Guidelines for Identifying and Educating Students with Emotional Disability

Best Practices in Prevention and Intervention

Scientific Research-Based Interventions

In August 2008, the CSDE Bureau of School Improvement published Using Scientific Research-Based Interventions: Improving Education for All Students—Connecticut's Framework for RTI (2008). This document outlines Connecticut's SRBI framework for the implementation of response to intervention (RTI). SRBI aims to provide high-quality instruction and interventions matched to student need, using frequent monitoring of student progress, which drives decisions regarding changes in instruction and interventions and focuses on the application of student response data to inform educational decisions. SRBI emphasizes successful instruction for all students through high-quality core general education practices as well as targeted interventions for students experiencing learning, social-emotional or behavioral difficulties. Using Scientific Research-Based Interventions: Improving Education for All Students-Connecticut's Framework for RTI (2008) core general education practices refer not only to practices related to important academic areas, but also include the application of strategies and interventions which promote a positive school climate and a comprehensive system of social-emotional learning and behavioral supports. Using Scientific Research-Based Interventions: Improving Education for All Students-Connecticut's Framework for RTI (2008) applies to special education as well, creating an integrated system of instruction and/or intervention which is guided by child specific data.

When implemented with fidelity, SRBI will help to ensure effective universal practices for all students, including those with disabilities. A student with a disability, such as ED, can benefit from access to the core practices and differentiated instruction at Tier I, targeted interventions at Tier II and/or intensive interventions at Tier III as well as accommodations and modifications and/or specialized instruction as outlined in a 504 Plan or the IEP. By developing general education practices that are more responsive to student needs, an increased number of students with disabilities, including those with ED, will be included in the general education classroom.

The basic principles of SRBI are as relevant to special education as general education and should be applied to both. Basic principles include:

  • use of scientific research to inform practice;
  • need for accountability and transparency;
  • culturally and ethnically responsive teaching;
  • fidelity of implementation; and
  • data driven decision-making.

Key factors that are essential in SRBI in promoting student success include:

  • effective district and school leadership;
  • high quality ethical teaching;
  • pre-service and job embedded professional development;
  • collaboration with special services;
  • family engagement; and
  • access/use of technology.

To be effective in promoting the social, emotional and behavioral growth of students, SRBI has to be part of a broad effort to provide positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS). This effort needs to be schoolwide, proactive, comprehensive and systematic in providing a continuum of supports designed to afford opportunities to all students, including those with identified emotional or behavioral disabilities. While traditional behavior management practices seek to eliminate undesirable behaviors, PBIS and the use of functional assessments increase the capacity of school and district personnel to adopt and sustain the use of effective behavioral practices. Such practices not only address the specific needs of students with severe behavior problems but also can result in improved school climate and an increase in the achievement level of all students.

The SRBI framework also encompasses the social, emotional and behavioral perspective. The literature supports the use of a tiered approach in the implementation of behavior intervention strategies (Tilly, 2008; Tobin, Schneider, Reck and Landau, 2008; Grisham-Brown, 2008). All students, including those who experience social, emotional and or behavioral difficulties can benefit from access to universal practices, differentiated instruction and interventions at Tier I, targeted interventions at Tier II and intensive interventions at Tier III.

Tier I interventions are characterized by their universal design and provide differentiated instruction for all students. These interventions are preventive and proactive in nature. Essential elements of Tier I interventions require that actions be:

  • proactive, positive and preventive in nature;
  • based on the use of empirically validated procedures;
  • done in collaboration with community supports;
  • based in a common approach to discipline and climate;
  • culturally responsive; and,
  • cognizant of linguistic diversity, addressing the needs of linguistically diverse students.

Tier I practices in the social emotional domain are comprehensive and aligned with state standards and student outcomes. These practices are culturally responsive and promote a positive and safe school climate. Tier I interventions include but are not limited to, explicit schoolwide behavior expectations, the implementation of a differentiated social emotional learning curriculum, the use of effective classroom management, recognition and reinforcement programs such as student of the month and the use of a positive rewards menu. Preventive steps that can reduce potential for behavioral difficulties include establishing a healthy school climate, teaching essential social skills such as showing respect to self and others, and establishing positive behavior supports that facilitate an effective classroom environment.

Tier II interventions are characterized as targeted interventions, which are limited or short term in duration, delivered to small groups and involve collaboration between the teacher and an interventionist such as a school psychologist, special education teacher, principal, behavior specialist, school counselor, school social worker or other support person with skills specific to the needs of the student. Essential elements of Tier II interventions require that actions be:

  • short term;
  • targeted and specifically matched to student's need;
  • implemented with fidelity;
  • provided within a small group;
  • supplemental to the core program ("in addition to" not "instead of");
  • research based or empirically supported;
  • culturally responsive; and
  • sensitive to linguistic diversity, addressing the needs of English Language Learners (ELL) and varieties of English.

