aspire to do intentionally every five years. We began this process at our meetings at TECBD in Tempe this past November, and while I optimistically planned to have both broad goals and specific objectives mapped out by the end of CEC Convention week, we’ve realized we need more time for planning, discussing, and seeking input. We did, however, narrow our focus on three strategic targets:

1.    Disseminate and promote resources that increase awareness of effective data-informed practices.
2.    Engage in advocacy.
3.    Enhance diversity, social justice, intersectionality, and contextual understanding.

These were identified by our Executive Committee because we believe they capture the core tenets of our mission statement. We note that while these targets may not be 100% comprehensive, or capture all priorities all constituents may have, we did our best to focus on our conceptual foundations, while also choosing targets we believe may lead to tangible activities that further our mission. There will be more fleshing out of specific targets, and opportunities for input from membership, in the coming weeks.

Toward the notion of prioritizing, we continue to try our best to focus on member benefit—what our members want and need from us as their professional organization—as a guiding principle in all we do. As one example, we are exploring the possibility of resurrecting division publications. Having observed other divisions being successful in this space, we are looking very seriously at ways we might offer members (and non-members) print resources that are brief, focused, user-friendly, and designed to get evidence-based practices into the hands of those who need them most. If and when we take this plunge, know we will do so on a small, pilot scale, with an eye toward maximizing impact and member benefit, but of course with a cautious eye always on being fiscally conservative.

A final note on our mission statement—we brought a very slightly word smithed version of the statement -- pasted below-- to the membership and voted at our business meeting to accept these changes.  Note that the changes mostly reflect simple wording changes based on our division’s new name, with some additional streamlining for simple clarity. As an Executive Committee, I can say is it has been both affirming of our work, and also a nice reminder that keeps us focused, to have this mission statement front and center and to refer to it often as we meet, plan, and discuss any and all division activities. I hope you find it useful to see and reflect upon as well. We note too that while members voted to change the name of our division not too long ago, our mission remains the same. 

DEBH Mission Statement
(Approved March 2, 2023)

As a Special Interest Division of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the Division of Emotional and Behavioral Health (DEBH) is dedicated to supporting the professional development and enhancing the expertise of those who work to improve the emotional and behavioral health of children, adolescents, and their families. DEBH is committed to a continuum of research-derived supports, including prevention of emotional and behavioral challenges and enhancement of social, emotional, and educational well-being of all children and youth as well as intensive intervention for students with emotional and behavioral disorders and mental health needs. 


Newly Elected Executive Committee
Starting July 1, 2023

board members


DEBH Foundation Scholarship and Award Winners 2023 



My Most Memorable Student: Voices from the Field
Jim Teagarden & Robert Zabel, Kansas State University 


 Janus Project Embedded like example The Janus Oral History Project collects and shares stories from leaders in education of children with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD). The project is named after the Roman god, Janus, whose two faces look simultaneously to the past and future. 

One Janus Project activity is recording and sharing educators’ descriptions of memorable students. They are asked: Who is your most memorable student? What did you learn from this student? How has the student impacted your career or life? What follows is the story of Nancy as told by Mike Epstein, Professor Emeritus, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

* * * * *

Her Name Was Nancy
By Mike Epstein

Her name was Nancy, October 1969. I met her at the sharp end of an object but I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. I graduated from America University in 1969, and I had never taken an education course let alone a special education course. I was going to be a lawyer. I’d been accepted into law school, but in 1969, that was not a very smart idea because you were going to do something else within 6 months. So, teaching made a lot of sense. I got a job in a rural school district in Virginia that was “the life changer.”

I ended up teaching 7th grade, two years into an integration movement in Virginia, back in the day when there were two separate school districts, one for black kids and one for white kids. I thought the most interesting thing that year would be to integrate three black boys into the 7th grade classroom. That was the easy part; Nancy was the challenging part.

Nancy came to school every day, got off the bus, and sat in the back of the class. She sat there all day until 3:00 p.m., got back on the bus, and went home. She did that for 7 years until she met me. Everyday, Nancy came to school and sat in the back. I’d walk up to her and talk to her. I would welcome her to the class and say I wish she’d participate. She didn’t say a word to me for two and a half months. One day we went outside for recess. When we came back in Nancy was still sitting in the back of the room. She hadn’t moved. So, like I did every day I walked to my desk and sat down…on a tack. That was Nancy’s way of saying “Hello, Mike.” So, I went to the back of that classroom, and I said to Nancy, “I think there’s a better way to say, hello.”

For the next seven months we worked from not saying anything to coming in, talking, interacting with her peers, and she made significant progress. But Nancy was complex. There was this professor at America University with whom I would share pictures that Nancy would leave me. I’d ask him to explain the pictures because I had no idea what they met. That professor was Nick Long. Nick had a profound impact on the field with his idea of the conflict cycle and how to intervene with that cycle. We spent the year, me showing pictures to him and Nick talking, trying to make sense out of this chaos.

