Monday, December 9, 2013

Teaching Students with Emotional Disturbances

What is ED?
It's a broad term used to describe various emotional disorders and conditions. Some disorders that fit under this category are anxiety/mood disorders, conduct disorders, eating disorders, and psychiatric disorders. ED can affect every facet of student learning, such as concentration, pressures of student responsibilities and time limits, and social interaction.  

I think one of the most challenging parts of being a special education teacher is working with students that have emotional disturbances. I don't think there is one right answer for helping these students, but I can share things that I know have worked. You can also take ideas and adapt them to fit what works for you and your students. These are not quick fixes, and invested time is required to help these students. 

1. The most important thing is knowing your student. You need to study them. Know what type of emotional disturbance they have, their history/experiences, and try to access records from a psychologist or counselor if applicable. The more you know, the better you will understand that student. The more you understand the student, the easier it will be to sympathize with them and help them. 

2. Learn what the student likes and what their strengths are. Set the student up for success. Give opportunities that will allow you to praise them and build them up. 

3. Support the student by including them in group activities such as partner work and cooperative learning groups. It may be overwhelming for some students, so give them a place to go when they need a break from all the stimuli. 

4. Set clear classroom rules and expectations. Be consistent ALL of the time with your behavior procedures. Students with ED do not need wishy washy. They need to know what is expected of them throughout the whole day. 

5. Provide accommodations that help students reach their behavior IEP goals. Do not expect them to be successful 100% of the time. They are not going to be perfect and they will still have bad days, no matter what plan is in place. 

6. Communicate with their parents or legal guardians. They will be beneficial when making behavior plans for their child. Also, that is your way to stay informed on medication changes and any other changes that could affect their behavior. Life is tough for kids, too. I think we tend to forget that sometimes. 

7. Do not take things personally and do not get stressed over what isn't being accomplished. You are accomplishing more than you realize. We will never know what impact we make in children's lives, and students with ED cannot be successful academically until their behaviors are under control.

Since we are on the topic of behaviors... I made a behavior management system specifically for children with special needs. They are concrete learners and they learn best through visual and tactile experiences. The system has a weather theme because you can easily connect weather with emotions. All of the students start at the top on a sunny day. As necessary, students will move down to a cloudy day (warning), a rainy day (lose recess or whatever fits for you and your students), and a thunder storm (call parents). I've also created punch cards for the students and monthly certificates. I like to reward students in small ways and give them a bigger reward at the end of each month. 


  1. I am a parent of a child with a mood disorder and adhd, and your list of tips are a good start. You might add a few more to the list and make one correction. The term emotional disturbance is not the preferred term anymore. It is emotional disability. For me, that was the most difficult label for me to get past because of the connotations the term disturbance has. Teachers of students with emotional disabilities really need to understand how the medications work and the side effects that come with them. Mood stabilizers and medications for depression or anxiety work differently than adhd medications. Many take a month or so before you see evidence that they are working and the side effects really need to be monitored. The other important thing is that they be taken religiously at the same time of day and consistently. They can not be missed or stopped abruptly. If eating is a side effect, high protein snacks may be a necessity to keep on hand (but make sure the parent approves giving it as weight gain/loss can impact medication dosages). Finally, one extremely powerful teaching tool is to learn the collaborative problem solving approach. You can learn more about it by searching for Ross Greene or The Explosive Child. Children with mood disorders can be very reactive and unpredictable, but when you analyze situations, you will probably pick up on triggers and signs that may help you plan for situations more effectively. Keep in mind that all of these conditions are brain based and neurological. Behavior is a symptom of the illness not a matter of choice (majority of the time) and that although home situations can make children's condition seem more challenging, the struggles are most difficult at home because the child feels secure and freer to "let loose". The whole family suffers, so as a special educator, you are caring for the child, but also the family. Thanks so much for posting this, and I hope that my comments are helpful too.

    1. Thank you for your post! You have shared some wonderful information. It's nice to read a post from a caring parent because that is not always the situation. I apologize if the wording offended you. Honestly, I did not realize that it had been changed. It is still labeled as emotional disturbances on our government website and that is what our district still calls it. I do agree that emotional disabilities is a better term, though! I'll have to look into this. Thanks again for all of the wonderful information!!

      Teaching with TLC,

    2. It could be in the state of Virginia and not everywhere. The primary disability for our daughter was adhd, and at her last eligibility it was changed to emotional disability with adhd secondary and speech tertiary mostly because the mood disregulation was the most problematic. I did not take offense at all, and in fact, I'm glad your wrote this post. Quite frankly, more needs to be done like it! Unless you live with a child with mood related struggles, you can't fully appreciate the day to day (and sometimes minute to minute) of how it truly is. Most of my time with my daughter is spent walking on egg shells not knowing when something will be an issue. Every medication has a long list of warnings and side effects that make you honestly feel like your committing child abuse giving it to them, and yet, what options do you have. The regular school setting is not equipped to teach or adjust the program to make things work (for the specific child) and yet alternative placements are not positive either as the distractions by other children with struggles just brings others down. It's a no win situation (for nearly all children with emotional challenges) and most end up as drop outs. My daughter has a 119 IQ and is barely on grade level. In second grade, she was reading between 4-5 grade level and has made minimal growth since then. She lost in the system, and very few educators are willing to go the extra mile to help her. So, I applaud you for taking time to write this post, and I hope that you'll write more about this topic. I also help that this may help other teachers think about children with emotional challenges with compassion and reach out to help their families. I am a reading specialist and could be your colleague, so anyone can have a child develop emotional struggles. Happy holidays to you and the TLH team!

  2. I don't understand from a mother's perspective, but I do understand as a sister to a brother that has bipolar disorder. Growing up was stressful in our home. Regardless, I love my brother and I have a strong desire to understand and help children and adults with emotional disorders. I will most certainly write other posts about this topic. I hope that something I write in the future is helpful for you and other teachers. Merry Christmas!

    Teaching with TLC,
    A Tender Teacher for Special Needs