Emotional Disturbance is one of thirteen disabilities outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The term Emotionally Disturbed Children refers to youngsters who present severe behavior problems or emotional issues in the classroom to such a degree that their ability to be successful academically and socially in school is significantly compromised.
Emotionally Disturbed Children account for almost one percent of the school age population. Causal factors range from neurobiological factors, such as problems regulating impulsivity, short attention spans, etc. to more environmentally based conclusions such as poverty, single family homes, etc. As with most disabilities, Emotionally Disturbed Children as a group are primarily male. Students with emotional disorders are a very heterogeneous group with a wide range of issues that are unique to each individual. However, there are some key characteristics that are used to define this disability category, mostly relating to issues of personal identity and emotional well-being. An emotional disorder may be present if a student responds to a situation with an inappropriate behavior or emotion, and particularly, if this emotion is depression or long term unhappiness. Students with emotional disorders typically have a very difficult time maintaining personal relationships with others, and these personal problems lead to physical symptoms in time.
If the student has difficulty learning, but there is no intellectual or sensory cause of this difficulty, then an emotional disorder may be to blame. This disability category does include some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. It should be noted that one or more of the previously mentioned characteristics has to be present for an extended period of time, and must have a negative impact on the student’s academic performance before being considered an emotional disorder. Signs of an emotional disorder need to be taken seriously, as they can lead to physical aggression and self-injurious behavior. However, care must also be taken to recognize the difference between emotional disturbance and general teenage angst. There are as many causes of emotional disturbance in children as there are children in this category, but they can generally be divided into either biological causes, environmental causes, or a combination of the two.
Each student with an emotional disturbance will have characteristics that are unique to that individual. However, these students will all share deficits in three specific areas, namely emotional development, behavioral development, and cognitive development. These students may have specific emotional characteristics/conditions such as anxiety disorder, mood disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and schizophrenia. Not addressing any one of these disorders with the appropriate support system could have potentially tragic results. Behavioral characteristics of an emotional disorder include externalizing behavior and conversely internalizing behavior. The former can result in problem behavior and physical aggression while the latter results in depression and anxiety. Finally, students with emotional disorders have a number of academic issues as well, and each year half of the students in this category drop out of school entirely. One intriguing possible contributing factor to emotional disturbance can be found in deficits in communication. An estimated 71% of students with emotional disorders also have expressive and receptive language disorders that impact their ability to understand and communicate with peers and adults. Teaching Strategies
Generally, academic achievement and problem behaviors often go hand-in-hand for students with emotional disorders. To put this another way, the more difficulty they have with a classroom task, the more likely that maladaptive behavior will result. Supporting the academic performance of these students will thus have the added benefit of decreasing externalizing and internalizing behaviors. Best practices for students with emotional disorders are often best practices for all students. A strategy such as allowing students to choose between classroom tasks, for example, is an effective way to decrease problem behaviors in general.
Consistent and specific praise is also a great technique to utilize with all students in the classroom, but can be particularly effective with students with emotional disorders. It is very important to not make assumptions about any family of a child with an emotional disorder. Many emotional disorders have an organic cause, and the parents of the child may well be loving and supportive in every way. However, some of these students have indeed been abused in some fashion in their young lives, and this too can be a cause of emotional or behavioral issues. Trust can be a very large issue for these children. Forming a relationship with these students that is built on empathy, trust, and mutual respect can often be the solution to many problem behaviors, and can have a lasting impact of the emotional development of the child.