More kids are having bad days: special education after COVID
by Alan Gottlieb
This story also appeared in Idaho Education News
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the learning disruptions and isolation it created, schools are seeing extreme behaviors among a wider array of students than ever before – behaviors that used to be seen mostly in students identified as needing special education services for behavioral issues.
These behaviors are putting stress on families, educators, and students, and making it more challenging for schools to return to what was once considered a normal learning environment.
They are also requiring schools to reevaluate how staff is trained to deal with emotional outbursts that can quickly escalate if not handled deftly.
Schools report being caught by surprise by a growing number of new students enrolling who are not on an Individual Education Plans (IEP), and yet display extreme behaviors that require intensive interventions. “I can’t think of a school where that hasn’t been the case,” said Jennifer Ribordy, Bluum’s special education development director. “And some schools have multiple cases.”
In the more severe cases, children who are on IEPs for behavioral reasons can have a full-time behavior interventionist accompanying them in schools as part of their plans. This helps keep that child regulated.
But when a child not on an IEP exhibits similar behaviors – throwing chairs or attacking a student or adult, for example – school personnel need training to cope with those situations in a way that does not escalate the behavior.
At MOSAICS Public School, a K-8 charter school in Caldwell, principal Anthony Haskett has made sure that his staff is well-trained in behavioral interventions, for SPED and non-SPED students alike. Haskett received a state grant to implement a program called Sources of Strength that trains adults to help students develop emotional resilience.
Staff has also been trained to recognize when behaviors are escalating to potentially threatening levels. For those more extreme cases that might require restraining or isolating a student for short periods, Haskett and his special education team have received intensive training.
“That training is just for a few staff members,” Haskett said. “We don’t want everyone even attempting those interventions. We don’t even want it to enter their minds. We want them to engage in preventative strategies.”
Because of these behavioral challenges, some schools are also finding it necessary to identify more students than in the past for special education services and develop IEPs for them, as required by federal special education law.
“The number of kids that we’ve identified in kindergarten and first grade this year has been more than we have gone through the process with before,” said Amanda Cox, executive director and co-founder of Future Public School in Garden City.
“In past years there might have been one, two, maybe three kids over the course of the year. This year we’re more like seven, eight kids or more in those early grades.”
Cox said those referrals are “100 percent behavior-related.”
Future Public School is no outlier. Interviews with leaders of several public charter schools turned up similar stories everywhere. Kids are anxious, for a wide variety of reasons. They bring that anxiety to school with them.
On top of that, many kids experienced formative years for social development warped by the isolation imposed by COVID-19 lockdowns, even in a state like Idaho where they tended to be of shorter duration than in some other states.
School leaders are seeing an increase in negative mindsets, a lack of resiliency, and even “suicide ideation” in young children. They attribute some of those troubling trends to more intensive social media interactions and habits developed during the pandemic.
“It was almost universal, kids’ access to cell phones and through them access to lots of things that are inappropriate for their age,” Cox said. “Everyone was on screens more during those weeks and months, and had more opportunity to get sucked into the cave of social media, and we’re seeing some pretty detrimental impacts from that.”
At MOSAICS, Haskett said even a few early elementary students are experiencing serious mental health issues. Last year, he said, multiple students had to be hospitalized for mental health crises. “I had never seen that before,” he said.
Cox said it can be helpful to remember that for some students, COVID has been a front-and-center issue during formative years. Students just now entering school might not have had much experience in daycare, or might even have missed key pediatric appointments where developmental and behavioral issues might have been identified.
She said there is a “slippery-slope” risk of students being over-identified for special education because of behavioral issues not linked to a disability. This is especially true for low-income students, she said.
“It feels tricky, because there are so many kids that have such escalated behaviors that we haven’t seen before. And we’re obligated to serve them. We’re mission driven to serve them.”
In some cases, being identified as requiring special education services can be beneficial to a student, Cox said. “It allows the opportunity to provide additional behavior intervention support, and provides a pathway for kids to have very targeted social skills groups and a behavior interventionist, to help them build those tools and strategies.”
Without a SPED identification, Cox said, “they can be left without any of those supports and resources.” This, she said, is especially challenging for low-income families, who lack the access and resources to seek these services on their own.
School leaders also said behavioral disruptions can have an impact on academic achievement, not just for the students exhibiting the behaviors, but for other students in a classroom where outbursts are frequent.
At Elevate Academy, a growing charter school network serving students in grades 6-12, 100 percent of students have been identified as at-risk under Idaho law, and close to a quarter of students have special education plans.
Matt Strong, Elevate’s cofounder, said by and large Elevate has avoided the kinds of disruptive, COVID-related behavior challenges other schools report. He said because of the schools’ student population, staff is well-trained in behavior intervention.
Also, he said, the school’s culture is grounded in deep knowledge of each student. Staff recognize when a student is potentially in crisis, and can act early to intervene, he said.
“We set a culture within our schools. This is who we are, this is what we believe in. Our parents and students have a great understanding when they come in.”
Strong said that as a Career and Technical Education school, Elevate is filled with tools that could be used as weapons. But, he said, the school culture is so robust that teachers do not hesitate to let all students handle knives, welding torches and the like.
“You bet we have kids who sometimes have bad days,” Strong said. “We don’t look at it as whether they are an IEP student or not. We relate it to real life. If it looks like they’re having a bad day, then probably there is a different kind of work they should be doing that day. “