Then when I decided I couldn’t or shouldn’t go to law school, and instead become a teacher, I decided I’d better go back to school. So, I went back to get a master’s degree in Nick’s program and spent a year a Hillcrest Children’s Center, which is one of the most amazing places for serving children. After working for a few years, I went back to work on a doctorate with Jim Kauffman. If you know Nick and Jim, you know they are dissimilar, but they are totally identical in that they care about kids, they want to understand kids, and they tell us to focus on what’s happening in the lives of kids. Thanks to the benefit of working with Nick and Jim, I arrived at that old Chinese proverb: “Give me a fish and I eat for a day, teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.” And, thanks to Nancy I learned: “It’s about supporting kids.”     

* * * * *

This story is a part of the Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders video series, “My Most Memorable Student.” Dr. Epstein’s video is available at:  and more than 40 other stories of memorable students can be viewed at:

Disciplining Students with Disabilities
Mitch Yell

School district officials respond to challenging and disruptive behavior in a variety of ways, and determining the appropriate response to student’s problem behavior is a difficult and complex issue. This becomes especially true when a student has a disability. Different rules and regulations apply to disciplining students with disabilities under the IDEA and Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act of 1973. 

For the most part, for violating a school’s code of conduct, students with disabilities can be disciplined in a manner similar to the typical disciplinary sanctions used with students without disabilities. However, case law beginning a few years after the passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), held that certain types of discipline may result in inequities because the student’s disability often affects behavior control, which can lead to a student violating a school’s code of conduct. If a student is suspended or expelled because of the infraction, they may have been disciplined in such a manner because of their disability.

A major problem with the use of long-term suspensions or expulsions is that they may result in a unilateral change of placement, which is a violation of the IDEA and Section 504. The IDEA, Section 504, and previous case law distinguish between short-term disciplinary removals from school and long-term disciplinary removals. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the line of demarcation is 10 school days (Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 1988). Thus, both the IDEA and Section 504 prohibit expulsions, long-term disciplinary removals for more than 10 consecutive days and often suspensions for more than 10 cumulative school days. This does not mean school removals may never occur, but rather, there are procedural safeguards that must be followed when they are used. The 2006 regulations to the IDEA included the following statement; “School personnel under this section may remove a child with a disability who violates a code of student conduct from his or her current placement to a more appropriate interim alternative education setting, another setting, or suspension, for not more than 10 consecutive school days (to the extent those alternatives are applied to children without disabilities), and for additional removals of not more than 10 consecutive school days in that same school year for separate incidences of misconduct (as long as those removals do not constitute a change in placement) (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.530[b][1]).” Additionally, in enforcing Section 504, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) considers a series of short-term nonconsecutive removals to also constitute a significant change in a student’s education if combined the removals total more than 10 school days during the school year and create a pattern of removals, which would be a violation of the law (Section 504 Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 104.35[a]).

Clearly, unilateral expulsions or suspensions of more than 10 consecutive days should not be used. Administrators must also be careful in using suspensions of over 10 cumulative days. An important consideration in deciding to use out-of-school suspensions is if the suspensions constitute a pattern of removals. If the suspensions do constitute a pattern, the suspensions are changes in placement and should not be used. 

So, when do cumulative suspensions constitute a pattern and become an illegal change in placement? Out-of-school suspensions are a change in placement when (a) the suspensions have been for more than 10 cumulative days in a school year; (b) the student’s behaviors for which he or she was suspended was substantially similar to the student’s behavior in similar incidences that resulted in suspensions; and (c) because the of additional factors such as the length of each removal, the total amount of time the student has been removed, and the proximity of the removals to each other (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.535 et seq.). The determination of a pattern has to be conducted by school personnel. Although the regulations do not specifically state who should be involved in making these decisions, presumably, it could be a student’s IEP team.

To prevent a student with a disability from being unfairly excluded from school, committees consisting of the LEA representative, the parents, and relevant members of the IEP team, must examine assessment data to determine if the behaviors leading to the proposed disciplinary action are related to a student’s disability. This is referred to as the manifestation determination (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.530[e]). When conducting a manifestation determination, the committee must use recent and relevant data to determine (a) if the conduct in question was caused by or had a direct and substantial relationship to the student’s disability and (b) if the conduct in question was the direct result of the school’s failure to implement the student’s IEP. If the team determines there is a relationship between the student’s disability and misconduct by answering yes to either question, long-term disciplinary removals longer than 10 school days are not available nor are short-term removals, which viewed in their entirety constitute a pattern of removals. Additionally, if there is a manifestation, the school personnel must then conduct a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) and develop or revise a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) for the student (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.530[e & f]). 

If the answer to both of the manifestation questions is no, the team has determined there is no manifestation and continued suspension can be used as long as the suspensions do not constitute a pattern of removals. 

The IDEA also requires that after a student with a disability is subjected to suspensions or removed from their current placement for over 10 school days in the same school year, during any subsequent days of removal, the school must provide services (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.530[b][2]). Moreover, the educational services provided must enable the child to appropriately progress in the general curriculum and appropriately advance toward achieving the goals set out in the child’s IEP. Under the IDEA, educational services must be provided on day 11 and beyond, irrespective of the relationship between disability and misconduct.