Tier II, targeted interventions include but are not limited to, small group behavior contracts, check-in/check-out systems, counseling or guidance groups, lunch bunch, conflict resolution groups, parent conferencing, social skills training, mentoring and self-management programs.

For students making inadequate progress with universal and supplemental or targeted interventions at Tiers I and II (based on data from progress monitoring), an increase in the intensity or characteristics of intervention, along with different, more specialized interventions, should be considered at Tier III. The difference between targeted and intensive interventions is characterized by increased intensity and individualization. Essential elements of Tier III interventions require that actions be:

  • short term;
  • supplemental to core program and targeted interventions (may require interventions within all three tiers);
  • research- and/or evidence-based;
  • individualized;
  • highly explicit, systematically targeting the need;
  • implemented with fidelity;
  • supported by personnel with a high degree of expertise (as appropriate);
  • designed around function based support plans;
  • culturally responsive; and,
  • sensitive to linguistic diversity.

Intensive or Tier III interventions might include but are not limited to increasing the intensity and frequency of Tier II interventions, conducting assessments to determine the function of challenging behavior and implementing behavior support plans, individualized student/family supports planned through wrap around processes, weekly progress reports, parent conferencing (more frequent) and consideration of additional, more comprehensive assessments.

Parents/guardians and families play a vital role in supporting their schools and students. When families are involved and support children's schooling, the children clearly benefit (Snow et al., 1991). Beyond the need for district personnel to inform parents about the SRBI process, including general education service, intervention strategies and the detail of data to be collected, parents/families must be promptly notified of concerns specific to their child's behavior, social-emotional status and academic performance. Additionally, ongoing information related to student progress must be provided to parents/families. Throughout the intervention process, parents/families need to be engaged and invited to incorporate knowledge of their child and analysis of the child's learning or behavior. Parents/families provide critical and unique information that can be used by school personnel in determining appropriately tiered interventions within the SRBI framework. Families need to be actively involved in progress monitoring activities and districts have a responsibility to provide families with ongoing information and data related to student progress in a clear and understandable format.

If a student does not demonstrate adequate progress at the conclusion of an intervention period, the team, including the parent/family, should closely examine and analyze data to investigate the reason why. Thorough observation by another staff member, close examination of student performance and/or additional diagnostic assessments should be considered. In addition, attention should be given to social context. Determinations related to appropriateness of the targeted behavior, interventions utilized and the fidelity of implementation of the interventions should be made. In addition, a comprehensive evaluation, which assesses all areas related to a suspected disability (including if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social-emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status and motor abilities (IDEA Section 300.304[C][4]), may also be necessary. The documentation of Tier III progress monitoring, as well as current assessments can be used to inform the design of a comprehensive evaluation to determine that a student has a disability and is eligible for special education.

Connecticut state regulation requires "prompt referral" for determining eligibility for special education if a student has been "suspended repeatedly or whose behavior, attendance or progress in school is considered unsatisfactory or at a marginal level of acceptance" (10-76d-7). When deemed necessary or at the request of a parent, school personnel, or others, the prompt referral to the PPT can be initiated at any time during the intervention period, to decide whether a comprehensive evaluation is warranted to determine eligibility for special education. As outlined in IDEA 2004, families and school personnel always have the right and responsibility to refer a student for consideration for eligibility for special education services. This referral can be conducted at any time, including prior to the full implementation of tiered interventions.

The school must respond to all referrals through a PPT meeting. Based on a review of the referral, the PPT can determine whether an evaluation to determine special education eligibility is warranted. A thorough examination and analysis of the current data, classroom assessments and student progress may indicate to the team that interventions in place through SRBI are appropriate and have resulted in adequate progress indicating that further evaluation is not necessary. However, if the student has not made adequate progress and the analysis of the current data supports a suspicion of a disability, an initial evaluation as defined in 34 Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) Section 300.01 (a) through (e) needs to be conducted. A copy of the federal regulations (34 C.F.R. Sections 300.301 through 300.305, inclusive) related to evaluation and determination of special education eligibility can be found in section 5 of this document.

The following diagram illustrates a schoolwide or districtwide comprehensive system of social emotional learning and behavioral supports, through a tiered approach and is a revision of the original diagram found in Using Scientific Research-Based Interventions: Improving Education for All Students-Connecticut's Framework for RTI (2008).

SRBI pyramid

A tiered intervention system, as defined in the SRBI framework, when implemented with fidelity, will provide a problem-solving model designed to produce improved outcomes for all students. Moreover, it is consistent with federal legislation IDEA 2004 and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) as well as scientific research and empirically supported prevention, and intervention strategies.

For additional information on SRBI, refer to CSDE's document Using Scientific Research-Based Interventions: Improving Education for All Students-Connecticut's Framework for RTI (2008).


