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 of time and to a marked 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 feeling under normal circumstances.
- A general pervasive mood of unhappiness and depression.
- A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
A simpler way to explain an ED diagnosis is to consider it special education category that is mostly associated with severe behavioral issues or other mental health concerns. These mental health concerns include but are not limited to: schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, OCD, conduct disorder, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, and anxiety.
In the classroom
Because an ED diagnosis manifests itself in mostly behavioral ramifications, the classroom environment can be particularly challenging for everyone involved, but especially the affected child. One major obstacle for children and teens dealing with an ED diagnosis is the fact that the “symptoms” or traits are often misunderstood by peers—and sometimes educators. People unfamiliar or unaware of the condition only see the behaviors or the bubbling over; they do not bear witness to the underlying mental issues causing these inappropriate behaviors.
Oftentimes, children and teens are going to experience mood swings, aggression, tantrums, anxiousness. However, an ED diagnosis means that the prevalence of these behavioral traits impact the student’s learning and social functioning to a serious degree. Of course, anyone working in the interest of the child’s education and well-being should be fully involved in the IEP process, making sure to adhere to behavioral intervention strategies and outlined accommodations. This means that school, home, and community resources should align and maintain consistency. But additionally, there are strategies that teachers can use in their individual classrooms to assist students with ED.
- Facilitate a classroom environment that clearly establishes and adheres to logical, predictable routines and procedures. It is important for all children, but especially children with an ED diagnosis, to recognize the connection between what they are being asked to do and why. When expectations are logical and clearly established, students recognize why they should follow certain guidelines to build a positive and productive classroom environment.
- Create flexible seating options within the classroom and designate an area for independent cool-down and meditation. This cool-down center should be clearly defined as a quiet space in the classroom where students can go to settle or calm themselves during instruction and learning. Note that any student can utilize the space for self-soothing—not just students with an IEP or specific ED diagnosis. Consider arranging the space for comfy relaxation and include materials for journaling, coloring, stress balls, fidget tools, or headphones to block out distracting noise.
- Establish a sticky note system or other subtle or nonverbal cue for students to use when they are experiencing stress or extreme emotions. Much like a flash pass, a special education accommodation that allows students to subtly but immediately leave the classroom for counselling or a brain break, a sticky note system allows students to check-in with their own mental/emotional state and relay that information to the teacher. In some cases, if a student places a blue sticky on the corner of his desk, it might mean that he needs the teacher’s assistance. A yellow sticky might mean “please do not approach or address me right now.” Whatever the system may be, make sure that each student is aware of the guidelines and follows it appropriately. This also means that the teacher must adhere to the sticky system as well; if the yellow sticky is out, do not try to coax or prod the student to talk.
- Relationship building is key for students with an ED diagnosis. Oftentimes, because of their behavioral challenges, they have experienced backlash or negative reactions from both peers and teachers. These experiences make it more difficult for students to feel accepted and understood over time, which can create a very negative outlook on school for them. Psychologist R. Wlodkowski encourages his “2×10” strategy, in which teachers engage in a personal, student-centered conversation with a challenging student for two minutes every day for ten days. The strategy has been proven to build positivity and improve that student’s behavior and attitude dramatically. These conversations also send the message to the student that, “I hear you, I’m interested, and I care, ” something that many ED students are seeking at home and in school.