Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in the Classroom-the Basics

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.

Anxiety Disorder

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.

Bipolar 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 This disorder was once called “manic-depressive disorder,” but that term has been replaced by the term bipolar.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

Eating disorders have long been common among adolescent girls, but they also affect boys. Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, exercise anorexia and compulsive overeating.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

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.

Psychotic Disorders

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.

Is it Getting Worse?

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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6 thoughts on “Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in the Classroom-the Basics”

  1. This is a most interesting and informative article regarding a subject that is far too often hidden from the general public, my daughter is responsible for special needs at her school and this has given me an even greater understanding of the problems which she faces on a daily basis.

    When I taught it was to 16 to 19 year old young men whose problem was usually that they were below standard in Maths and English, but they were willing to learn and caused me no problem, did find that showing them the odd magic trick kept their attention, as would say do your work and on time and I will show you a trick at the end of the class, it did work very well.

    Many thanks for bringing this problem out into the open.


    • My goodness, my hat is off to your daughter.  I worked with middle school and high school students.  Elementary level scares me, and the special needs children require very special individuals.  I just read a statistic that noted that fully one third of special ed teachers leave the profession within three years.  That’s a lot of education and training to walk away from in such a short period of time.  They are truly unsung heroes.

      It sounds like you had a very pleasant group to work with…they appreciated what you did for them.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

  2. Hello Nancy,

    I have spent the better part of the morning reading your posts. They provide expert information, credible citations and opinions, clear explanations, and invitations to share personal experiences/questions. You have put a lot of time and thought into building “Escaping the Classroom-Life Beyond Teaching”. Congratulations on a very professional and useful website! 

    Fifteen years ago, while working as an elementary school librarian, I received an emergency reassignment to work one-on-one with a 4th grade girl recently diagnosed with Selective Mutism. Michelle had shown signs of the mental disorder since Kindergarten, but no one knew what to do about her behavior, so she was just passed along each year. Although Michelle was intelligent, her condition deteriorated and she seemed to be falling through the cracks. 

    The district psychologist became involved after a stressful and disturbing grade 3. He visited with specialists in Boston because I had consistently worked hard to build a safe and caring relationship with the Michelle, and had good rapport (considering her condition). 

    The psychologist admitted to limited knowledge regarding our steps forward, but we were both determined to do our best to help Michelle. For the next 2 years, Michelle and I were hooked to the hip. It was a difficult job with little support or resources. Once I took over Michelle’s care, everyone else (principal, teachers and staff) stood back to let me handle everything Michelle. Unfortunately, Michelle had been left too long to do as she pleased (e.g. leave class, refuse to do assignments, line up, go to lunch, etc.). My job was to implement rules and boundaries, to encourage and require her to do her math, go to PE, line up for recess even if she did not talk/participate fully. One day, I returned from my 30-minute lunch to find Michelle standing in the corner of the library unwilling to budge. In the main office, her teacher was applying first aid her hands (10 bleeding fingernail marks). The classroom had been hit with her unmanaged anger–papers, pencils, pens, scissors, staplers, books, and visual aids thrown and ripped and cluttered all over the room, and desks and chairs upset. No one could stop her–they were afraid–so waited until I came back to handle the mess and her discipline. 

    I learned many important lessons while teaching. Some very rewarding experiences, while others I honestly wish I hadn’t had. 

    I look forward to following you! 



    • Thank you so much for the very kind words.  My goal is to realistically represent the teaching world current and former teachers have been facing.

      I’ve lived through a few Michelles myself.  Two decades ago, teachers had wonderful individuals like you to stand in the breach.  Over the last ten years or so, it seems the number of teachers of special needs students has been dramatically reduced.  

      Teachers have found themselves required to work with some very challenging students without assistance, while simultaneously meeting the needs of the other 25-30 students in the classroom.  

      Your story is very troubling and all too common.  First, that Michelle, and many like her, had a recognized condition and waited for a full four years before receiving any meaningful assistance should be unacceptable.  Second, that classmates and teachers for the past five years had been living under this sort of stress is also very wrong.  

      Everyone involved was placed in awful circumstances and expected to function appropriately for five days a week over a ten month period of time.  I don’t think many countries allow prisoners to experience this sort of treatment.

      I’m so glad you added your story to the conversation.  I appreciate it!

  3. A teacher needs to be very observant and take note of every strange behaviour from the students. Many children are suffering from a chronic anxiety due to a possible pressure among his/her peer. Another emotional behavior can be a subconscious reaction that occurred as a result of a recent occurrence from the students household. Many like that. It is the work of the teachers to follow those guides you have listed in order to gain the normal emotion of the students back. I have seen many mood swing emotions from my college when I was in school. I do imagine how the thing do happen, because I don’t know how to do that. Most of them get better with time. Setting rules is surely a good way for teachers to deal with different emotional disorders. Thanks for this educating review.

    • Thank you for the kind words.  You’ve made a very important observation.  In most cases, it is the classroom teacher who brings worrying behaviors to the attention of parents and counselors.  

      Teachers are also the ones working with students on a daily basis, so the way they handle these behaviors can keep things moving smoothly, or create unbelievable tension and friction.  

      It’s can be a very difficult situation.  Sometimes those rules can seem to create more problems instead of easing them.

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!


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