Teaching Students with Emotional Disturbance

Instructor: Jocelyn Cherry

Jocelyn has taught Special Education for over two decades and has three post secondary degrees all in the field of Education.

Teaching a student with an emotional disturbance (ED) is a challenge for some educators. This lesson will provide simple classroom strategies to implement for a successful academic experience for all.

Students with Emotional Disturbances

Students in a classroom for the visually impaired often have similar needs, typically participate in similar instructional practices, and have the expertise of an educator with a certification in visual impairment. This is not the case for students identified with emotional disturbance. Each and every student with an emotional disturbance will act and behave differently than another student with an emotional disturbance. Each will have needs of his or her own and individualized obstacles to overcome.

Emotional disturbance is a condition that negatively impacts educational performance. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), emotionally disturbed students exhibit learning difficulties that aren't explained by health, intellectual or sensory issues. An example of a student with emotional disturbance would be one who has schizophrenia.

The characteristics of students with emotional disturbances may include:

  • A mood of unhappiness or depression
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings
  • Difficulty building or maintaining appropriate relationships with others
  • A tendency to have physical reactions when faced with personal or school problems

A student with an emotional disturbance will exhibit extreme behavior that is chronic and/or socially unacceptable. Students with emotional disturbance typically have lower academic grades, are at risk for academic retention, and experience higher dropout rates than their regular education peers. There is a disproportionate number of students identified with emotional disturbance, with most being minority males from low-income families.

Teaching Strategies for Teaching Students with Emotional Disturbance

There has not been an educational consensus on the most effective educational instructional method for the emotional disturbed student. What may work with one student or class could be catastrophic for the next. However, let's look at some strategies that can prove helpful.

Establish a Consistent Classroom Routine

The key word is consistent. An educator cannot flounder or deviate from the routine. If the first two days of school are spent teaching and reviewing class rules and routines, so be it! Think of your typical school day and what may occur. Often students with emotional disturbance are unaware of the inappropriateness of yelling out, being out of their area, interrupting instruction, putting their hands or feet on others, etc. However, behavior learned can be unlearned, and a consistent routine can help.

Structured Classroom
Structured Classroom

Use Individualized Reinforcement Systems

Plan and implement individualized reinforcement systems that are relevant, appropriate, time sensitive, and that equal the level of intensity of the behavior you are trying to distinguish. For instance, would you give a high school student a sticker for a good day? Would you expect a kindergarten student to not yell out for an entire week to receive a reward on Friday afternoon?

Think about your students and their interests. You have to provide them with a carrot. An elementary-aged student may need a positive reinforcer up to six times a day, every hour on the hour! Keep in mind, reinforcers do not always have to be tokens or items that cost money.

Some examples include lunch with you, a walk around the track, a positive call or note home, a move of their desk (back of class, front of class, by the window, etc.), a chance to shoot basketball with the PE coach for a half hour, etc. Be creative and converse with your students prior to determine their interests. If students know what they are working for, they will be apt to achieve it.

Understand the Advantages and Limitations of Your Instructional Practices

It is best to be proactive rather than reactive. Some students with emotional disturbances are behind academically. Avoid instructional practices that may shine on light on their academic weaknesses, which in turn will be an antecedent for negative behavior. A student with emotional disturbance would rather act out and be conceived as 'tough' to avoid a non-preferred academic task.

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