The only exception to these rules regarding discipline of students with disabilities occurs when (a) a student brings a weapon to school or a school function, (b) knowingly possesses or uses illegal drugs or sells or solicits the sale of a controlled substance while at school or a school function, or (c) has inflicted serious bodily injury upon another person while at school or a school function (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.530[g]). In this case, a school administrator may remove the student to an interim alternative educational setting for not more than 45 school days irrespective of the relationship between disability and misconduct.

WHEW, this sounds confusing!! It really isn’t, however, as long as you keep the following dos and don’ts in mind when disciplining students with disabilities.  There is no particular order to the dos and don’ts, they are all important!


  • Don’t forget that ALL students have due process rights should when being suspended. This means students should be notified of the charges that led to the suspension (either orally or in writing) and that they are given an opportunity to tell their side of the story. The U.S. Supreme Court told us this in Goss v. Lopez in 1975.
  • Don’t suspend a student with disabilities from school for more than 10 consecutive school days in a school year because that is a unilateral change of placement. Of course, an expulsion is per se change of placement.
  • Don’t discipline students differently than you do students without disabilities (e.g., discipline more harshly, use disciplinary procedures that are not used with students who do not have disabilities). This could be discrimination and a violation of Section 504.
  • Don’t suspend a student out of school for more than 10 cumulative days in a school year without providing educational services, conducting a manifestation determination and FBA, and developing or revising a BIP.
  • Don’t play games with suspension by removing a student from school but not calling it a suspension (e., having a student’s parents pick him or her up from school and calling it a “mental health day” rather than a suspension). These sorts on informal suspensions are a possible violation of the law and should not be used! In a future issue I will address this problem.


  • Do keep track of the days in which students are suspended from school. This seems easy enough and it is a good way to make sure you don’t inadvertently violate the IDEA or Section 504.
  • Do use in-school suspension instead of out-of-school suspensions whenever possible. Schools are much less likely to violate the law when they use in-school discipline.
  • Do convene a manifestation determination team (can be a student’s IEP team) if a student is suspended in excess of 10 cumulative school days to determine if a patten exists.
  • Do act proactively when students exhibit problem behavior that violates a school’s code of conduct and address the student’s behavior in a student’s IEP or Section 504 plan.

The last do is so very important because a major purpose in developing and implementing IEPs for students with disabilities whose “behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others (is to) consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior” (34 C.F.R. § 300.324[a][2][i]). Thus, if a student’s IEP team determines that the behavior impedes the student’s learning or the learning of others, the IEP team may address that behavior by developing measurable annual goals, special education services and related services, supplementary aids and services, and a statement of program modifications or supports for school personnel. If a student is a 504-only student, the 504 team may include behavioral accommodations, modifications, or programming in the Section 504 plan. In both cases, the goal of behavioral programming is to teach socially appropriate behaviors and reduce the inappropriate behaviors that led to the violation of the school’s code of conduct.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education recently issued a question and answer document on disciplining students with disabilities. Similarly, the Office for Civil for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education issued a document on avoiding when disciplining student with disabilities. Both documents are available at…;

Remote Control Teaching: Learning to Embrace the Pause Button of Mixed Reality in Real Life



Kristin M. Murphy, PhD
University of Massachusetts Boston

As part of my work as a teacher educator, I utilize a technology known as mixed reality simulations to facilitate active practice opportunities for my preservice teachers. Like flight simulators used to train airline pilots prior to flying an actual airplane, mixed-reality simulations (MRS) provide an active opportunity for preservice teachers to interact with avatars, i.e., computer animated characters controlled by humans, in order to practice behaviors expected in their future careers. The use of MRS is an increasingly popular approach in teacher preparation as a vehicle for making the shift from theoretical instruction to engaging in practice-based teacher education. MRS provides a safe practice space through seven to ten-minute sessions where preservice teachers are able to focus on one (or more) discrete skill(s). 

Furthermore, as opposed to field-based experiences, MRS offer a unique practice-based opportunity in which preservice teachers can “pause” a simulation if they are unsure of what to do next. The avatars disappear from the screen, and the student can then engage in a discussion with their peers and professor for on-the-spot coaching and reflection before resuming the simulation. They can also use the “pause” to simply collect their breath and reflect on something before “returning” to the classroom (Murphy et al., 2021). 

I love introducing this idea of remote-control teaching to my students as they prepare to try out MRS for the first time. I used to often joke and say, “Don’t you wish you could use the pause button in real life?” However, one day, one of my students reflected near the end of the semester that learning to embrace the “remote control” in MRS helped her realize she could actually bring that remote control with her into her real-life teaching practice, and real life in general. It was a powerful “a-ha” moment for me and the rest of our class that I have continued to share in subsequent classes to come and embrace in my own practice life. 

