Emotional & Behavioral Disorders: Definition, Characteristics & Causes

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Students with emotional and behavioral problems are often a mysterious, complex issue for teachers to address in school. Let's take a look at emotional disturbance and some of the common characteristics students with this diagnosis may share.

Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Teachers have the opportunity to observe many different students that come in and out of their classes each year. These students are all unique in their abilities, interests, and weaknesses. Some students fit in well in a mainstream setting, making progress on the core curriculum and forming healthy relationships with peers.

However, once in a while, teachers will work with students who have severe emotional and behavioral challenges. These students may seem like loners, avoiding interaction with classmates and adults. They may get into fights with other students, or engage in self-injurious behaviors. Their academic performance will be significantly lower than the rest of their peers.

When these symptoms persist, teachers should begin looking into emotional and behavior disorders and how these students might qualify for and benefit from special education services.

Definition and Characteristics

The Individual with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) classifies emotional and behavioral disorders under a category called emotional disturbance. In order to qualify under emotional disturbance, a child must exhibit at least one of the following characteristics:

  • Development of physical symptoms related to personal problems
  • Persistent unhappy or depressed moods
  • Lack of personal relationships with peers and adults
  • Inability to learn that is not caused by another disability
  • Inappropriate behavior or feelings in normal situations

IDEA also clarifies that these characteristics must be observed over a long period of time and adversely affect a student's performance in school. This means that teachers will see a student's grades and test scores drop and not recover without special help.


When a student is classified under emotional disturbance, teachers can expect to see a variety of challenging behaviors. Some of these characteristics are listed below:

  • Lack of peer relationships due to fear or anxiety
  • Poor attention span
  • Low academic performance
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Aggression toward self or others
  • Poor coping skills and immaturity

Not every student with an emotional disturbance will exhibit all of these behaviors. Sometimes, these behaviors change due to different phases of a child's development. The underlying similarity found among students with emotional disturbances is that these challenging behaviors persist and cannot be overcome or changed without individualized intervention.

Specific Disorders

Emotional disturbance covers many different students who display a variety of characteristics. Sometimes, these students have an actual mental illness or disorder. Let's look at some of the specific disorders that fall under the umbrella of emotional disturbance.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when a child has unwanted, reoccurring thoughts and engages in repetitive behaviors. Children with OCD may be overly concerned with cleanliness or counting. They usually engage in rituals, such as handwashing or color coordinating, to avoid severe anxiety. These characteristics and routines make it difficult for them to function in normal situations.

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