The Key to Improving How IEP Teams Support Children’s Social and Emotional Needs

Updated May 7, 2022

Since his first day of kindergarten, “Justin” had struggled to manage the demands of his new school. When teachers asked him to transition from one activity to the next, he would often fuss, kick or run away. He routinely “overreacted”  to simple tasks and activities, and it seemed that no matter how much praise, or how many incentives or consequences his teachers offered, his disruptive behaviors continued.

When the members of his team met to discuss his IEP (Individualized Education Program), they agreed on what seemed like a useful goal: “Justin will reduce the amounts of emotional outbursts or overreactions to requests made by adults.” To encourage him, the team then devised a reward system.

The problem was that the IEP didn’t address Justin’s emotional needs. Instead, it focused on persuading him to comply.

The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s important. IEP teams often devise goals under the social-emotional category that require behavioral compliance. But compliance isn’t a reliable indicator of how a child is faring from a mental health standpoint. When we ask vulnerable children to suppress their emotional reactions, we can inflict stress on the child, who feels pressured to comply and embarrassed or ashamed of his own behaviors. Since the cause of the behaviors is subconscious, the child himself is at a loss to explain them.

To support a child’s social-emotional development, we need to determine what lies underneath the behaviors. Think of an iceberg, with the iceberg’s tip representing the readily observable behaviors and the part hidden below the water’s surface the multiple triggers or causes. Rather than documenting whether the child’s behaviors are more compliant, we should track whether the child’s emotional regulation—the root of the behaviors—is improving.

Our concern should be for the child’s emotions, physiological state (calmness in mind and body) and experience of safety. Not only does this optimize psychological resilience, it also sets the best platform for learning and memory. Too often, we fail to recognize that a child’s maladaptive behaviors are actually stress responses—and what is being asked of the child exceeds her ability to comply. A child can’t focus and attend to academics when she is in a stress response.

In Justin’s case, his complex medical history—including multiple invasive procedures—had left an invisible developmental trauma that made it difficult for him manage his behaviors while he was at school, away from the security of home. But there are a myriad of reasons children can’t comply, including differences in brain wiring, and the variability of individual stress thresholds.

The problem: When we try to change surface behaviors before we investigate the reasons for the behaviors, we don’t learn how to support the child’s social and emotional development in a meaningful way. IEP goals should address basic foundations for social-emotional development, including the most important one: feeling safe in relationships. They should also be integrated into other goals, reflecting how children develop across brain areas, not in isolated arenas.

Here is an example of an appropriate IEP goal for such a child with four possible integrated approaches to accomplishing it:

  • The child will increase her ability to identify when they need support from a caring and emotionally attuned and available adult.  These needs can be communicated verbally, non-verbally or with facilitated support.

And here are four possible integrated approaches to accomplishing it, involving multiple professionals across disciplines:

  • All members of the child’s team—including parents—will work together to recognize and identify triggers leading to emotional distress, and support the child in communicating his needs to them so that they can lend assistance.
  • The school’s occupational therapist will work with teachers to identify sensory triggers causing emotional distress so that the child can learn to ask for support when he needs it.
  • The school psychologist and teacher will meet with his parents to discover ways to understand the child’s developmental anxiety in his educational settings.
  • The school’s speech therapist will work with the team to ensure the child can communicate his needs for emotional security to compassionate adults.

It’s essential that we address the inconsistencies in the way IEP goals identify and support students’ social and emotional developmental needs. When we update our training to account for an understanding of the pathways that build brain architecture and resilience, all children will benefit. Here’s a recent interview with my friend Debbie Steinberg-Kuntz about shifting our ideas. 

We can begin by writing goals that connect to the underlying triggers and causes of challenging behaviors. We should should always remember that warm, engaging relationships are the backbone of social and emotional development and the pathway to the psychology–and physiology of safety, which naturally supports compliance.

I share more about how to help children at home and at school in my latest book, Brain-Body Parenting, and in Beyond Behaviors. 

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Mona, I am almost done reading your book. It is great! Currently I am a special education advocate specializing in children with behavioral challenges. Having been a public school teacher and administrator for 20 years I am well aware of the challenges that students and teachers face when a student becomes dysregulated. Educators by nature are behavioralists. They look to change observable behaviors as they are not trained psychologists. At times, this results in greater distress for the child because the driving force for behind the behavior is never addressed nor resolved. Resulting in many unmet goals and disappointed parents and educators. Having said that, I believe that school systems are investing much time, effort and money into getting a child to “behave” without considering the underlying causes of the dysregulated behavior. I have asked teams, at IEP meetings, if they really believe a child is “banging their head, losing complete control of themselves, and not completing work because they want to?” No one willingly chooses to feel or act so out of control. It does not feel good and the student is often filled with shame and remorse after an episode. Your book clearly explains how to look beyond the obvious by providing many pages of “Helpful Hints” that are very clear and easy to understand for education professionals. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight.

Dear Marta, Thanks so much for reading the book and your comments! I’m thrilled that it resonated. To be honest what you talk about is exactly why I wrote it. I have been in hundreds of IEPs and school meetings through the years where well intentioned team members only had one lens–the behavioral lens– to understand and manage emotional dysregulation. I”m so glad that point came out in the book. I hope many educators will read it! Actually if you wouldn’t mind posting a review on Amazon, that would be great. Together, voices for a shift in our thinking and a larger lens to view behaviors will eventually be heard. Our kids depend on it. Take care!

Great, helpful article! I have a question about the stock photo choice. Does it have to be the black boy having the issue? What if the colors were reversed in the picture and the black teacher were helping the white student while the black student looked on? How often do you see a picture like that?

HI Kirstin, Glad you liked it. This is a good point about the photo. I intentionally try to have a range of ethnicities represented in my posts over time. Here’s one of my favorite ones in a recent post Thanks for writing!