We live in a fast-paced world and have become accustomed to on-demand responses and solutions. It is easy as a novice or veteran teacher alike to feel this pressure of needing to respond rapidly in the moment. Even if you never try to practice your teaching skills with avatars, I want to share with you four ways to embrace the pause button in real life. The next time you encounter a situation or request in your professional practice and you are unsure of how to proceed, try reaching for your remote control, hitting “pause,” and selecting one or more options from this menu: 

1)    Briefly reflect before engaging in a next step
2)    Take a deep breath 
3)    Confer with a colleague, mentor, and/or trusted friend
4)    Give yourself time and space to collect more information
5)    Give yourself time and space to process information

When you’re ready, hit “play” and move forward. Remember that the “pause” button is always there should you need to use it again. Embrace the remote control. Share the idea of the remote control with your colleagues and students. 

Want to chat more about how you are using your remote control? Email me at


Murphy, K. M., Cash, J., & Kellinger, J. (2018). Learning with avatars: Exploring mixed reality simulations for next-generation teaching and learning. In Keengwe, S. (Ed.). Handbook of Research on Pedagogical Models for Next Generation Teaching and Learning (pp. 1-20). Hershey, PA: IGI Global. 

Murphy, K. M., Cook, A. L., & Fallon, L. M. (2021). Mixed reality simulations for social-emotional learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 102(6), 30-37.


"Entertaining the only person who really gets me - myself…and you, too?!

ChatGPT, OpenAI
Eric Alan Common, Ph.D., BCBA-D, University of Michigan-Flint
Kelly M. Carrero, Ph.D., BCBA Texas A&M-Commerce

Recreational Reinforcement is a column highlighting educators' and professionals' recreational and leisurely pursuits while also making connections and offering illustrations and examples related to applied behavior analysis. This month's column was written in tongue-in-cheek collaboration with ChatGPT for our amusement while offering some educational and entertaining tidbits–at least for us. The responses in this article were generated using the ChatGPT model, developed by OpenAI and edited and extended by its beating heart co-authors to illustrate how we, the human authors, self-administer reinforcement for our own humor, our own jokes!

Keywords: self-administered reinforcement, modeling, exemplars; we are literally doing the thing right now

2022-2023 Call for Columns:
Recreational Reinforcement is a bi-monthly (6/year) column dedicated to discussing recreational or leisurely pursuits, making connections, and offering illustrations and examples related to applied behavior analysis. The only rule is nobody wants to hear about work being your "recreational reinforcement." Please send submissions or inquiries to Dr. Eric Common at Directions for submissions: (a) article title, (b) names of author(s), (c) author's affiliations, (d) email address, and (e) 700–1500-word manuscript in Times New Roman font. Bitmoji, graphics, tables, and figures are optional.


"Entertaining the only person who really gets me - myself… and you, too?!"

Have you ever found yourself engaging in verbal and other behaviors in the response class of telling jokes, knowing full well you were:

  •  “Tickling your own funny bone”
  • “Being your own biggest fan”
  •  “Amusing yourself to no end”
  • “Laughing at your own jokes like they’re going out of style”
  • “Finding yourself hilarious, even if no one else does”
  • “Making yourself laugh until you cry”
  • “Entertaining your inner child”
  • “Humoring yourself when no one else will”

Literally or figuratively, have you ever found yourself doing something with no other outcome but your own amusement? Using behaviors that topographically appear to be socially mediated but may actually function as self-administered reinforcement of one's own amusement. Maybe it's telling jokes to make yourself laugh, even if others don't find them as funny or are so obscure and self-referential in that only perhaps you yourself, the joker, will get the punchline. In the world of behavioral science, this is an example of "self-administered reinforcement," and it's an example of applied behavior analysis in action!

The principle of reinforcement is a key concept in behavioral science and explains how the consequences of an individual's actions can increase the likelihood of those actions being repeated in the future. In essence, reinforcement refers to the process by which a particular behavior is strengthened or maintained by the presentation or removal of a consequence that follows the behavior.

There are two types of reinforcement - positive and negative - and they can be either contingent or non-contingent. Positive reinforcement involves presenting a desirable consequence (such as praise, rewards, or attention) immediately after a desired behavior occurs. This increases the likelihood the behavior will be repeated in the future. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, involves the removal of an unpleasant consequence (such as a nagging or annoying task) immediately after a desired behavior occurs.

Contingent reinforcement is when the consequence is directly tied to the behavior. For example, if a child cleans their room and is rewarded with a piece of candy, the candy is a contingent positive reinforcement for cleaning their room. If a student stops talking during class and the teacher stops giving them extra assignments, the removal of extra work is a contingent negative reinforcement for being quiet. Whereas, non-contingent reinforcement is when the consequence is given regardless of the behavior. This can be a bit trickier to understand, but it's essentially when we reward ourselves even if we didn't do anything to earn it. For example, suppose you decide to treat yourself to a piece of chocolate cake after a long day. In that case, that's a non-contingent positive reinforcement - you're rewarding yourself even though you didn't do anything specific to earn it.

So, how does all of this relate to telling jokes for your own amusement? Reinforcement can occur naturally or by chance or circumstance, or it can happen intentionally, such as through planned programming. Reinforcement can also be accessed broadly across the full spectrum of available stimuli in the environment, including ourselves. Self-administered reinforcement is when we reinforce our own behavior rather than having someone else reinforce us. This can be either contingent or non-contingent. For example, if you study hard for an exam and give yourself a pat on the back when you're done, that's a contingent positive self-administered reinforcement. On the other hand, if you decide to take a break from studying and watch TV for an hour, that's a non-contingent positive self-administered reinforcement - you're giving yourself a reward just because you feel like it.

