General Education

How to Help A Child Diagnosed With Emotional Disturbance

How to Help A Child Diagnosed With Emotional Disturbance
“He doesn’t act this way at home!” Image from Unsplash
The Institute for the Redesign of Learning profile
The Institute for the Redesign of Learning July 17, 2015

A diagnosis of emotional disturbance carries stigma, but parents and schools can be effective at giving support to a child with this disorder. Learn how here.

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Many students with emotional disturbance (ED) have not been successful in any public school setting, leading districts to try to find an alternate educational placement to better support their individual needs.

These students are untrusting and angry; their parents are exasperated and feel guilty; and the school districts feel apologetic and worn out from spending so much time and effort on a single student. The following comments are typical of families and districts trying to meet the needs of students with emotional disturbance:

  • “I don’t know why the school just can’t manage my child!”
  • “She doesn’t act this way at home!”
  • “We just don’t have the resources.”

Having or serving a child with emotional difficulties that are severe enough to interfere with her schooling is very trying — for parents, guardians, before- or after-school providers, and school staff. Many people doubt that ED is a real diagnosis; others want to blame the failure of family or school structures for its prevalence; and still others are just overwhelmed by the disorder. While working with these students is challenging, it helps to understand that there are specific strategies families and educators can use to assist students to be more successful.

An Overview of Emotional Disturbance

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), explains that emotional disturbance is characterized by:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

When a child is young, there is the assumption that she will naturally develop the social skills needed to be a part of a peer group. And yet, this is a very complicated set of abilities that include, but are not limited to, listening to others, giving and accepting feedback, asking clarifying questions, and correctly interpreting facial and body-language cues. When a student does not develop these social skills due to poor processing, second language issues, or emotional difficulties, she doesn’t learn how to be a friend or have a friend. This typically leads these children to misinterpret the behavior of others and to become highly cautious and aware of what others are doing. They may make frequent comments such as, “He was looking at me,” or “He yelled at me.”

Below are several descriptions of students with emotional disturbance and the challenges that they face:

Example 1: Joe

Joe qualifies as a student with ED primarily because he has an inability to build or maintain appropriate interactions with peers or adults. Joe tends to misinterpret comments, facial expressions, or the actions of other students and school staff. He then makes comments to his peers that “freak them out,” and cause them to back away and limit their time with him.

Example 2: Josephine

Josephine would receive an ED diagnosis in large part because she expresses inappropriate types of behaviors or feelings under ordinary circumstances. She breaks down and cries at strange times, and often needs time outside the classroom to compose herself or take a break. At times, she comes late to school, goes home early, or cuts certain classes.

Her reactions to common experiences are heightened; when something is funny, she cannot stop laughing, and she cries excessively while watching sad movies. It is difficult for staff to predict her emotional state, and she struggles to contain her emotions without outside prompting. Josephine has also been known to get really angry, and once angry, not to be able to control her behavior. This loss of control can lead her to throw books or chairs, scream, and yell profanities. She is like a volcano erupting, affecting everyone around her.

Example 3: Jose

Jose also suffers from ED, which manifests as a general, pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression. There may not be any apparent reason for his mood, but it has affected his school attendance for several years. He hates getting up and going to school, even though in the past he seemed to enjoy his classes.

His depression can be seen in multiple settings: at home with his family, in a variety of social interactions, and at school with peers and teachers. Jose’s mood instability becomes progressively worse until he begins to fail his classes and, ultimately, to feel it is not even worth trying anymore. Jose may self-medicate, trying to “feel better.” It is difficult for him to understand why doing drugs is a mistake when he feels it helps him out of his slump.

Example 4: John

John’s ED can be seen in his tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems. John appears in the school nurse’s office more than any other student, often feeling sick, asking for his temperature to be taken, and even vomiting during times of stress.

Labeling Someone as Emotionally Disturbed

Emotional disturbance is a charged term. Parents and students often reject or recoil from it because it evokes images of what is represented in the media or popular culture (such as violent, unpredictable people on city streets or the character Regan in “The Exorcist”). The stigmatism of emotional disturbance causes fear and shame, and it can affect the willingness of an individual to request assistance when necessary.

