Teaching Children with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders
According to the National Institutes of Health, one in three adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 are suffering from anxiety. This is coupled with a sharp rise in teen suicides and high levels of other emotional disorders. Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in the Classroom (the Basics) looks at some of the issues.
Given these shocking statistics, it is highly likely that you may have at least one student in your class who has emotional disturbances or behavioral problems. What are some of the conditions you are likely to encounter, and how should you conduct your classroom?
What Do the Terms Mean?
In most schools, the term emotional and behavioral disorder (EBD) encompasses a wide range of disorders, including:
- Learning disabilities such as developmental delays, autism and dyslexia.
- Psychiatric illnesses such as bipolar disorder and psychotic disorders.
- Emotional disorders including anxiety and depression.
- Conduct disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder(ODD).
If the composition of your classroom is similar to what I’ve experienced over the past few years, you may end up with one, two or more children in your classroom with these diagnoses.
Common Behavioral and Emotional Problems in Children
Here are some of the most commonly diagnosed emotional disorders in children.
A child with anxiety disorder suffers from a frequent, unreasonable sense of fear even when there is no immediate danger. Anxiety disorders include separation anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
People with bipolar disorder experience extreme mood swings. They can go from euphoria to depression within days or hours. This disorder was once called “manic-depressive disorder,” but that term has been replaced by the term bipolar.
Eating disorders have long been common among adolescent girls, but they also affect boys. Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, exercise anorexia and compulsive overeating.
This is a type of anxiety disorder. Children with this disorder tend to focus obsessively on thoughts of germs or disease. They also perform specific rituals and repetitive motions to get rid of their obsessive thoughts.
These are the most serious emotional disturbances. Psychotic disorders are often rooted in brain chemistry. Students with these disorders might hallucinate, have delusions, show disorganized thinking and be unable or unwilling to speak.
Teaching Children with Emotional and Behavioral Problems
The first thing to understand is that you’re a teacher, you’re not a therapist. You should work with the student’s support team, but it’s not your job to diagnose, monitor medications or otherwise get involved in the student’s treatment. You’ve got enough to do. You also don’t need to take time and energy away from other students in the class.
There are some ground rules you can set down if you have students with emotional and behavioral problems. Most education experts agree that the following steps are the key to giving all your students the best chance to learn, grow and thrive in your classroom.
1. Understand That These Students are Entitled to an Education.
All children are entitled to an education. This is not only a social and moral right, it’s a legal right. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to provide education to children with physical and emotional disabilities.
That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate disruptive students in your classroom. It doesn’t mean you have to provide unreasonable levels of accommodation. It does mean coming up with ways to give these students the same opportunities for learning that other students get.
2. Set Down Strict Boundaries.
All students need rules and boundaries. Strictly enforced classroom rules benefit everyone, but especially children with EBD. Lay out the classroom rules on the first day, and keep the rules posted in the classroom.
Keep the rules simple, clear and basic. Some suggestions are:
- Always be on time.
- Raise your hand.
- Be polite.
- Be kind to each other.
Make sure you also have a set of clearly explained consequences that come with breaking the rules. A supportive administration can be a real asset with this one.
3. Reward Positive Behavior.
Along with rules, it’s important to have a reward system to promote positive behavior. You can develop a system that works best with your students.
Writing in Education Corner, teacher Becton Loveless offers this advice: “Fostering and rewarding positive behavior has proven to be vastly more effective than attempting to eliminate negative behavior.
Punishment and negative consequences tend to lead to power struggles, which only make the problem behaviors worse. It is not easy to remain positive in the face of such emotionally trying behaviors, but don’t give up.
Your influence could mean a world of difference to these students who are struggling with an incredibly difficult condition.”
Many students with EBD have a history of bullying, abuse or social isolation. Make your classroom a positive environment to get their trust and cooperation.
4. Treat Everyone Fairly.
Your students with EBD will feel like they’re truly part of the group when you treat everyone fairly. Never bend the rules for children with EBD. This shows them that they can manipulate you. It also makes your other students feel that one group is getting special treatment. Keep resentment from forming by running your classroom fairly.
5. Foster Peer Support.
Get students working together with an atmosphere of peer support. Studies have found that this is one of the best ways to create an open, friendly environment for all students. It also helps children with disabilities develop better social skills. That’s a plus for everyone.
Does it seem like there is an increase in emotional and psychological disorders among children? If you’re a classroom teacher, I bet this is a topic of conversation between you and your colleagues on a regular basis.
Of course, you already know that your experiences and those of your fellow teachers are considered anecdotal evidence. However, the facts seem to bear this idea out.
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report titled, Generation at Risk to call attention to the worsening mental health of our young people.
According to the report, “One in five American children ages 3 through 17, about 15 million, have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year.”
Adolescent suicide is at an all-time high, especially among girls. Making matters worse, the CDC reported, is the fact that only 20% of these children get the help they need.
What This Means for Teachers
As a teacher, you’re on the front lines of this increase in troubled children. You could be teaching children with disorders that range from mild anxieties to severe emotional disturbances.
This doesn’t have to be a negative, and it could even be a positive. It will certainly be difficult and challenging. As you think about your career, it’s important to be realistic about what your future classroom will look like and what works with your students.
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