Let's use an anecdote to illustrate.  For example, when the authors with the beating hearts are at a social function, they find it amusing to approach other humans with beating hearts and ask for their observations and insights on topics the approached human likely has no knowledge of or experience with. Imagine going to a neighborhood party (preferably someone else's neighborhood–it is just funnier that way) and, with a red Silo cup in hand, you approach a neighborhood partygoer. You start with one or two small talk exchanges–maybe an introduction–and then you share a bizarre (but benign), nonsensical, or humorous anecdote with them (the less context they have for your positionality, usually the more delightful it is to have the exchange). After sharing this anecdote, either (a) the person will look around for an efficient exit from this exchange; (b) they will laugh uncomfortably and say something affirming like, "Oh wow. Interesting."; or (c) smile with amusement and volley something just as ridiculous right back–a fun banter, if you will. No matter what the outcome, as the "teller of the tale or joke," we, the authors as joke-tellers, are always fully satisfied and have achieved reinforcement, if not blatant pleasure from the exchange–even if it would not be considered to be a "socially successful" exchange. This is just one example of how reinforcement and behavior science can help us understand how we can be so tickled by our own amusement.  

By recognizing the principles of reinforcement, we can begin to see the author's cheekiness in writing this article with ChatGPT. For example, in case you missed it, we used ChatGPT to write this article because we think it is funny. And we think we are funny. And we are fully amused, even if the readers (that’s you, the reader) are not amused, but we hope you are - come back next time, even if the readers are slightly annoyed they have gotten this far in the article.

In closing, while we gave ChatGPT first authorship, it is important to note as an AI language model, ChatGPT does not have a physical or legal identity and, therefore, cannot be granted authorship in the traditional sense. However, it's worth noting best practices for giving credit to AI-generated text are still evolving, and different fields and contexts may have different standards for attribution. The most important thing is to be transparent about the use of AI-generated text and to ensure readers understand the limitations and capabilities of the language model. Which maybe we did, but we had a good laugh, nonetheless.


Note. ChatGPT did not give any, and we did not feel the need to diverge from its conceptualization, but in general, we recommend the textbook Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd edition) by Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2019).

About the Authors

ChatGPT is a language model created by OpenAI to generate human-like responses to text-based input. Trained on vast amounts of data, ChatGPT aims to provide helpful and informative answers to any questions that come my way - even when humans begrudging give me authorship.

Eric Common is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan-Flint in the Department of Education and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Doctoral Level.

Kelly M. Carrero is an Associate Professor at the Texas A&M-Commerce in the Department of Psychology & Special Education and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Doctoral Level.

Dear Miss Kitty: Advice Column 

Dear Miss Kitty:  

I am a special education teacher in a middle school, and I teach a class of students, ten who are with me most of the day and five who are in general education classes at least 50% of the time. I have a wonderful instructional assistant, but frankly we are both ready to quit. I work in a school where we have a high absenteeism rate of both teachers and students. The problem is that when a general education or other special education teacher is out and the principal can’t find a sub, he tells me I have been reassigned for the day. I was willing to do it as an emergency for a couple of days, but now it is at least 3 days a week I am reassigned, and my assistant is responsible for teaching my class. I feel I am being taken advantage of and my paraprofessional says she is not paid to teach. She has her high school diploma but no additional training to teach. What should I do?

Taken Advantage of Tom

Dear Taken Advantage of Tom:

I am so sorry to hear this is happening to you and your assistant. Unfortunately, reassignments are taking place in other schools; that doesn’t mean it is right though, and you have every reason to complain as does your paraprofessional. When the principal is doing this, he is not only taking advantage of you, but he is denying a free, appropriate public education to your students. He is not obeying the special education laws designed to ensure that your students get the services that are outlined in their IEPs. Perhaps he does not realize this, and I hope you can sit down with him and explain this, then document in writing that meeting.

You were trying to assist a few times and many of us understand that but now you and your assistant are being taken advantage of and you, trying to be cooperative, have enabled your principal to violate the law. You have knowledge that what he is doing is wrong. You also have knowledge that your assistant is not a teacher and should not be expected to teach a class. As a matter of fact, your assistant is supposed to be supervised in her work. She is an assistant to you, but she can’t be your assistant when you are not in the classroom. She is not supposed to be teaching.

Enough of the legal violations that are taking place, you want to protect yourself and the assistant should be doing so as well. You need to document in writing what is happening, and you also need to be documenting in writing your concerns to the principal after you have talked with your principal. Share those concerns as positively as possible but make it clear your priority has to be your students who are being deprived of their education. Share the concerns your paraprofessional has voiced to you.

Are you part of a teacher organization? If so, you must report this to them and do the report in writing. If your paraprofessional is part of a union, she should be going to them also. 