A Note on Positive Behavioral Support Strategies

Positive behavioral support (PBS) strategies involve the use of a continuum of evidence and/or research-based practices for promoting the academic and social behavior success of all students. These schoolwide strategies promote systemic change, improved social skills and decreased use of punitive interventions (i.e., punishment or suspension). PBS strategies are part of a systems approach to improving school climate, discipline and achievement. A PBS framework facilitates a proactive and structured schoolwide and classroom environment that increases student achievement and helps to improve student behaviors both in and outside of the classroom. Implementation adjustments and enhancements of PBS strategies are maximized through continuous data-based progress monitoring at the school, classroom and individual student levels. As a result, more reflective, effective, efficient, relevant and sustainable positive learning communities are promoted; and staff, students and family member capacity to support student behavior and academic achievement is enhanced.

The development and implementation of positive schoolwide academic and behavioral support strategies include:

  • team-based, collaborative and strategic action planning activities for improving schoolwide climate and individual students ' needs;
  • teaching and reinforcement of schoolwide classroom and individual student social skills; and expectations that promote and preserve a positive school and classroom climate;
  • classroom and schoolwide environments with clear, concise expectations that foster fair and equitable discipline designed to promote pro-social skills, and prevent development and occurrence of problem behavior;
  • parent participation through sharing comprehensive information about student performance, involvement in decision making and active implementation engagement;
  • evidence-based, classroom and individual student practices that prevent negative interactions and foster positive interactions; and are organized in an integrated and data-based continuum of implementation support;
  • community support systems (i.e., community mental health and medical) that are collaborative, culturally relevant and effective;
  • effective, efficient, ongoing and relevant professional development for all staff members (e.g., effective instructional and classroom management practices);
  • function-based approaches to understanding problem behavior and developing effective behavior intervention plans (BIPs); and
  • effective school and district leadership to support implementation of positive behavioral support strategies.
    (Excerpt from Guidelines for In-School and Out-of School Suspensions [CSDE, 2010])


A Note on Preschool-age Children

The intent of Connecticut's response-to-intervention framework, SRBI, is to improve educational outcomes for all students in prekindergarten-Grade 12. While public elementary school begins at kindergarten for students who are age 5 on or before January 1 of the school year, public school districts have an obligation to provide special education to preschool-age students with disabilities who are found eligible for special education at age 3. Public schools may also provide a public preschool education to students without disabilities.

It is essential to recognize the multidimensional and interrelated nature of early learning and development of the preschool child. This recognition may make it difficult to identify and determine whether young children's behavioral or learning challenges are in fact related to a specific disability. Consideration must be given to maturational growth and development, as well as biological and/or environmental, and socioeconomic factors relative to the individual child and their family. Preschool-age students may have limited early learning opportunities and minimal occasion to acquire social-emotional and behavioral skills for a number of reasons. Therefore, when considering the identification of a young child as a child with an emotional disability, the PPT must exercise caution.

To address the special considerations relative to the preschool child, minimize later behavioral difficulties and avoid inappropriate identification of a disability, all children should benefit from the provision of a high-quality education as well as targeted support for children who demonstrate emotional or behavioral challenges. The provision of targeted interventions and appropriate supports to students, including those of preschool age, does not require the identification of a disability. A systematic approach that assists early childhood educators and parents in ensuring early school success for all children, including those that may be inclined to develop emotional and behavioral difficulties, can be implemented for 3- and 4-year-old students in the preschool grade. The framework for a systematic approach can be found in the recognition and response system, the basis of which originates in RTI and in Connecticut, SRBI, which place the focus on the provision of a high quality education for all students and targeted interventions for students who are at risk. The emotional and behavioral challenges of 3- and 4-year-olds in the preschool setting can be addressed at the preschool level through the application of the essential elements of the recognition and response system, which is typically illustrated through the pyramid. The fundamental components include the provision of an intervention hierarchy, providing increasing levels of intensity of instruction related specifically to the child's need; screening assessment and progress monitoring, which relies on multiple methods and sources, and can be used to determine if a child is meeting specific benchmarks and making adequate progress; research-based or empirically supported interventions and instruction; and the implementation of a collaborative problem solving process for decision making (FPG Child Development Institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

While a referral to consider eligibility for the receipt of special education services can be initiated at any time before or during the provision of targeted interventions, children who receive behavioral supports at an increased level of intensity and individualization, and do not respond to targeted supports over a reasonable period of time, and continue to manifest behavioral challenges should be evaluated to determine if they are a child with a disability. The comprehensive evaluation and assessment of young preschool-age students to determine if they have a disability that will require special education and related services should include multiple components. Parent participation is essential in the evaluation process, as they hold key information related to their child's early development as well as information related to their child's early learning experiences and opportunities.

The Guidelines for Identifying and Educating Students with Emotional Disability applies to all students preschool through Grade 12, who are served by public schools, though special consideration must be taken in applying the guidance to the preschool population.