A Brief Look at the Unique Challenges of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in the Classroom

Emotional and Behavioral disorders are among the most difficult disorders to address in the classroom. Students with these diagnoses do not always appear different, since their disabilities aren’t physical and don’t generally affect intelligence. However, their disability will still inhibit learning. Students diagnosed with emotional disturbance face peculiar challenges. Their inability to “cop[e] with the ordinary demands of life” including educational and social standards, can cause immense frustration and isolation (Emotional Disturbance). According to Education Week, students with emotional and behavioral disorders are more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate than students with other disabilities. Contributing to this statistic is the exponentially higher expulsion rates for students with emotional and behavioral disorders especially considering that emotional disturbances only account for about 6 percent of students needing special education (Samuels). There are classroom techniques that teachers can use to intervene and improve this bleak outlook for students diagnosed with an emotional or behavioral disorder. Teachers seeking to intervene must identify these students, meaning it is essential to know the definition and history of these challenging conditions.

Emotional and Behavioral Disorder Defined

Richard M. Gargiulo defines this disorder in Special Education in Contemporary Society, as “a chronic condition characterized by behaviors that significantly differ from age norms and community standards to such a degree that educational performance is adversely affected” (Gargiulo 283). Mental illnesses warrant academic intervention when “a person’s physical, social, or cognitive skills may also be affected” (Emotional Disturbance). Conditions that can intensify into an emotional or behavioral disorder include common mental illnesses such as anxiety, Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and anorexia among others. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) refers to these disabilities as an emotional disturbance when a student’s mental health inhibits him or her from functioning properly, both in the classroom and out of the classroom. The definition covers Tourette’s Syndrome but not autism, as autism became a separate disability category in 1990 (Gargiulo 288).

The ambiguous IDEA definition of emotional disturbance potentially captures a significant percentage of students creating a financial strain that causes some schools to “enact ‘artificial barriers to slow down the process’” of identifying and helping these students (Samuels). Consequently, the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders has also put forth a definition. The CCBD changes the term from ‘emotional disturbance’ to ‘emotional or behavioral disorders’ to dispel stigma and adds the necessary caveats that the condition must involve “more than temporary, expected response to stressful events” that is consistently present in more than one setting and is “unresponsive to direct intervention applied in general education”. This definition of emotional or behavioral disorders also covers “such a disability that coexists with other disabilities” and “a schizophrenic disorder, affective disorder, or other sustained disorder of conduct or adjustment” (Gargiulo 289). The CCBD definition also addresses the exclusion of social maladjustment and conduct disorders (a psychiatric disorder with alarming commonality among school-age youth) from the IDEA definition. However, the inability to help students who many believe should receive assistance but who fail to meet the federal definition continues to frustrate many educators.

There are two different techniques to achieving a diagnosis that might qualify the student for assistance: Clinically Derived Classification System and Statistically Derived Classification System. A clinically derived system groups behaviors and provides indicators of symptoms, severity, prevalence, and variation to assist with a diagnosis. Statistically derived systems also divide behaviors into categories/patterns, such as externalizing disorders (outward aggressive behavior) and internalizing disorders (inward anxiety and withdrawal), to locate norms within the disability and better recognize a diagnosis (Gargiulo 289–290).

Brief History and Etiology of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

In the past, the limited scientific information as to the cause of emotional and behavioral disorders caused a great deal of ostracism and exclusion, especially within education (Gargiulo 291). However, academic opportunities began arising in Quaker communities in the early 1800s and, with the increasing professional acceptance of psychiatry and psychology, students with emotional and behavioral disorders have slowly achieved the right to an equal education (Gargiulo Table 9.2). That said, emotional and behavioral disorders are still among the most under-identified disabilities (Gargiulo 292). Perhaps this is due to the exclusion of conduct disorders from IDEA or the fact that “[e]motional disorders can be part of other disabilities” meaning that students with anxiety, for example, can also have dyslexia and will, therefore, not necessarily be assisted under an emotional or behavioral disorder diagnosis. The special education accommodations will depend on which diagnosis is the most obstructing to a student’s ability to learn (Samuels).

While there is a great deal that we still do not understand about these complex disorders, the relatively brief time we have been studying emotional and behavioral disorders has brought about monumental discoveries. Studies have identified both biological and psychosocial risk factors that can contribute to the diagnosis of an emotional or behavioral disorder. Gargiulo lists disorders potentially caused genetic risks (Tourette syndrome, OCD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder) as well as biological “insults” such as infection, exposure to toxins, and poor nutrition in his exploration of the potential causes behind emotional disturbances (Gargiulo 294). Psychosocial risks include mental illness of a student’s parent or guardian, neglect/abuse, and parental criminality meaning that children living in poverty or low-income communities are potentially more at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders (Gargiulo 295).

