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5 Strategies for Supporting Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in the Classroom

This blog post was written by guest contributor, Allie Szczecinski.

Supporting students who have unique learning and behavioral needs in the classroom can be difficult, but with meaningful supports in place and the right mindset, you can do it – and do it well. Let’s take a quick dive into what it looks like to support students with emotional and behavioral disorders in the classroom.

Emotional behavior disorder is one of the 13 disability category areas found in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. This means if a student is found eligible for having an emotional behavior disorder, they would then become eligible to receive special education services and an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, would be written for them. How do we know if a child has an emotional behavior disorder? The student services team (which includes the child’s parent or guardian) looks at a student’s overall functioning to determine if they meet the criteria laid out by IDEA. If it is determined they do, the child becomes eligible for special education services.

Somewhere along the child’s educational journey, you become their teacher. As a dedicated educator, you want to best support this child with their academics and behavior, but how? Here are five effective strategies for supporting students with emotional and behavioral disorders in the classroom.

1. Be consistent

All humans thrive with routine and expectations they can count on. This is especially true for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Designing your classroom so the daily routine is consistent and doesn’t waiver from day to day can be especially grounding for students. Additionally, ensuring consequences are consistent is important. If a child knows whenever they engage in a certain behavior they can expect a certain consequence, it can be really essential to behavior change. Predictability is an important tool for helping students feel not only more independent, but safe in your classroom. When a child feels safe, they are more likely to be available and ready to learn.

2. Build a relationship

If a child has a history of engaging in challenging behavior, it’s almost certain they have had rocky relationships with their past teachers and support staff. Trust maybe hard to build, and they may have a hard time wanting to engage positively with adults at school. Taking the extra time to build positive relationships is one of the best proactive strategies for supporting students with emotional and behavioral disorders in the classroom. One easy way to do this is to engage in the 2x10 strategy, shared by Martha Allen, an adjunct professor from Dominican University in California. For 10 days, chat with a student for just two minutes about any topic of their choosing. This could be a baseball game they watched on TV, an event at recess, their uncle’s birthday party – anything! After 10 days, evaluate your relationship and see how it has formed over those two school weeks. This strategy only works if you, as the teacher, are a dedicated and active listener for those two minutes each day. A relationship will start to blossom as the student sees you care about them as a person, and not just about if they turn in their homework or comply with school rules.

3. Embed choice

A common complaint from teachers who support students with emotional and behavioral disorders is the students’ overall desire for power and control. Many students with emotional and behavioral disorders have general feelings of being out of control, which can be a factor in their often challenging behavior. Embedding opportunities for choice gives students autonomy over their day within healthy parameters. For example, teachers can allow students to choose where they sit in the classroom, which assignment they complete first, which activities they choose to complete within a choice board of options, or which reinforcer they would like to earn after meeting a goal.

4. Offer opportunities for leadership

Children with emotional and behavioral disorders are often natural born leaders, and often need a bit of guidance on how to use their leadership skills. Creating classroom and school jobs can be a great way to give students some leadership and ownership of the classroom. Jobs can be as simple as passing out papers or as important as running a center for their peers during center time. When working with students with emotional and behavioral disorders, it can be tempting to not relinquish any control as a teacher, but with the right supports, many of these students will surprise us.

5. Provide explicit social skills training

Students with emotional and behavioral disorders are often missing some important functional social skills, which makes it extremely difficult to engage appropriately in school. While social skills and social emotional learning skills should be embedded in everything we do as educators, it can be really effective to teach these skills explicitly and directly, too. Having dedicated time each day or once per week to tackle skills like staying on topic, handing conflict, managing big emotions, and using coping skills can be so helpful for this student population. When situations arise in the natural context, you can draw on the lessons you taught to help support students in navigating the situation appropriately and effectively. Lessons can be done in many different formats, like through picture books about specific topics, role plays, scenarios, and journal prompts.

Supporting students with emotional and behavioral disorders in the classroom can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to feel that way all the time. With the right supports and frameworks in the classroom, not only will your students thrive, but you will feel more confident in supporting them!

Arguably the best way to learn how to serve students with emotional and behavioral disorders is by returning to the classroom. An online Master of Arts in Special Education will equip you with the tools to serve students of all backgrounds in an inclusive, accommodating way. Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota specializes in preparing teachers to support the diverse needs of students with disabilities and create inclusive classroom environments. Learn more about the program today to begin charting your path toward understanding how to most effectively engage with students of diverse needs.

Allie Szczecinski is a special education teacher based in Chicago, Illinois. You can follow her on Instagram or on her website.