teaching ebd students
Feb 26 2021

9 Effective Teaching Strategies for Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Positive Action Staff
Supporting our children’s mental health is a significant concern — especially our children who have emotional and behavioral disorders.

The truth is, many of these disorders show up in childhood or adolescence yet may go undiagnosed and untreated for years.

These disorders include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Anxiety disorders like panic disorder

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Conduct disorder

  • Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Psychotic disorders like schizophrenia

Special education classrooms for children with behavioral disturbance should provide emotional and behavioral support in addition to:

  • Helping students who struggle in class to master academics

  • Developing their social skills

  • Increasing self-awareness and self-control

Embedded in Positive Action’s philosophy is a clear understanding and acceptance of the standards of positive behavior.

Reinforcing these behaviors allows students to experience the self-pride that comes from conducting positive actions. As a result, students begin to pursue those actions willingly.

Take Jason G, for instance. Before undertaking our curriculum, he’d start fights with anyone who challenged him — even going so far as kicking down a projector while he stormed out of class.

That very same year, Jason’s school incorporated Positive Action, and he began adopting some positive behaviors.

“Fourth grade is where I changed my life around. I felt like I wasn’t being threatened. I felt safe. I made new friends and didn’t care to fight. I realized I’m great at science, math, and of course, PE. It’s a lot more fun to be in class, not the (principal’s) office. By sixth grade, I was the Positive Action Sumo and felt like the little ones looked up to me. I took lead in different activities like reading groups and motivating my class at PE.”

What Are Emotional and Behavioral Disorders?


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines emotional disturbance as:

  • A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period and to a significant degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

  • 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

Emotional disturbance also includes schizophrenia but doesn’t apply to children who are socially maladjusted due to other reasons apart from emotional disturbance.


IDEA’s definition depicts how emotional disturbances can impact individuals in areas beyond the emotional, edging into their social and cognitive skills.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Arizona accurately defines mental illnesses as:

“Medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning.”

You see, just as hypertension is a disorder of the heart, mental illnesses are medical conditions that can impact one’s capacity to deal with day-to-day life in the long term.

Some of the characteristics and behaviors present in children with emotional challenges and problem behaviors include:

  • Hyperactivity which shows up as short attention spans and impulsiveness

  • Aggression or self-injurious behavior like acting out or fighting

  • Withdrawal from social gatherings due to excessive fear or anxiety

  • Emotional dysregulation like inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, and poor coping skills

  • Learning difficulties like not paying attention and performing below grade level

In fact, children with more adverse emotional disturbances may exhibit:

  • Distorted thinking like suicidal thoughts

  • Excessive anxiety

  • Bizarre motor acts

  • Abnormal mood swings

Take seventh-grader Marietta, for instance. Seated silently at her desk during an enthusiastic science discussion led by her teacher, she’s preoccupied with thoughts about killing herself.

More often than not, when children have an emotional disturbance, these behaviors persist for a long time. Yet, most students with emotional problems sit undetected in general education classrooms.

So what can a teacher do to help these youngsters learn? Next, we’ll explore how you can support your students with emotional disturbance.

What Instructional Strategies Are Available for Behavioral Problems?

As with other conditions that require special education, teaching students with emotional and behavioral disorders calls for a positive, structured environment that:

  • Supports growth

  • Fosters self-esteem

  • Rewards desirable behavior

**Let’s look at some interventions that can encourage positive behavior in students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

1. Choice-making opportunities

Use a three-step method for choice-making:

  1. Offer the student up to three options and ask them to choose only one.

  2. Let them know how much time they have to make a decision and wait for their response.

  3. Finally, reinforce the option they chose so that they’re fully aware of the pros and cons of their choice.

2. Previewing

Activate knowledge from the previous lesson by asking students reflective questions, then set intentions for your current lesson.

3. Mnemonic instruction

Use this memory-enhancing tool to teach students how to link new information to prior knowledge so that they easily retain specific information.

For instance, using the number of days in a week and weeks in a month helps students memorize the multiplication table for the number 7.

4. Adjust task difficulty

Adjust the difficulty of math problems to suit your learners’ capabilities.

In fact, prompt your students to voice the math problems aloud before solving them.

5. Personalized system of instruction

  • Come up with specific objectives with your students.

  • Break down the course into smaller units.

  • Stick to writing content over dictating.

  • Allow the student to move at their own pace throughout the curriculum in relevant areas like writing term papers.

  • Give immediate feedback for exams.

  • Assign student tutors where necessary for the more challenging concepts.

6. Interval duration during reading sessions

Adjust the amount of time between a student reading a word and the next word’s presentation, e.g., about five seconds.

7. Life space interviewing

This crisis intervention technique entails discussing the student’s negative behavior when the problem occurs.

That way, the student is more receptive to behavior reforms while understanding the consequences of not upholding these changes.

8. Story mapping

Create a visual depiction of the setting, order of significant events, and character actions in a story before reading. This procedure helps to enhance student comprehension.

9. Individual curricular modification

Regularly administer behavioral assessments and use the results to determine the best instructional and curricular variables for different students when it comes to, for instance, assignment completion.

So you’ve managed to help your students adhere to the class’s rules and routines. Now it’s time for some motivation. Here’s a guide to rewarding positive behavior:

  • Classroom Behavior Chart - Use this chart to visually plot every student’s level of behavior in the classroom. Students who consistently display positive behavior move upwards on the chart. This inculcates personal accountability in the students while helping you monitor and reward progress. However, this strategy won't work when difficult students stay stuck at the bottom of the chart. So focus on rewarding any ounce of positive behavior to keep them motivated.

  • Positive Peer Review - The students with emotional and behavioral disorders are instructed to watch their peers without emotional disturbances and identify their positive behaviors.

In this case, both the student with positive behavior and the student identifying said behavior is rewarded.

This is the exact opposite of "tattle-telling" — and instead builds a sense of teamwork and social support in the classroom.

“I am very grateful for these lessons. They fulfill a need that so many children are lacking in the educational process today.” — Linda Davis, 2nd Grade Teacher, Davis Elementary

All the Help You Need

As educators know, classroom management is the epitome of an effective learning environment.

When your learners are actively engaged, managing the classroom is much easier because you spend less time resolving conflicts and defusing student meltdowns.

Classroom management need not be a hassle or an acquired art. With Positive Action's classroom management programs, teachers can successfully manage their classrooms using tried and tested techniques and relevant content.

“Positive Action is a good curriculum and we tied it in with our PBIS. It really helped in making this a safe school where academics and behavior work together so that everybody can learn.” — From a Principal in Robeson County, North Carolina


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