teaching ebd students
Sep 19 2023

9 Effective Teaching Strategies for Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Positive Action Staff
Children are the beacon of hope for our future. Their mental health and emotional well-being are the very foundation upon which future success and happiness are built.

However, for some children, emotional well-being is fraught with emotional and behavioral challenges. As educators, it is our duty to create inclusive classrooms and support their growth.

Emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) show up in early childhood and adolescence, appearing as academic and behavioral struggles. However, these signs and manifestations are often misunderstood, leading to delayed diagnoses and interventions.

These disorders include but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Psychotic disorders

Mainstream and special education classrooms must provide emotional and behavioral support to students by:

  • Supporting students’ cognitive development
  • Facilitating students’ intellectual advancement
  • Increasing students’ academic achievement
  • Developing students’ social skills
  • Instilling emotional management in students
  • 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 (EBD)?


Emotional disturbance is a condition characterized by emotional and behavioral challenges, affecting a child’s ability to learn and function effectively in the classroom.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) offers a more specific definition, stating that it exhibits the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree:

  • A lack of capacity to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors
  • An inability to establish or sustain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers, teachers, and others within the school settings
  • Displaying inappropriate behavior or feelings in regular, normal situations
  • Experiencing a prevailing and pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
  • An inclination to develop negative physical symptoms or fears in response to personal or school-related problems

IDEA further specifies that emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia, but does not include socially maladjusted children who do not have emotional disturbance.


IDEA’s specific definition enlightens us about the social and cognitive challenges that people with emotional disturbance go through in their day-to-day lives.

To provide helpful interventions for emotional and behavioral disorders in the classroom, it is crucial to understand how this condition challenges students in areas beyond the emotional.

In the book of Tomlinson published in 2022, it is said that the emotional difficulties of students with EBD extend to social and cognitive skills, and translate into the following behaviors:

  • Hyperactivity, manifesting as short attention spans and impulsive behavior
  • Aggressive tendencies or engagements in self-harming behaviors
  • Social withdrawal resulting from heightened fear or anxiety
  • Manifestations of emotional dysregulation, such as inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, and poor coping skills
  • Learning difficulties, manifesting as not paying attention and performing below grade level

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?

Students with emotional and behavioral disorders have unique learning needs and struggle differently compared to their peers without such challenges. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that teachers in the classroom implement specially designed instruction for students with EBD.

Instructional strategies for students with behavioral problems must prioritize their unique needs and challenges. To fulfill this goal, it is crucial to create a positive, inclusive, and well-structured learning environment that actively supports social and emotional development, enhances self-concept, and fosters positive behavior.

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

1. Choice-making opportunities

Choice-making, also known as instructional choice, is a concept in education that empowers students by providing them with opportunities to decide for their own learning.

With this method, teachers offer structured options and motivate students to follow an instructional request.

To do this, offer the student up to three options and ask them to choose just one. Then, offer them a time to decide. Wait for their response until then. Finally, reinforce their option and guide them through the advantages and disadvantages of their choice.

2. Previewing

Enhance the memory of students to facilitate learning by reviewing previous lessons and relating them to the current lesson.

To do this, engage students with thought-provoking questions that encourage reflection. Then, establish clear intentions for the current lesson.

This strategy guides the learning process for students with emotional disturbance and difficulty learning.

3. Mnemonic instruction

Mnemonic instruction has been proven effective in teaching students with learning and behavior problems, even those advanced and normally achieving.

Use this memory-enhancing tool when teaching your students, especially those with emotional and behavioral disorders. This strategy supports their learning process, making it easier for them to retain and retrieve information.

To apply this strategy, teachers can associate visual or acoustic cues with the concepts they are teaching. For example, teachers can associate actions or hand signals with words they are introducing to students. Educators can place their hands above their heads and wiggle their fingers every time they introduce or mention the word “Imagination.”

Using this effective teaching strategy benefits students with behavioral and verbal problems. It addresses their learning problems and facilitates their learning process.

4. Adjust task difficulty

Students learn differently. Some are quick to learn new words, concepts, and formulas, while others need more practice and repetition.

When teaching students with EBD, it is crucial to recognize their learning difficulties. Although challenging, it is helpful in identifying the pace of your students.

Once you understand their pace, adjust the difficulty level of your teaching and class exercises to suit your learners’ capabilities.

5. Personalized method of instruction

Every student is unique, with a different preferred learning style. Personalizing the approach to instruction is crucial for effective teaching and learning experiences.

