Emotionally Disturbed Students
By Dr. Andrea Ogonosky, School Psychologist
Students with emotional disturbances can exhibit behaviors that leave even the most seasoned
educators feeling burned out. It can be frustrating for educators when they feel they’ve lost
control of the classroom. Tantrums, defiance, aggression, poor academic progress, poor social
skills and passive noncompliance of requests (such as putting heads down on desks) can present a
challenge. But educators can have success with children who have emotional disturbances if they
get support from co-workers and consistently implement behavioral strategies and classroom
Get to know your students
The first step is to become familiar with your students’ educational history. This includes
information from parents, licensed specialists in school psychology, diagnosticians and teachers
in the form of emotionally disturbed (ED) eligibility reports, functional behavioral assessment
reports, behavioral IEPs and student Behavior Intervention Plans. Also review any proposed
instructional interventions and educational strengths and weaknesses. All this information is
available in students’ Special Education Audit Folders.
When reviewing the documents note any “triggers” that have prompted
inappropriate behaviors in the past. Also note which behaviors are characteristic of the student.
Not all ED students are aggressive or act out. Seek out the opinions of the related service staff
and previous teachers as to the frequency of the disruptive behaviors as well as past
interventions that were or were not successful.
It is the teacher’s legal obligation to implement any educational
plan developed by a special education ARD committee. So when reviewing information on the student,
ask questions regarding implementation of written behavioral plans. If you are unsure of the
proper implementation, ask for clarification or training from the staff who developed the plan.
Develop classroom rules
Next, create your classroom rules. Good rules provide the structure for self-discipline that is
imperative for ED students. Create only a few rules, but state them in the positive, be specific,
and make sure the behaviors you describe are observable and measurable. Post the rules in a
prominent place in the classroom before the first day of school. Students should be able to refer
to the rules at all times, so you might post them in several places.
Tie your rules to both positive and negative consequences; ED
students need immediate consequences for negative behavior. During the first few weeks of school,
read and discuss the rules, role-play, and explain the positive and negative consequences
associated with the rules. Most importantly, consistently implement your rules.
Watch out for triggers
Instructional schedules, transitions between activities or classes, and physical environment all
contribute to the factors that produce stress for ED students. To reduce their negative effects,
seat the ED student next to a positive role model toward the front of the classroom in one of the
aisle seats (preferably at the 10 or two o’clock position) to ensure easy teacher access for
Create classroom routines to ensure minimal unstructured free time,
and provide ED students with copies of the classroom schedule. If you are aware of an upcoming
change in the routine, prepare the student in advance. Also provide cues for transitions between
activities. Music is a wonderful way to bridge transitions, but you might also provide the student
with a visual cue such as a timer. When assigning the student an independent activity, check his
mastery of the skill first. He should demonstrate a 95 percent mastery rate before engaging in
independent work. Break down the assignments if need be and allow for a structured break.
Use positive reinforcement to motivate the ED student. When a teacher gives positive feedback and
reinforcement to the ED student it breaks the chain of negative behaviors. Classroom management
strategies that focus on negative forms of attention such as reprimanding and excessive prompting
can help maintain inappropriate behaviors. So, use reinforcers that are intrinsically motivating
for the student. Review with the student the rules for receiving positive reinforcement, and
consistently implement the system.
Lean on your team
A team approach to providing academic, emotional and behavioral support is necessary. Plan staff
meetings to facilitate program planning, behavioral consultation and open communication. Develop a
teacher and student support plan for the times the student exhibits inappropriate classroom
behaviors that escalate. Finally, maintain a positive attitude to set the stage for success.
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