Parents are sometimes reluctant to have a formal evaluation begun because they may see their own fears, behaviors, and struggles in their child. They may wonder why she is not successful, even though they themselves were able to “deal with it” when they were in school. Many parents view the need for a special education assessment as a failure on their part, though such a process is designed to ensure that students with special needs have access to the supports that will enable them to be successful in school.

And yet, ED is not a label that is loosely applied. There are many students in schools who are struggling to focus and learn simply because their internal emotional state is preventing them from developing skills and knowledge, forming positive peer and adult relationships, and maintaining the motivation to grow and succeed in a learning environment.

The term itself actually describes a very real challenge that may warrant formal interventions. If a student’s emotional state is interfering with her learning, then she may qualify for special education services as a student with an emotional disturbance. Eligibility must be determined through a formal assessment conducted by a qualified team of professionals, possibly resulting in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting. It is important to note that most general education teachers are not qualified to determine if a student needs the support services provided through special education, though they will often recommend that an evaluation be initiated.

_Learn more about the learning support services public schools are required to provide students with learning disabilities._

Statistics About Students with Emotional Disturbance

Approximately 13 percent of students nationwide qualify for special education. Less than one percent of students are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, and of those who receive an ED diagnosis, more than 75 percent are male (This discrepancy is likely a result of female students being identified less often.). African-American students appear to be over-represented, while Hispanic students are under-represented. The majority of students with ED are not diagnosed until ages 12–17, in contrast to children who fall into most other special education categories where students are identified at much younger ages.

Interventions for Students with Emotional Disturbance

Despite the challenges parents and educators may face when working with a child diagnosed with an emotional disturbance, there are several interventions that can help the student be successful academically. Here are some ideas that parents and educators can explore:

Steps Parents Can Take

Listen to what others are telling you about your child and act as her strongest advocate. Keep in mind that even though certain aspects of school or social interactions may have been easy for you growing up, your child may have different needs and strengths than you did.

It is unrealistic to believe that one teacher with thirty students is going to be able to spend a significant amount of time with every child in a single class period. Start asking for help if others remark that your child seems depressed, out of control, or hyperactive. Don’t take these comments personally, but rather use this information to ask questions in order to assist her. If she continues to struggle, request a complete evaluation to determine if she needs additional support. Don’t be too proud to accept help!

Steps Schools Can Take

Collect data on students whose behaviors appear to be getting in the way of their educational success. Start tracking incidents, and be sure to include the times of day, activity, environment, and staff and peers who were present. Look for prior instances of the behavior. Do these episodes stem from the child’s internal state? Do they occur in less structured settings (such as at lunch or in the playground), or do the behaviors begin each time an academic task is assigned?

Teachers can make the classroom environment a friendlier place for students and increase their willingness to engage in learning. Moreover, making such modifications will also allow teachers to assess whether students are struggling with content or with the regulation of their emotions. For children who have received an emotional disturbance diagnosis, simple changes may include:

  • Modifying the instructional setting:

    • Move a student to another area of the room
    • Limit the student’s engagement with others
  • Modifying the course presentation:

    • Put fewer problems on the page
    • Give both verbal and written instructions (or instructions through pictures)
    • Have one student read with another who is struggling
    • Allow oral responses in place of written ones
    • Provide modifications to textbooks
    • Allow the student to pick between two academic options
  • Modifying course expectations:

    • Change the grading rubric
    • Accept partially completed assignments
    • Negotiate with a struggling student regarding the number of problems she thinks she can complete during a class period — then stick to that agreement
    • Allow the student additional time to complete her assignment (without taking away recess or lunch)

School staff will also need to accept some general philosophical ideas about students and behaviors:

  1. Students don’t generally act badly because they want to be bad. Rather, they act out when they cannot figure out how to express themselves, when they are struggling with how to predict their environment, when they are not sure what else to do, or when they don’t know how to respond to a situation to or initiate an interaction.

  2. Students with processing disorders may truly not comprehend a teacher’s directions, the subject they are studying, or the social milieu of the classroom. It may have nothing to do with a teacher’s ability to teach, and everything to do with what is happening inside the head of that student.

Finally, take part in professional development to understand different learning styles and profiles, as well as how to implement modifications and accommodations in the classroom to support struggling learners. There is hope for all students, but children, parents, guardians, and school staff need to work together to support the individual needs of young people who have been diagnosed with an emotional disturbance disorder.


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