Behavior Qualifications On The IEP

While academics are the most common reasons for an IEP, behavioral struggles in school may prevent the student from doing their best.

Behavior qualifies a student for an IEP when the behaviors are due to disabilities. When behavior prevents full access to their education without further accommodations than are readily available in the classroom, an IEP is appropriate.

I’ve personally gone through the process of advocating for my child to receive an IEP when academics were not suffering but classroom time was almost nonexistent. Even getting the school to perform IEP testing was an uphill battle, but more than worth it in the end for a child to have the supports they need to succeed.

I am not a lawyer and I do not intend this article to provide legal advice. Please contact an education or disability lawyer if you need further interpretation. I have included references to read the law for yourself as well as the interpretations that I found helpful in writing this article.


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Behavior As A Qualification For An IEP

The IEP, Individual Education Plan, is often referred to as something to support students keep at grade level academically. But the truth of the matter is that the IEP is for students with disabilities who need support to get an equitable education. The word “disabilities” has worked its way out of the vocabulary, but the IEP is based around disabilities. Disability is not a bad word, especially when using it provides access to helpful support.

When we think of what disabilities are, we often have a much firmer definition than is used in IDEA, the law forming special education programs and providing the IEP guidelines. In the section below you can find a list of disabilities that qualify students as disabled.

When discussing the behaviors of students, it is important to remember that the goal is not that their behavior disappears, but that the underlying needs are well supported. Behavior is the manifestation of internal struggles. Behavior itself is communication.

The important piece of whether a behavior qualifies for an IEP is how it impacts them in an academic setting. If the behaviors are causing regular removal from the classroom, it is impacting them academically no matter if they are at grade level, above grade level, or below grade level.

If your child is experiencing behavior at school that is taking them from the classroom or removing them from their academics within the classroom, it is vital to request IEP testing. If the child is not behind academically, this may be more difficult and as the parent, you may need to advocate for this against the school administration.

What is most important to communicate and keep in mind is that it is reasonable for a child to have an IEP when behavioral concerns are the only outward sign. Behaviors are communication and behavioral outbursts are indicative of a child struggling, even if the why hasn’t been discovered.

Behavior Is Communication

As adults with a full vocabulary and a toolbox of coping strategies, it can be hard to see a child having a hard time with explosive behaviors and see it as anything other than the child giving other people a hard time. But the truth of the matter is that kids don’t have the resources adults do to manage their feelings and these behaviors are a result of having no other way to communicate.

For example, a 6-year-old in school struggling with how to interact with peers and how to please adults by concentrating in school starts feeling overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to do. At that moment the teacher calls on them to answer a question the student didn’t hear while distracted by all the requirements and expectations.

They respond to the teacher’s request with a blank stare while anxiety builds in them and the class waits for them to answer. In response, the child hides under the desk. In response, the teacher requests they return to their seat. The child is now paralyzed with anxiety and the choice of disobedience of the teacher or returning to the seat and getting the stares of the peers they were attempting to take space from is too much.

The child runs from the classroom.

From the adult perspective what happens is that everything is normal in the class and things are going well. The teacher is asking for ideas about a class party when they call on the student. When asked for an idea the child just stares back and hides under their desk. Thinking the student is playing instead of focusing on the class, they ask the student to sit in their chair again. Then the student runs from the room and causes a huge scene.

There are a few behaviors that are communicating with the teacher in this situation. First, the lack of response to a question was communicating that they were overwhelmed. Secondly, hiding under their desk was communicating that the student was experiencing sensory overload from social anxiety. Thirdly, running from the classroom was communicating the lack of tools to deal with anxiety and physically removed their body from the situation.

The teacher isn’t at fault in this scenario with 30 students, all communicating with their behavior. The fault isn’t with the student who lacks the tools to deal with all the emotions they are having. There is no fault in this situation, only a lack of support for both the child and the teacher.

This is why it is important to understand what is going on with the student when behaviors are present and what is being communicated by the student.

IEP Definitions of Disability

I am not a lawyer and I do not intend this article to provide legal advice. Please contact an education or disability lawyer if you need further interpretation. I have included references to read the law for yourself as well as the interpretations that I found helpful in writing this article.


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In order to qualify for an Individual Education Plan, the student needs to qualify for a disability. But the first thing to clarify is what a disability is and then what disabilities qualify for an IEP.

Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) Section 300.8 defines what a disability is:

(1) Child with a disability means a child evaluated in accordance with §§300.304 through 300.311 as having an intellectual disability, a hearing impairment (including deafness), a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment (including blindness), a serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this part as “emotional disturbance”), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.

Individuals with disabilities education actOpens in a new tab.

The disabilities that the act lays out in specifics for inclusion within this act are listed below. The child needs to experience one of these and “by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.”

  • intellectual disability
  • hearing impairment
  • deafness
  • speech impairment
  • language impairment
  • visual impairment
  • blindness
  • emotional disturbance
  • orthopedic impairment
  • autism
  • traumatic brain injury
  • other health impairment
  • specific learning disability
  • deaf-blindness
  • multiple disabilities

It goes on to say that if an “appropriate evaluation” has been completed and the child has one of the above disabilities but only needs “a related service and not special education” then the child would not qualify for an IEP or be considered to have a disability according to this section.

As you can see, this gets extremely confusing. But if they do not qualify under this section and only need the related service referred to in the text, a 504 would be the appropriate plan to pursue. The important part here is that if the child experiences one of the above on the list it is vital that the testing be completed to find the best way to support them.

