Post by:

Deiera Bennett

Created on:

April 23, 2024

According to the National Education Association, “student behavior” is one of the top reasons teachers are leaving the classroom. Schools with high numbers of behavior incidents typically report lower academic performance, poorer school climates, and lower teacher retention rates. When working with neurodivergent students, specifically autistic students and students with ADHD, it’s important to understand the root causes of behaviors and address them before behaviors escalate. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education found that special education students are disciplined at a higher rate than general education students. Only 17% of public school students have a disability, but they represent:

  • 24% of students who received one of more in-school suspensions
  • 29% of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions
  • 22% of students who were referred to law enforcement
  • 22% of students who faced school-related arrests
  • 21% of students who received expulsions

In addition to these numbers, a large percentage of students with disabilities were physically restrained, mechanically restrained, or placed in seclusion at school. It’s clear that special education students are disproportionately disciplined throughout the country. As a school or district administrator, it’s crucial to not only be aware of this disparity, but to also find alternatives to address challenging behaviors.

Why are special education students disciplined more?

Communication Differences

Behavior is a form of communication. Special education students, such as autistic students and students with ADHD, who struggle with processing and communicating their feelings may express themselves in ways that can be deemed inappropriate or distracting. For example, stimming consists of repetitive movements or sounds that some educators and students may find distracting. However, the student who is stimming may be doing so for a variety of reasons such as self-regulation and expression. 

Unidentified Triggers and Sensitivities

Some students are sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, and other common stimuli, resulting in constant overstimulation. Behaviors such as outbursts or meltdowns are types of responses to triggers when the student is unable to remove themselves from the trigger or communicate how they feel. To neurotypical people, the behaviors can seem random and unprovoked because they are not sensitive to the same triggers. This results in the behaviors being viewed as unpredictable and unmanageable. 

Implicit Bias

Stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding neurodivergence can impact the educator’s view of neurodivergent students. Stereotypes such as “autistic students are aggressive” can lead to educators labeling an outburst as aggressive rather than viewing it as communication of unmet needs. This implicit bias can lead to the educator expecting poor behavior, which can lead to more frequent consequences. 

For example, an overstimulated autistic student might have an outburst that causes the other students to get off task. If the educator assumes that the student is intentionally distracting other students, the teacher will implement consequences based on that assumption. However, if the educator is knowledgeable about neurodivergence and understands that there is always a deeper reason behind an outburst, the educator can take steps to identify the root cause and address it. In this case, that could mean allowing the student to visit the sensory room, take a sensory break, or remove the specific stimuli that caused the overstimulation. 

How can schools and districts address behavior issues in special education?

It’s important to remember that while schools and districts struggle to address behavior issues, the students are also struggling to communicate their needs. Addressing behavior issues begins with understanding and empathizing with the students instead of viewing the students themselves as the problem. Here are three ways schools and districts can address behavior issues with special education students.

1. Specialized Training

District employees who interact with students or make decisions that impact students need specialized training. Special education students, specifically neurodivergent students, often process and communicate differently from their neurotypical peers. When adults view neurotypical students as the norm and special education students as the exception, it’s easy to overlook the differences and apply the same behavior expectations to everyone. Districts must provide opportunities to learn about neurodivergence and address the double empathy problem that is often present between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals.

2. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Behavior management is a collaborative effort, which means the students must do their part as well. SEL focuses on developing valuable skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. SEL teaches students how to navigate the world around them, including how to identify and express needs in a healthy manner, which can reduce behavior issues.

In our SEL curriculum and game Ava, students learn and practice a variety of coping strategies that they can use when they’re faced with challenges or feel overwhelmed. The SEL skills that students learn in the game and unplugged lessons directly relate to real-life situations that students will experience or have already experienced.

3. Incorporate Special Interests

Many special education students have special interests that they fully engage with whenever possible. Incorporating these special interests into the school day can increase their comprehension and retention, provide intrinsic motivation, and keep them engaged, all of which can reduce behavior issues.

Let’s say a student is interested in vehicles. A lesson about World War II could begin with a short discussion about what kind of vehicles were popular during that time and what role they played in the war. A math lesson could revolve around calculating how long it would take for different types of vehicles to reach a destination, and a language arts lesson could include writing about their favorite vehicle. While every lesson cannot incorporate every students’ special interest, many lessons can be tailored to allow student choice, which gives students the opportunity to explore their special interests while meeting the learning objectives for the lesson.

Every student is unique, and so are their reasons for exhibiting certain behaviors. However, the common denominator amongst all of these factors is that the adults in the room are either unable or unwilling to dedicate the time necessary to understand the root causes of the behaviors. It is a difficult situation for educators because they have to address behavior, teach, and ensure everyone is safe. Sometimes these priorities conflict, leaving them to make tough decisions about how to address distracting behaviors. By providing specialized training, implementing SEL, and giving educators the autonomy to incorporate students’ special interests, schools and districts can address challenging behaviors in a way that respects individual needs and fosters and more inclusive and supportive learning environment.


Our online curriculum and SEL game Ava was created by a neurodivergent team specifically for neurodivergent youth ages 10-15. Learn more about how Ava can help your students strengthen valuable social and emotional skills.

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