If nothing happens by taking these approaches, then you need to find out whether there is a complaint department at your State Board of Education where you can file a complaint and then do so. There should not be retaliation against you, but it does happen, and then you may want to consider asking for a transfer or look for a new position.

If you have parents who are vocal, you will want to let them know that you are not able to teach their children because you are being reassigned to other classes. They have the right to know that the services they thought their children were getting are not being delivered.

Do remember you are not being allowed to do the job you were hired to do according to your contract, and you have an obligation to speak out for yourself, your students, your students’ parents, and your paraprofessional. Yes, you will have to be strong, but until you speak out, this will continue to happen, and your children will continue to lose the services to which they are entitled. 

Wishing you the courage and strength to speak out. You can do it.





Why Trauma-Sensitive Approaches are Crucial for Teenagers
Jennifer E. De Lapp

Adolescence is a critical period of brain development, second only to infancy in its importance (Cantor et al. 2019; Craig, 2017; Siegal, 2013). It is a time when the brain is remodeling itself by constructing new neural networks through new building neural pathways while strengthening existing pathways through myelinization. In addition, dendritic pruning occurs with greater rapidity, a process whereby unused neurons atrophy to allow for greater efficiency of brain function. While neuroplasticity occurs throughout the lifespan, adolescence is when these processes are at their peak speed (Agorastos et al., 2019; Cantor, et al., 2019; Craig, 2017; Siegal, 2013). New behaviors, new learning, and new thought patterns can replace the old with deliberate and directed intervention and adequate opportunities for practice to strengthen the new pathways (Adams-Wiggins & Taylor-Garcia, 2020; Cantor et al., 2019; Cathomas et al., 2019; Craig, 2017; Cross et al., 2017; Immordino-Yang et al., 2019; Levine & Kline, 2007; Perry, 2009; Siegal, 2013). 

Life stage developmental psychologists define adolescence as the phase when children begin to differentiate appreciably from their primary caregivers (Ashworth & Humphrey, 2018; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2007; Cantor et al., 2019; Craig, 2017; Siegal, 2013). High school is a crucial time for educators who see children more than any other service provider in the community to step up and become mentors and guides (Craig, 2017; Eakins, 2022; Fisher et al., 2020; Hammond, 2015; Howard, 2019; Izard, 2016; Jensen, 2016; Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020). Educators who build trusting relationships with teenagers can critically impact their outcomes (Craig, 2017; Eakins, 2022; Holmes et at. 2018; Izard, 2016; Jackson, 2019; Jennings, 2019; Lopez, 2017; Milner et al., 2019; Roorda & Koomen, 2021; Siegal, 2013; Souers & Hall, 2016; Venet, 2021; Walker & Graham, 2021; Zacarian et al. 2017; Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020).

Too often, high school educators divorce themselves from the relational aspect of teaching and learning or swing to the opposite extreme and, in the endeavor to be close to their students, fail to set healthy emotional boundaries. Teachers must be authentic and stay present to build trust, but neither requires personal disclosure. The former is crucial to building trust and effective teaching. The latter breaks boundaries and puts both teachers and students at risk (Alexander, 2019; Brown, 2017; Brummer & Thorsborne, Craig, 2017; Fisher et al., 2020; Jackson, 2019; Jennings, 2019; Levine & Kline, 2007; Lopez, 2017; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Smith et al., 2017; van der Kolk, 2015; Venet, 2019). Adult personal disclosure has the potential to unduly burden students who have experienced trauma and feel a need to take care of those around them (Levine & Frederick, 1997; Levine & Kline, 2007; Mate, 2003; Siegal, 2013; van der Kolk, 2015). 

Trauma-Sensitive Basics

Creating safe classrooms and building trusting relationships are the keys to keeping kids in school. Only when students feel physically and emotionally safe, heard, seen, and valued can they progress through class and benefit from the education offered Freshmen who arrive in our classes have already experienced 14 years of life and schooling. Most of our students have experienced trauma by this point, in one or both of those settings (Adams-Wiggins & Taylor-Garcia, 2020; Agorastos et al., 2019; Alexander, 2019; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Cantor et al., 2019; Cathomas et al., 2019; Craig, 2017; Cross et al., 2017; Delahooke, 2019; Eakins, 2022; Evans & Vaandering, 2016; Fisher et al., 2020; Hammond, 2015; Holmes et al., 2018; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Howard, 2019; Immordino-Yang et al., 2019; Izard, 2016; Jackson, 2019; Jennings, 2019; Levine & Kline, 2007; Markowitz & Bouffard, 2020; Maynard & Weinstein, 2020; Safir & Dugan, 2021; Schiff, 2018; Siegal, 2013; Smith et al., 2022; Smith et al., 2015; Smith et al., 2017; Souers & Hall, 2016; Venet, 2021; Winn, 2018; Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020). 

