From Zero Tolerance to Full Support

Effective Models for Responding to Problem Behaviors in Students With EBD

By Dan Habib

Issues Summary

Over 2 million young people in the United States have an emotional/behavioral disability (EBD). Statistics released by the Southern Poverty Law Center and The Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders reflect the grim outcomes for these students:

  • Students with EBD have the worst graduation rate of all students with disabilities. Nationally, only 40 percent of students with EBD graduate from high school, compared with the national average of 76 percent.
  • Students with EBD are three times as likely as other students to be arrested before leaving school.
  • Students with EBD are twice as likely as other students with disabilities to live in a correctional facility, halfway house, drug treatment center, or on the street after leaving school.
  • Female students with EBD are twice as likely as students with other disabilities to become teenage mothers.
  • 75 percent of young adults with EBD have been involved with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives.

Traditional Responses to Problem Behavior in School

Students with EBD typically do not respond well to traditional discipline policies and educational programs. As such, schools can easily and wrongly dismiss them as “problem kids,” further reinforcing the characteristics of EBD (anxiety, depression, low self-worth, aggression), which leads to cycles of discipline referrals.

With the rise of school violence in the 1990s, schools responded by securing the safety of their students and faculty through the initiation of zero-tolerance policies. Across the country, many of those policies still exist today. The goal of zero-tolerance is to deter problem behavior by providing swift consequences for misconduct, sending a strong, “one strike, and you’re out” message to students. Seriously dangerous behaviors that jeopardize the safety of students and staff require consistent and firm consequences.

However, zero-tolerance prescribes non-negotiable punishment (typically, suspension or expulsion) for misconduct, regardless of the extent or context of the infraction. This “one-size-fits-all” framework impedes administrators from using their professional judgment, common sense, and teaching skills to correct minor infractions and help students behave positively. By focusing solely on punishment, zero-tolerance neglects to examine the root causes of problem behavior and consequently can do little to prevent the behavior from reoccurring. Rather than increasing school safety, zero-tolerance often leads to increased suspensions and expulsions for both serious and mild infractions and disproportionately impacts students with disabilities.

According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, students covered under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) are more than twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as students without disabilities.

A long-term study in Texas released in 2011—Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement—tracked 1 million students in Texas between their seventh- and twelfth-grade school years. The study confirmed the prevalence of suspension as a default response to behavior issues in school:

  • 60 percent of public school students studied were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh- and twelfth-grade school years.
  • Only 3 percent of disciplinary actions were for conduct for which state law mandates suspensions and expulsions (e.g., bringing a weapon to school). 97 percent of suspensions/expulsions were for minor infractions that did not jeopardize the safety of the school population (e.g., talking back to the teacher, talking in class, noncompliance with dress code).
  • Approximately 59 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more did not graduate from high school

The study also showed that disciplinary measures are not color-blind. African-Americans were 30 percent more likely to face disciplinary action, often for a similar incident, that would not lead to suspension for a white or Latino student.

Further, according to recent studies conducted by the Schott Foundation, students who are suspended or expelled often drop out of school altogether, which can lead to juvenile delinquency, arrests, and prison. Taking students out of their learning communities for non-violent misconduct is not only counterintuitive but has furthered the development of the school-to-prison pipeline. According to reports from groups such as the American Bar Association and the American Psychological Association, zero-tolerance policies are associated with declines in academic achievement and increases in student misconduct, repeat suspensions, school dropouts, and poor attitudes toward adults. Research also links zero-tolerance to increases in referrals to the juvenile-justice system for infractions that used to be handled in schools.

There are economic consequences when youth exhibiting treatable behavior problems are transferred to the juvenile-justice system. The anti-crime organization “Fight Crime: Invest in Kids” cites that the cost of keeping a young person in juvenile detention for one year is between $35,000 to $50,000, compared with $12,000 to $15,000 per year to provide effective prevention and intervention programs to an adolescent. Furthermore, the country saves an estimated $1.7 million for every young person kept from engaging in a life of crime.

What Works?

The good news is there are numerous alternatives to zero-tolerance policies that actually work. Rather than cling to ineffectual strategies, many schools around the country are embracing proven (also known as “evidence-based”) models that help all students, including those with EBD, achieve success in school. These models are effective because they are rooted in prevention, build upon the inherent strengths of each student, and seek to address the underlying causes of problem behavior.

For far too many students with EBD, school is seen as the place where they are misunderstood, punished, and isolated. However, school is an ideal setting for students, particularly those with EBD, to develop meaningful relationships with competent, trustworthy adults who recognize their potential. These relationships are key to sustaining climates of success, safety, tolerance, and excellence in which students learn to thrive.

Many successful evidence-based models that address issues facing schools and students—particularly those with disabilities—fall under the educational framework called response to intervention (RtI), or Multitier System of Supports (MTSS). In short, RtI:

  • Provides all students with the best opportunities to succeed in school
  • Identifies students with learning or behavioral problems
  • Ensures that students receive appropriate instruction and related supports

RtI models have consistently been shown to be effective. In November 2011, the National Association of School Psychiatrists (NASP) held a congressional briefing at which it shared its findings on how schools can create safe, supportive conditions for learning. Experts underscored that: (1) student wellness (social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological) is essential for academic achievement, and (2) schools must emphasize both student wellness and academic achievement equally if all students are going to learn to their fullest potential.

The key components of safe and supportive conditions for learning presented by NASP are rooted in the best practices of RtI and include:

  • School-wide frameworks, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), that prevent negative behaviors such as bullying, violence, gang involvement, substance abuse, and truancy
  • Comprehensive and coordinated learning supports (e.g., effective discipline and positive behavior supports) that directly contribute to student social-emotional wellness, mental health, and positive behavior
  • Positive school climates that promote student connectedness and family engagement
  • Effective use of data to identify and address the most critical issues related to school safety and engagement
  • School-based specialized instructional support personnel who are integrally involved in develop­ment, delivery, and evaluation of these services

By adopting best practices for responding to problem behavior in students with EBD, we can break the cycle of discipline referrals and negative outcomes to ensure that these students achieve and sustain success in school and beyond.

Dan Habib is the Filmmaker in Residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. Until joining UNH in April of 2008, he was the photo editor at the Concord Monitor. Two of his recent documentaries—Including Samuel and the new film Who Cares About Kelsey?—are now available through Sopris Learning. Including Samuel was broadcast nationwide on public TV stations in Fall 2009 and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010. Hear a recent interview with Dan at

About Dan Habib

Videos By Dan Habib: Including Samuel, Who Cares about Kelsey

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | 1 Comment

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One thought on “From Zero Tolerance to Full Support

  1. Krystal Kimbrough

    NASP stands for the National Association of School PSYCHOLOGISTS…not psychiatrists. We are totally different from psychiatrists.

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