Successful Integration in the Classroom

Teachers are likely to encounter these learners since the majority of students diagnosed with an emotional or behavioral disorder are educated in a general education classroom. When integrated into gen-ed space, these students require clear and concise management as the most important intervention. If given a strict and thorough schedule, students are more likely to feel in control and purposeful. When students are made aware of performance and timing expectations, they are not only more likely to succeed academically, but also more likely to learn personal management skills that will assist them post-graduation. However, educators must do more than mere academic management in the classroom; they must also instruct students with emotional and behavioral disorders on how to construct their own time management strategies and prioritize within their lives. It is also important to include transition and movement management alongside classroom/time management. Teachers need to clarify allowable movement when in the classroom and warn students prior to transitions. Caught by surprise, there is a chance some emotional or behavioral disordered students will react negatively, disrupting the classroom and taking up valuable teaching time. When they are aware of a transition and the acceptable movements that go along with it, they will be able to prepare and execute the directions smoothly. Arranging the classroom for ease of navigation and limitations on distractions will assist in this effort. Such arrangements will benefit all students, limiting the possibility of anyone becoming focused on anything other than knowledge and learning.

Non-academic interventions are also necessary for a school setting since social and interpersonal skills are not innate to some students with an emotional or behavioral disorder. Instead, teachers need to intentionally teach these students how to interact with other students in social situations and create and maintain interpersonal relationships. Instructing students to problem solve on their own, especially in social situations where their natural reactions might not always be socially appropriate, will enable them to find greater success in their relationships with others reducing the risk of a student with an emotional or behavioral disorder being ostracized. Teachers should also learn crisis prevention and management skills which will help them de-escalate potentially violent or student self-injurious situations (Gargiulo 314). Verbal intervention is stressed, although physical restraint to prevent harm to the student or others may be allowed depending on the situation.

Strategies that focus mainly on academic progress, such as mnemonics and self-monitoring checklists, are ideas that can benefit students with or without a disorder/disability. The most important aspect of teaching a student with an emotional or behavioral disorder, or any student, is finding opportunities for positive reinforcement. Rather than only calling attention inappropriate behavior, it is crucial to teach, highlight, and reinforce good behavior. Positive reinforcement will ensure that “problem behaviors are minimized and positive, appropriate behaviors are fostered” (Emotional Disturbance). For students with an emotional or behavior disorder, socially appropriate behavior is not learned innately by being a part of society. Rather, “students will need to be explicitly taught those [behavioral] expectations” just like they need to be taught academic subjects (Samuels). Teachers must straightforwardly communicate behavioral and academic standards with strong classroom management in a distraction-free setting to truly accommodate all students, but especially students with an emotional or behavioral disorder.

Teachers should begin by assessing the severity of the student’s disorder and referencing their Individual Education Plan (IEP). Gargiulo divides the IEP crafting process into three sections: person-centered planning, strength-based assessment, and functional behavioral assessment. Person-centered planning focuses on the long-term aspirations and goals of the student rather than merely on the next school year. Strength-based assessment ties into positive behavioral reinforcement by highlighting the student’s behavioral strengths rather than their weakness, which is why it is vital for strength-based assessment to be included in the IEP planning process. Finally, a functional behavioral assessment looks at the root of a student’s inappropriate behavioral outbursts to further understand what causes a student’s reaction. A behavioral assessment can lead to a behavioral intervention plan that adds individual strategies and interventions for students who need extra assistance in their behavioral learning (Gargiulo 303). These plans must include input from both the student and their family as the two will need equal support and encouragement from school faculty. Once the plan is set, it is vital for general education teachers to maintain communication and connection with the family throughout the year. By including the family in the process, teachers will help to ensure student success by working with the family to practice academic and behavioral training both in school and at home.

Final Thoughts

It is imperative that teachers effectively integrate students with emotional and behavioral disorders into the general education classroom to ensure that all students receive the same level of education. However, this can be difficult given the struggles these students have with social skills, interpersonal relationships, and correct behaviors. There are ways for teachers to help students overcome their struggles and learn how to interact and behave in a scholastic setting appropriately. It is our duty as educators to look beyond their challenging and, oftentimes, exhausting outbursts to see the learner within and help them flourish.

Works Cited

Emotional Disturbance. 6 December 2017. Webpage. 6 August 2018. <https://www.parentcenterhub.org/emotionaldisturbance/>.

Gargiulo, Richard M. “Individuals With Emotional or Behavioral Disorders.” Gargiulo, Richard M. Special Education in Contemporary Society 5e. 5th. SAGE Publications, Inc., 2015. 281–325. Print. 6 August 2018.

Samuels, Christina A. “Students with Emotional Disabilities: Facts About This Vulnerable Population.” Education Week 37.24 (2018): 14–15. Online. 6 August 2018. <https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/03/21/students-with-emotional-disabilities-facts-about-this.html>.

Writer, reader, movie-goer, and dreamer. Firm believer in faith, trust, and pixie dust. https://sel9ec.wixsite.com/website

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store