Tailor instruction to meet the individual requirements and preferences of your students. To personalize instruction and ensure learning, it is helpful to start with the steps below.

Firstly, it is important to specify your objectives for your students. This way, you can design your instruction according to the goals you aim to achieve.

Then, break down the course into smaller units, so you have a clear understanding of the content and skills that must be taught. Take into consideration the varying abilities and prior knowledge of your students.

Regularly assess and monitor student progress. This allows you to identify students’ areas of improvement. More importantly, it helps you to adjust your instruction and learning materials accordingly.

6. Interval duration during reading sessions

Reading is an essential and inevitable part of school learning. Some classrooms even tend to engage students in long reading sessions.

However, this is not a productive learning experience for students with EBD. These students exhibit shortened attention spans and difficulty focusing. Therefore, engaging them in reading sessions without breaks can only lead to mental fatigue and concentration loss.

A productive learning experience for students with EBD is breaking the reading time into shorter intervals. To do this, you can stop in between sessions to ask questions, encourage self-reflection, and clarify some points.

By doing this, you can boost your students’ reading comprehension and assist in their cognitive process.

Using this strategy in the classroom helps students increase engagement, decode words more easily, understand their meanings, and make connections with previous knowledge.

7. Life-Space Interviewing

According to a study conducted in 2022, students with EBD have aggressive tendencies and exhibit disruptive behavior, conduct problems, and self-harm. As a teacher, it is your responsibility to handle this situation when it occurs in the classroom and guide your students in the right direction.

You can do this by understanding the root of the incident and allowing your student to take responsibility by adopting Life-Space Interviewing. There are seven steps to this process which you can easily remember by thinking of the acronym I-ESCAPE.

On a guide provided by John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity, you can conduct the interview with the following steps:

  • Isolate the student to remove distractions and ensure privacy.
  • Explore the student’s perspective by asking them to elaborate on what happened and why it happened.
  • Summarize the student’s feelings and the content of the narrative to clarify the account and remind the students of his statement.
  • Connect the feeling of the student with the behavior exhibited during the incident.
  • Alternative behaviors must be explored and provided by guiding the student to suggest the actions s/he could have taken differently.
  • Plan to practice new behavior when the same feeling or situation arises once again.
  • Enter the person back into the class and help the student prepare and adjust positively upon re-entering.

You can adopt this repair and rebuild strategy to bring balance back into the classroom and provide support to students with emotional and behavioral challenges. This also helps students to understand and improve their behavior.

8. Story mapping

Stories play a big part in learning. When teaching a lesson or concept through stories, it is helpful to use story maps to boost the reading comprehension of your students with EBD.

A story map is a graphic organizer of the elements of a story, such as the settings, characters, plot, and theme. When the meaning of the stories becomes too challenging for students to comprehend, story maps assist in simplifying and breaking down the details to make them easier to digest.

This tool not only benefits the students but also helps the teacher facilitate the discussion and ensure the student’s understanding of key story elements. This promotes active participation and deeper engagement among students.

9. Classroom Positive Behavior Chart

Every classroom has rules to create a structured and conducive learning environment. These rules are established to ensure the well-being, safety, and academic progress of all students.

As a teacher, how can you motivate your students to behave positively and follow classroom rules?

Using rewards and positive language are highly effective strategies for reinforcing positive behavior. To effectively reward your students, it is imperative to closely monitor their progress and identify areas where they have improved.

Use a classroom positive behavior chart to keep track of your students’ behavior improvement. In implementing this strategy, it is best to design it by including the positive behavior you want to see in your students.

For example, write in the leftmost column of the chart the classroom rules that promote positivity and kindness. You can write up to ten rules, such as, “Always say “Please” and “Thank you,” “Offer help to a friend in need,” or “Be respectful to others.”

Ensure that the chart is displayed where all students can see it, serving as a constant reminder of the expectations set for them.

To further reinforce positive behavior, it can be helpful that you, as a teacher, model these rules. Use positive language in your interactions with the students and inspire them to strive for similar achievements.

“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

Students with emotional and behavioral disorders have unique needs and challenges. Educators must ensure to provide them with equal access to high-quality education by incorporating teaching strategies for emotional disturbance.

Positive Action offers evidence-based classroom management and behavior curriculum programs designed specifically to help students with special needs develop the essential skill set for social and emotional development.

Our classroom management plan promotes inclusive classrooms and helps special needs students, such as those with emotional and behavioral disorders, seamlessly integrate with their peers in mainstream classrooms.

With Positive Action, students with emotional disturbance can thrive in various aspects of their education and personal development!

“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