Students with emotional and behavioral disorders – How to manage

Classroom management for students with emotional and behavioral disorders

Special needs educators do not just take a course in teaching students with severe behavior problems, receive a certificate and then look forward to smooth sailing from there on in. 15 to 30 percent of special needs students struggle to learn due to psychosocial problems which affect attention to task and retention of material. For these classmates and their peers, positive behavior intervention and support (PBIS) is crucial to their success.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the term “Emotional and Behavioral Disorder” is an umbrella term which includes several distinct diagnoses (such as Anxiety Disorder, Manic-Depressive Disorder, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder and more). All of these disorders are often referred to under many labels, i.e., “emotional disturbance”, “emotionally challenged” or “behavior disordered”

According to IDEA, these children exhibit one or more of these five characteristics:

  1. An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  2. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
  3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  4. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

Under the umbrella term of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, there can be found two major categories: Psychiatric Disorders and Behavioral Disabilities.

Psychiatric Disorders

This category encompasses a wide range of conditions. Psychiatric disorders are defined as mental, behavioral, or perceptual patterns or anomalies which impair daily functioning and cause distress. Some of the most common examples of these diagnoses include:

  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder (aka Manic-Depressive Disorder)
  • Eating Disorder (such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder)
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Psychotic Disorder

Schools are not hospitals. Teachers are not doctors. They cannot be expected to "treat" these disorders. Students who struggle with these sorts of challenges are often undergoing treatment by medical professionals and may be receiving medication. Medication can affect people in unexpected ways and, because medical information is confidential under the HIPPA regulations, teachers may be unaware of why students are acting the way they are. This makes it difficult to respond appropriately to certain behaviors. Additionally, students suffering from these conditions may be just unable to meet academic and behavioral expectations. In such cases, students need to receive special education interventions of some sort and may need to be moved into a special education classroom or separate school program.

Behavioral Disabilities

The key word is safety, for all children. Children with behavioral disabilities engage in conduct which is disruptive to classroom functioning and/or harmful to themselves and others. To be diagnosed as a behavioral disability, the behaviors must not be attributable to one of the aforementioned psychiatric disorders.

There are two categories of behavioral disabilities: oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.

An oppositional defiant disorder is characterized by extreme non-compliance, negativity, and an unwillingness to cooperate or follow directions. Children with this condition are typically not violent or aggressive; they just refuse to cooperate with adults or peers.

Conduct disorder is much more severe. This disorder is characterized by aggression, violence, and harm inflicted on self and/or others. Students with conduct disorder typically need to be taught in special education classrooms, or separate schools, until their behavior has improved enough to allow inclusion with the general education population.

What are some strategies for teaching students with emotional and behavioral disorders?

A positive, structured environment, which supports growth, fosters self-esteem and rewards desirable behavior is essential. Let’s start with rules and routines:

Rules and Routines

Here are the rules when it comes to rules:

  • They must be established at the beginning of the school year.
  • They must be written in simple and understandable terms.
  • The wording should be positive.

Consequences for breaking the rules should be introduced at the same time:

  • They must be applied consistently and firmly.
  • They must be understood clearly, and remain constant and predictable.
  • Feedback should be administered clearly when consequences are administered.

Students that struggle with transitions and unexpected change thrive on routines. Use of visual cues to go over a daily schedule of the day’s activities can be very helpful for these types of students.

Supporting Positive Behavior

These are time-tested strategies for guiding and supporting growth toward more positive, adaptive behaviors:

  • Token Economy - A reward system is standard when addressing the behavior of special needs children. With points or tokens, students are given constant reinforcement for correct behavior and following the rules. Students earn points, or tokens, for instances of positive behavior on a set schedule. These tokens can then be used to purchase rewards at the token store or “prize box”. In order for a token economy to be effective, positive behavior must be rewarded consistently, and items in the token store must be genuinely motivating for the student. This takes a fair amount of preparation and organization, and collaboration with the family, but has proven to be quite effective with many students.
  • Classroom Behavior Chart – This may appeal to any competitive nature in the students. Students who are behaving progressively will see themselves rising up the charts and surpassing others. Progress is monitored and rewarded. The only downside is that students who perpetually see themselves at the bottom may begin to see that as their identity.
  • Lottery System – This one is simple. Students who show positive behavior place a ticket with their name on it in a jar. Once or twice a week, the teacher will draw out a winner and award a prize
  • Positive Peer Review – Has anyone ever thought of reversing “tattle-telling”? This builds teamwork and social support in the classroom. Encourage students to watch their peers and identify positive behavior. Reward both the reporters and their peers.

Fostering and rewarding positive behavior is now the rule of teaching children with emotional and behavioral disorders.

The last thing you need is a power struggle, which punishment strategies and negative consequences often lead to. Don’t give up, and remember that your influence could mean a world of difference to these students who are struggling with an incredibly difficult condition.

The Gateway School an private special education school in New Jersey

Our Mission at The Gateway School is to help all of our special needs students with the learning, social, language, and behavioral support they deserve. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student to becoming the best they can while providing a safe and nurturing educational environment.

We would be more than happy to discuss your child’s specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.541.4400, or request a tour of The Gateway School located in Carteret New Jersey, just minutes off of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Chris Hoye, Principal-The Gateway School of Carteret, NJ