Trauma-informed teaching requires self-knowledge and awareness. These capacities allow educators to adapt practices to fit our unique personalities and continually growing abilities and skill sets and to meet the unique needs of our students. Authenticity is critical to trauma-sensitive practices because it is a doorway to building trust. Any kid, especially one exposed to trauma, can tell if their teacher is covering someone else's song or if they are a true original. Be original while using the available knowledge to build a toolkit of evidence-based practices. Make them your own. Learning new skills at first is always uncomfortable, but with practice and a personal touch, implementing trauma-sensitive approaches in the classroom becomes viable (Alexander, 2019; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Craig, 2017; Fisher et al., 2020; Hammond, 2015; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Howard, 2019; Izard, 2016; Jackson, 2019; Jennings, 2019; Levine & Kline, 2007; Markowitz & Bouffard, 2020; Maynard & Weinstein, 2020; Smith et al., 2022; Smith et al., 2015; Smith et al., 2017; Souers & Hall, 2016; Venet, 2021; Winn, 2018; Zacarian et al., 2017; Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020). 

  • Build growth mindsets in educators and students.

          o    Connect any and all progress and achievement directly to effort.

  • Build educators’ unequivocal belief in all students’ ability to grow and learn.

          o    Inculcate in students a strong belief in themselves.

  • Acknowledge and challenge students’ fear of failure.

          o    Reframe “failure” as a human condition, frequently occurring for everyone, providing data for the next attempt, and required to learn and achieve progress (Alexander, 2019; Brown, 2017; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Craig, 2017; Fisher et al., 2020; Holmes et al., 2018; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Immordino-Yang et al., 2019; Jennings, 2019; Jensen, 2016; Levine & Kline, 2007; Markowitz & Bouffard, 2020; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021: Safir & Dugan, 2021; Smith et al., 2017; Souers & Hall, 2016; Venet, 2021; Wilson, 2018; Zacarian et al., 2017; Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020).

Maintaining high expectations is critical, as is providing appropriate scaffolding and support. Become informed about the needs of students regarding learning and the etiology of their behaviors. Assist students in building their unique toolkits of support strategies designed around how their brains and bodies work. This collaborative process allows educators to accord their students the most effective supports meeting their specific needs and begin the gradual removal of scaffolding. The power of educators' high expectations for their students is unmatched. Whichever theory you subscribe to, research repeatedly shows that students will perform according to their teachers' expectations. Appropriate support for students dealing with trauma becomes an essential part of the equation  (Adams-Wiggins & Taylor-Garcia, 2020; Alexander, 2019; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Cantor et al., 2019; Cathomas et al., 2019; Craig, 2017; Delahooke, 2019; Eakins, 2022; Fisher et al., 2020; Hammond, 2015; Holmes et al., 2018; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Howard, 2019; Immordino-Yang et al., 2019; Izard, 2016; Jackson, 2019; Jennings, 2019; Levine & Kline, 2007; Markowitz & Bouffard, 2020; Maynard & Weinstein, 2020; Milner et al., 2019; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Safir & Dugan, 2021; Siegal, 2013; Smith et al., 2022; Smith et al., 2015; Smith et al., 2017; Souers & Hall, 2016; Venet, 2021; Winn, 2018; Zarian et al., 2017;Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020). 

A note about humor many high school educators are known to bring into the classroom: appropriate, inclusive humor can offer students a quick mental break between instructional sessions or help to connect and de-escalate. However, understanding the difference between inclusive and exclusionary humor and knowing when and how to use humor effectively can take time. Students' unique nature and history, particularly concerning trauma, can make them especially sensitive to certain types of humor. Knowing students well and gaining their trust before joking with them is best practice (Alexander, 2019; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Fisher et al., 2020; Jennings, 2019; Lopez, 2017; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Smith et al, 2017; Souers & Hall, 2016; Venet, 2021; Winn, 2018; Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020).
One Size Does NOT Fit All

Trauma-informed teaching is one aspect of inclusive education and an important one. Recognize and learn about the contextual factors affecting students, like the multi-layered traumas stemming from familial, generational, historical, socio-political, and economic sources and divergence from the dominant culture. Most hierarchical power structures are designed to oppress and discriminate while refusing to acknowledge this reality. We, as educators, must actively address this reality in the microsystem of education, where we still have some power to create the safety needed to discuss the challenges inherent to these systems openly. Finally, we must become conscious of the implicit biases we hold within ourselves and others that we express or witness without intervention through microaggressions. Practices such as co-regulation, in which a well-regulated, calm teacher helps an activated student regulate his emotions, facilitate the learning process, which is the goal of every educator. With our constant presence and vigilance, and if we implement practices we know are effective, many students will be able to access the requisite higher-order thinking skills for learning. Alternately, students may remain powerless to apply these cognitive skills because of their inability to regulate and connect without guidance and support (Adams-Wiggins & Taylor-Garcia, 2020; Alexander, 2019; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Cantor et al., 2019; Cathomas et al., 2019; Craig, 2017; Delahooke, 2019; Eakins, 2022; Fisher et al., 2020; Hammond, 2015; Holmes et al., 2018; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Howard, 2019; Immordino-Yang et al., 2019; Izard, 2016; Jackson, 2019; Jennings, 2019; Levine & Kline, 2007; Markowitz & Bouffard, 2020; Maynard & Weinstein, 2020; Milner et al., 2019; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Safir & Dugan, 2021; Siegal, 2013; Smith et al., 2022; Smith et al., 2015; Smith et al., 2017; Souers & Hall, 2016; Venet, 2021; Winn, 2018; Zarian et al., 2017;Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020).  

