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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Special Needs

Disciplining students with special needs can present challenging issues for teachers. In choosing how to respond when a student with disabilities presents behavioral difficulties, teachers need to consider what underlies the behavior, and recognize that the behavior could result from feelings of discouragement, frustration and inadequacy.

A student who is ridiculed by classmates because of a physical disability might act out in a misguided effort to gain approval. A student with a learning disability might misbehave because she feels discouraged by her academic difficulties and wants to deflect attention from them. A student with a reading disability might lash out in anger because of frustration with her inability to decode words. If you can identify what lies beneath a student's overt behavior, you can provide her with appropriate support and guidance.


Become familiar with the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP). If a student is classified as eligible for special education, she will have an IEP. That document, which is required for all special-education students, should include a comprehensive description of the student's educational strengths and weaknesses. It also might contain management strategies, as well as suggested or permissible modifications of the school disciplinary code.

Model respectful behavior toward the student. Your students will look to you for cues about how to interact with the student. Demonstrate by treating her in a kind, sensitive, and patient manner, but do not talk down to her. Also, use language that is suitable for her age and that places her on an equal level with her peers. For example, in asking a classmate to go with the student to the library, it is more sensitive to say "I'd like the two of you to go" than "Take her with you."

Find opportunities to praise the student. The student might be frustrated by difficulties posed by her disability, and need emotional support. In an honest and sincere manner, praise her successes in the presence of classmates (or privately if you sense she will be embarrassed by public recognition). Keep in mind that her accomplishments might not take the same form as those of other students. Small steps can represent giant leaps for a child with special needs.

Discipline the student when she misbehaves. Although you might feel sympathetic to the student, she should not be exempt from discipline because of her disability unless her misbehavior is a direct result of that disability. Students with disabilities need to know when their behavior is inappropriate, and they need to receive reasonable consequences for their inappropriate behavior. Bear in mind, however, that the ultimate purpose of discipline is to teach, not to punish or humiliate.

Make accommodations to lessen the student's frustration or difficulties. The student's behavioral difficulties, which can run the gamut from withdrawal to crying to lashing out at classmates, might result from frustration related to her special needs. For example:

  • Modify the amount of writing required of a student with a handwriting problem.
  • Provide alternatives to reading aloud for the student with a reading disability.
  • Prepare the autistic child for changes in school routine.
  • Give the student with an auditory processing problem extra time to process information presented orally.
  • Provide short, simple and clear directions to the student who is a slow learner or cognitively impaired.

Talk with your class about the student. If you find that the student's classmates are ridiculing her, find a time when she is out of class to talk with them. Tell them you expect them to be kind to the student and to include her in their activities. Help them understand that she has the same feelings and sensitivities as other students. If her behavior is particularly unusual, help them understand why she might behave that way, but emphasize her similarities rather than her differences. Also, avoid using labels or language that sets the student apart from other students.

Help the student blend in with other students. Because a student with special needs might stand out in a regular class, it is important to give her a sense of belonging by treating her as much like her classmates as possible. Give her the same privileges or materials that you give other students, make sure to involve her in class routines, and expect her to comply with the same rules, as long as they are within her ability.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.