When Behavior Qualifies As A Disability

I am not a lawyer and I do not intend this article to provide legal advice. Please contact an education or disability lawyer if you need further interpretation. I have included references to read the law for yourself as well as the interpretations that I found helpful in writing this article.


Least Restrictive Learning

The legal speak can get confusing and overwhelming quickly, even for someone used to reading it. However, I do consider it important to look at what the law actually says in addition to reliable interpretations of what it means.

When we are looking specifically at behavior as a qualification, it may fall into behavioral communication from other qualifying disabilities, but let us assume there is no other qualifying disability. There is a category called “emotional disturbance” that meets the qualifications.

Here is what the law says about “emotional disturbance.” Please note that I put this in quotes as I do not like that term at all, but I use it because it is what the law itself says.


(i) Emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.

(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.

(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.

(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

(ii) Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance under paragraph (c)(4)(i) of this section.

Individuals with disabilities Education actOpens in a new tab.

So this means that students qualify if they have one of the items on this list. It needs to be observed behavior over a period of time and not a short-term problem. And it needs to impact their education. Some items that qualify as “emotional disturbance” are:

  • academic struggles that aren’t otherwise explained
  • struggles with relationships with other students or teachers
  • behavior or emotions that are not considered appropriate
  • depression
  • anxiety or fears from social interactions at school
  • physical symptoms from social interactions at school
  • schizophrenia

It does specify at the bottom that this is not referring to those students that have problems with social interaction unless it includes at least one of the above.

The most important thing to take away from this is that behavior itself can be a sole qualification for an IEP if they meet the above and also that it impacts their access to education even if they are not behind academically.

Specific IEP Testing Requests For Behavior Concerns

In the above sections, you can find details on what disabilities qualify for an IEP and specifics on behavior separate from another disability, and what details would qualify the behavior to require an IEP.

The most important detail for qualification for an IEP no matter the disability is that it interferes with their access to education. So when requesting the appropriate testing be performed in order to determine if the child is eligible, it is important that the impact to their education be front and center.

If your child is not behind in their academic studies this may be a struggle. I’ve been there and successfully got my child an IEP by showing their disability impacted their education even though they tested advanced academically.

Before writing the school to request testing, make a list of the behavior struggles the child experiences in school, what part of IDEA Sec. 300.8 (c) (4) these struggles would qualify under, how they do not have access to their education, and what special education accommodations would provide them with equitable access.

I’ll include an example below.

Behavior Struggles

  • Running Out Of Class
  • Emotional Outbursts
  • Inability To Stay In Seat
  • Hitting Teachers
  • Throwing Objects
  • Yelling

Disability Qualifications

  • Anxiety From School Interactions
  • Physical Symptoms from Anxiety
  • Inappropriate Behavior
  • Struggles with Relationships at School

Missing Education

  • Spends Time in Principals Office
  • Leaves the Classroom
  • Anxiety Prevents Concentration On Work
  • In Nurse’s Office
  • School Missed Because Parents Requested to Pick Up


  • Individual or Floating Aid
  • Noise Canceling Headphones
  • Quiet Calm Down Space Outside Classroom
  • Speech Therapy for Social Conventions
  • Behavior Plan

This is just an example of things to consider. You don’t have to know everything that will help or specific accommodations that will help them in the classroom. This is just to get some things on paper to make communicating with the school administration easier.

When you contact the school you should include as many people as is reasonable both at the school and anyone who supports your child outside of school such as a therapist. Here are some ideas of people to include:

  • Principal
  • Assistant Principal
  • School Counselor
  • Student’s Teacher
  • Teacher’s Aid
  • Special Education Director
  • School Psychologist
  • Special Education Teacher
  • Private Therapist
  • Any Other Caretaker

It is important to contact the school in writing, such as an email, to request the testing. Including as many people as possible in the email will ensure that it gets to someone that will respond. It also means that no one can claim ignorance later on.

Use the list you made about your child to craft this email. Phrases to consider including in the email:

  • “equitable access to education”
  • “behavior that restricts access to the curriculum”
  • “communicating through behavior”
  • “special education”
  • “appropriate testing to determine eligibility”

Your email does not need to be overly professional or sound like a legal document. Write as you would speak and make sure to include all the information that they need to have.

Request Testing. Specifically and clearly request testing in your email. Make sure you say that you are requesting that the school district perform testing to determine eligibility for an IEP.

Behavioral Concerns. List the behavioral concerns you have. It doesn’t need to be an exhaustive list, but the more you include the more items of concern everyone on the list will need to acknowledge they have received notice of. This will also help them prepare for which testing needs to be done.

Restricted Access To Education. Include the ways that your child has had their educational access restricted. This can include the school asking you to pick them up early, time in rooms that are not part of their classroom, or any other ways they haven’t been able to participate with the rest of their class.

Accommodations Requested. Assuming that they will qualify for special education through the IEP, state what accommodations may help your child that the IEP can provide. Include therapies, technology, and anything else you can think of that may help.

State A Timeline. Check for the timetable required in your state. In most states, it is 60 school days. That is 12 weeks if each week has 5 school days. State the day you are requesting this and use a school calendar to count out 12 weeks and state the date for the testing to have been completed and a meeting to discuss the results to be held.

Include any additional details that are important for your situation. Make sure to check back if you haven’t heard from them within a week and then check back when the testing window you stated is half over with the reminder of the end date and request an update for the process.

And remember is it completely reasonable to have an IEP based solely on behavioral concerns as long as those are long-lasting and impede their education. Even if they test above grade level, being removed from their classroom during instruction time is impeding their education.

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