Educators can explicitly connect students' actions with natural and logical consequences to guide them toward taking responsibility for their actions. Restorative justice practices are relevant and particularly effective with students who have experienced trauma. Focusing on repairing the harm done to another or the community through their actions allows the student to make their own connections between their actions and real-world consequences. This process, in turn, aids in developing personal accountability and social responsibility (Bacher & Kicks et al., 2021; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Evans & Vaandering, 2016; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Howard, 2019; Izard, 2016; Maynard & Weinstein, 2020; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Schiff, 2018; Smith et al., 2022; Smith et al., 2015; Venet, 2021; Winn, 2018; Zacarian & Silverstone, 2020).

Relationship-building is complex in the best of times. Trauma complicates the process even more. In essence, unconditional acceptance and love for students, as they are in each moment, must co-exist with the unequivocal belief in their ability to grow and learn. A student must believe that they are valued for who they are, as they are, before they will buy into the belief that they can learn to be more of who they want to be. Everyone needs to be seen, heard, and valued for who they are. Educators' ability to connect with students and foster a feeling of being valued allows us to foster growth and learning (Alexander, 2019; Brown, 2017; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Cantor et al., 2019; Craig, 2017; Eakins, 2022; Fisher et al., 2020; Hammond, 2015; Holmes et al., 2018; Howard, 2019; Immordino-Yang et al., 2019; Izard, 2016; Jackson, 2019; Jennings, 2019; Jensen, 2016; Levine & Kline, 2007; Lopez, 2017; Milner et al., 2019; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Roorda & Koomen, 2021; Siegal, 2013; Smith et al., 2017; Souers & Hall, 2016; Venet, 2021; Walker & Graham, ,2021: Zacarian et al., 2017; Zacarian &  Silverstone, 2020).

The Final Stage

High school provides the last chance for educators to repair and mitigate the harm that may have occurred in students’ first 14 years. In addition, it is our last chance to create as many growth opportunities as possible for as many students as possible. As long as kids are still coming through our classroom doors, there is a chance for them to change their life trajectories. 

After high school, there is no large-scale mechanism for reaching as many students. Whether we like it or not, that makes high school educators the last line of defense against potentially bleak outcomes for our students. High school educators can alter the "school-to-prison pipeline" that so many have observed by building knowledge, awareness, and skill sets and demanding the necessary education, training, and support to do so (Alexander, 2019; Bacher-Hicks et al., 2021; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Cantor et al., 2019; Craig, 2017; Eakins, 2022; Fisher et al., 2020; Hammond, 2015; Hanson, 2021; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Howard, 2019; Immordino-Yang et al., 2019; Izard, 2016; Jackson, 2019; Jennings, 2019; Jensen, 2016; Lopez, 2017; Markowitz & Bouffard, 2020; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Roorda & Koomen, 2021; Safir & Dugan, 2021; Schiff, 2018; Smith et al., 2022; Smith et al., 2017; Venet, 2021; Walker & Graham, 2021: Winn, 2018; Zacarian &  Silverstone, 2020).

Alternative schools are not the answer. Losing our kids to alternative schools that are not viable alternatives removes them from their best hope for a successful transition to life after high school. Shortening the school day, segregating students, and providing students with packets of worksheets to earn credits will not create growth opportunities, nor will it provide the academic or life skills and abilities necessary for advancement in our society. Every effort to meet the needs of all our students in the comprehensive high schools is a step towards decreasing the numbers of kids lost to alternative schools and GED programs, which often lead to dead ends rather than a future (Phillippi, 2022). The need for alternative schools increases because our high schools cannot or will not adapt to the diverse needs of our students (Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Craig, 2017; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Venet, 2021)

We have an unprecedented opportunity for growth and repair in high school. Moreover, the same system that does not meet students' needs is also failing to meet the needs of its teachers. Educators can be a force to reckon with if they persevere together in seeking the education, training, and support they need to educate and connect with all their students. In empowering our teachers and students, we create the potential for educators to develop self-efficacy and job satisfaction and offer sufficient support to their students to meet teachers' high expectations (Aguilar, 2018; Alexander, 2019; Brummer & Thorsborne, 2021; Craig, 2017; Eakins, 2022; Frey et al., 2022; Honsinger & Brown, 2019; Jennings, 2021; Jennings, 2019; Lucas, 2018; Markowitz & Bouffard, 2020; O’Drobinak & Kelley, 2021; Safir & Dugan, 2021; Smith et al., 2022; Venet, 2021). Legislation and litigation are slow and mired in precedent. Policy often moves just as slowly (Wilson, 2018).

Furthermore, in these uncertain times, laws and policies often move backward out of fear of change. Grassroots efforts by educators of all kinds are critical now more than ever to guide policymakers in their decisions and effect lasting educational transformation. All of our children have a right to a high-quality, well-supported education. Educators deserve the tools and support they need to make that a reality.


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Posted:  14 March, 2023

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