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Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: Defintions, Characteristics and Identifying These Students in Your Classroom

Updated on February 24, 2012

Reaching Students One Step at a Time


What is An Emotional and Behavioral Disorder

An emotional and behavioral disorder (EBD) is one in which is marked by the presence of an inability to learn which cannot be explained by other factors such as intellect, sensory stimulation, or health issues. In addition, this would include the inability to develop and maintain satisfactory relationships, inappropriate behaviors in normal circumstances, a generally unhappy mood, and fear of certain situations or places (Newcomer, 2003). However, an EBD must adversely affect the student’s performance in school in occur frequently and with such intensity that it would cause concern.

How to Tell When Your Classroom is Out of Control

If you’re a teacher of students with EBD than you know how challenging these students can be. There are times when you feel as though your classroom is in total chaos. If your students are aggressive and disruptive and you may find it difficult to accomplish tasks. Teachers of students with emotional and behavioral disorders will often find that out of control classrooms look like this:

a. Students avoid tasks, assignments, or social situations

b. Students are aggressive (throwing things, hitting others, fighting, etc.)

c. Students do not stay in classroom, remain in assigned areas

d. Students are disruptive (yell out in class, curse at others, etc)

e. Teacher has difficulty teaching academics (students are not learning what they should be learning)

Identifying Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

If you are a teacher chances are that you know that good behavior management is the key to success in academia. In many cases simple behavior strategies can be used with students who present a challenge to teachers. However, there are those instances where even the most innovative teachers find that they struggle to control some students. In fact, chances are that in those cases you may find that one particular student is in need of special attention. How do you know when this is the case? There are certain characteristics which set apart a student with EBD from one who is not emotionally disturbed.

Characteristics of Emotionally Disturbed Students

a. Difficulty remaining on tasks (disturbs others or self, does not complete tasks)

b. Inappropriate expression of emotions (yelling out, cursing, talking at inappropriate times)

c. Displays aggression toward self or others (hits, fights, makes threats)

d. Defies authority or requests made by authority figures (complains, argues, whines, does not follow directions, fails to respond to consequences)

e. Has a general disregard for others feelings and personal property (lies, steals, destroys personal property)

f. Has poor social skills (difficulty making friends, may be depressed or antisocial, avoids group activities, does not know how to interact appropriately with


What is a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)and how is it useful for identifying the needs of students with EBD?

Functional behavioral assessments (FBA) are not a relatively new concept. However, many schools have only begun to utilize FBA’s in the management of students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Although they may seem intimidating to many educators, they are actually one tool which any educator should not go without. FBA’s are simple in that they seek to find out what is behind a specific behavior and ways that we can change that behavior.

First, educators are asked to identify the target behavior (the behavior that is presenting the problem). This is a crucial step in the FBA because it allows the educator to determine the rate at which a behavior occurs over time. One important thing to remember when completing this part is that the description of the behavior must be as concrete as possible. For instance, if you have a student who is angry all of the time you will not simply state "he is angry". Instead, you will identify what angry is in this student (he hits peers, fights with others, yells at the teacher, etc.). The focus is also on observing what occurs prior to the onset of a behavior and making a notation of this, as well as observing where and when the behavior is likely to occur. Not all problem behaviors will occur in every setting, therefore it is important to take note of this.

Once you have gathered information about the specific behavior and the setting in which it occurs, you will need to determine the function of the behavior. The function is usually classified in two types or categories: the student gains something when the behavior is performed or the student avoids an unpleasant task or setting. This is essentially the step of determining how the teacher responds to the behavior. The information obtained in this part of the process ultimately sets the stage for the next phase.

Finally, the last step in the process involves altering the behavior in order to create a more appropriate behavior in its place. This step is very important because it may involve altering the antecedents (what happens before the behavior occurs) or the consequences that logically follow the behavior. However, educators can also develop plans which address all components of the behavior sequence in order to ensure a higher rate of success. The general goal is to change the inappropriate behavior or alter its course by providing more positive consequences in place of the negative consequences.

Effective Strategies for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Many educators often find that they are at a loss when it comes to developing strategies which are effective with the most problematic students. However, it is important that educators rely on behavioral strategies which are positive in nature when dealing with these students. Research has shown that negative consequences are indeed ineffective at best (Newcomer, 2003). Therefore, several strategies which have proven to be useful are suggested below.

a. Be proactive by getting to know your students (simply knowing the way your students act or react to situations may help deter problems, as well as noticing changes in their appearance and behaviors may help indicate a problem)

b. Be consistent, yet fair (when establishing rules and procedures make sure that you stick by them and apply them to all students.)

c. Establish effective rules for the classroom and consider having the students help you make the rules for the classroom (when students are a part of the process they are more likely to take ownership when they break rules they helped make.)

d. Use proximity control in your classroom (teachers who are mobile within the classroom are more effective at controlling their students when they get out of hand.)

e. Set routines and schedules and do not stray away from them (students thrive on routine and structure and will fall into line when it is given.)

f. Include students in the educational process (offer them opportunities to express their opinions on what they would like to learn, as well as what types of projects they want to do. Students like when they are given choices.)

g. Use positive reinforcement and stray away from using negative consequences when possible (praise students when they are doing something appropriate and reward them for making progress. All students need to be told that they are doing good.)

h. Be patient. Successful behavioral strategies take time and behaviors will often get worse before they get better. It is important to remember that persistence is the key to maintaining a successful intervention.

Implementation of Strategies

Now that you have a basic understanding of emotional and behavioral disorders you can begin implementing the strategies to successfully alter the behaviors. This phase involves generating a team that will serve as a support to both the teacher and the student and his or her family. Team collaboration is vital to a successful intervention. Therefore, educators need to ensure that everyone is involved in the implementation of the plan. Finally, support systems should be in place for educators who are new at implementing strategies in the event that crisis situations arise.

Assessing How Effective the Behavior Management Strategies Are

Once you have an established a behavior management system it is important to determine if it is effective for use with all students with EBD. Although educators believe that once they have found a system which appears to work well with particular students, there are instances where some students are resistant to the particular strategy being used. Therefore it is important to reassess the strategies periodically to determine if it is working.

How to determine if the behavior management strategies are working

First and foremost, a successful behavior management system should lead to a decrease in the incidence of problem behaviors. Educators should see a change in the behaviors and attitudes of his or her students. However, this is not the only indicator that a behavior strategy is effective. Educators will see a general change in the overall atmosphere of the classroom and school. Students will be more responsible for their own actions and will likewise hold other students accountable for their inappropriate behaviors. Finally, professionals will be more supportive of their colleagues and the school will begin to thrive


Chandler, L.K. & Dahlquist, C.M. (2002). Functional assessment: strategies to prevent and remediate challenging behavior in school settings. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Crone, D.A. & Horner, R.H. (2003). Building positive behavior support systems in schools: functional behavioral assessment. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Heward, W.L. (2003). Exceptional children: an introduction to special education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Jackson, L. & Veeneman-Panyan, M. (2002). Positive behavioral support in the classroom: principles and practices. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing.

Newcomer, P.L. (2003). Understanding and teaching emotionally disturbed children and adolescents. Austin, TX: ProEd.


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      Vanessa 3 years ago

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