PSA for Elementary School Psychologists

I have worked in elementary schools for my entire career thus far but only picked up a junior high school in the past three years. With that change in placement, I quickly became much more experienced with manifestation determination meetings, as I had only done one in the previous seven years. With this experience I have learned, to my chagrin, that the work of elementary school psychologists lives on past the student’s elementary years and can make all the difference for later school psychologists.

The first question of a manifestation determination meeting is if the behavior in question has a direct and substantial relationship to the student’s disability. I have heard that some school psychologists relate the behavior to the DSM-5 definition of the student’s disability when leading the discussion on this question. I find this unhelpful for two reasons. First, the identified disability on the IEP may not exist in the DSM-5 or may not be defined the same way as the DSM-5 defines it. Second, and more importantly, the DSM-5 definitions are intentionally broad to catch all behaviors and symptoms that could fit within that disability. This does not help in establishing how the student experiences that disability.

For example, a student with ADHD may struggle to complete work but almost never blurts out. This is critical to know if the behavior in question was yelling at the teacher. If the team only considered all possible ADHD-type behaviors, yelling at the teacher is obviously related to ADHD. However, if the team considers that this particular student has never before had difficulties with blurting, the conversation changes. For this reason, I always go back to previous evaluations and complete a thorough file review as the first step of preparing for a manifest. I usually find that there is no clear statement of how what behavior led to the eligibility determination, which means I am relying on whatever data we can glean from parents, teachers, and administrators, all of whom have their own agenda during a manifest.

The other elementary legacy that cam come up in a manifest, especially in the beginning of the school year, is the behavior plan. I have found that some schools like to write vague behavior plans because they are easy to implement. We usually develop new plans for our school but it takes time to see how the student performs at the junior high level. Meanwhile, we can end up having a discussion at the manifest about whether the team did things like “allow the option of a pass system” or “considered offering support.” I once sat in a manifest where we spent three years debating the exact meaning of the phrase “avoid power struggles,” which I had thought was clear when I had written it. My new rule of thumb is that I should consider how I prove that we did any line of the behavior plan before I write it.

I know that working at the junior high has changed the way I think about evaluation and behavior plans. I don’t always write them exactly the way I would like to receive them but I have become more thoughtful of their longevity. I will continue to focus on creating documents that are helpful and communicate clearly. I hope that some of these thoughts are helpful to other psychologists who don’t have experience with manifestation determinations.

Are there other things that live on into secondary grades that elementary often fails to consider?