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Cassie Durkee

EDUG 509
Disabilities Paper
August 29, 2017
Emotionally Disturbed Students in the Classroom

Introduction to Emotional Disturbance in Elementary Classrooms

Emotional disturbance is a rampant issue among students in American classrooms.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students falling under the descriptor of

being emotionally disturbed has risen from 283,000 in 1977 to 354,000 in 2013 (NCES,

2016). Ever since 1977, when the rate was at its lowest in 40 years, it has hovered between

roughly 300-500,000 students in the United States. Since it is so prevalent throughout schools in

America, it is vital that teachers and future teachers be educated as to the classifications of

Emotional Disturbance, as well as the best modifications to provide education for these

individuals in the least restrictive environment possible.

Emotional disturbance is a term that can be used to classify other mental health terms such

as behavioral disorders or emotional disorders. Emotional disturbance is the most widely

accepted term for these disorders in children because of its use in IDEA, or the Individuals with

Disabilities Education Act. There are many different identifiers that may alert parents, educators,

or other adults that the child in question is either headed down the path or has already become

emotionally disturbed. The IDEA defines a child with emotional disturbance as having one or

more of these properties:

(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health


(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers

and teachers.

(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.

(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school

problems. (IDEA 2016)

As evident, it is a large range of symptoms and issues that may qualify a child to fall under this

category of disability. While feelings of anxiety and changing moods are a normal part of the

human experience, it is important to acknowledge what sets a child with emotional disturbance

apart from any other child dealing with typical issues. In the language of IDEA, the child must

be exhibiting one or more of the characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked

degree that adversely affects a childs educational performance (IDEA, 2016). The terms

marked degree, long period of time, and adversely affects are the key phrases for which

parents and educators must be attuned. While many children will struggle with one or more of

these issues in their developmental years, if they show these signs consistently for a period of

time or begin to not succeed because of them, it may be a wise idea to call together a Student

Success Team or convene a meeting of an IEP team to discuss the options that would be best for

the student in question.

Some behaviors that are often the first clues to teachers that the student needs help are as

follows: hyperactivity, short attention span, impulsivity; aggression towards self or other, self-

harm, fighting; withdrawal from classmates or teacher, no social interactions, abnormal amount

of fears or anxiety; immaturity such as inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, lack of coping

skills; and learning difficulties or performance academically below grade level (Emotional

Disturbance, 2010). Under the IDEA, it is mandatory for any student suspected of needing

support to be evaluated by the school, free of charge. A childs eligibility for special education

and related services begins with a full and individual evaluation of the child, often by school

counselors or health care professionals (Emotional Disturbance, 2010, pp.16). This is a legal

requirement, meaning that any school suspected of failure to provide these services could be

sued or fined heavily. It is of utmost importance that teachers are made aware of all laws

concerning their responsibilities to their students--especially when it comes to their mental and

physical health and safety.

Modifications for Emotionally Disturbed Students

The amount of classroom modifications that can be made to support students with

emotional disturbance are as vast and varied as the challenges that emotional disturbance may

provide--to students and teachers alike. One key idea that will help to drive the lesson planning

process of the teacher is to limit or eliminate dead time, or non-instructional time, as much as

possible. The reasoning for this is that dead time, when nothing is going on, is the time that will

most likely produce behavioral problems. When students are actively engaged in learning, it is

much less likely that they will engage in off-task behavior (Cavin, 1998, pp. 8). There are some

students that will be exceptionally skilled at quickly moving through your lessons and finding

themselves with nothing to do much before the other students. This is when that student will

have the most opportunity to pull their classmates off task by causing distractions. With all

students, it is wise to never have dead-time, because it is the propensity of any human to seek out

entertainment when they are not mentally stimulated. That makes this a modification that is vital

for all teachers to utilize for all students.

Another modification that would help to build skills in students with emotional

disturbances is to teach compensatory behaviors to the students. Compensatory behaviors, as the

name would suggest, are behaviors that people engage in to compensate, or make up, for an

impairment or disability. These students emotional disturbances often include a lack of

emotional awareness and control, so these compensatory behaviors and techniques help to target

those areas. Another modification that all students could benefit from relies on teaching skills

for anger-reduction and problem solving (Cavin, 1998, pp.23). Using this modification, teachers

must focus on modeling good problem-solving skills. This may involve talking through a

thought process with the entire class, or sharing a problem that is going on and asking for help in

making a decision. Teachers may combine both areas of compensatory behaviors into one and

ask the class to give advice for what to do when someone gets angry. The teacher could also talk

with the students that struggle with emotional control privately and prearrange a signal between

them and the student. If the student begins to get frustrated or heated by a situation going on in

the classroom, they can quickly flash the signal to the teacher. Upon acknowledgment, the

student can leave the room and cool off with no consequences (Cavin, 1988, pp.24).

In a study conducted by Chan Evans, Stacy Weiss, and Douglas Cullinan in 2012, two

strategies were recommended for teaching students with emotional disturbances. These are self-

management and contingency contracts. Self-management can be used to improve academic

problems, externalizing problems, and internalizing problems. Contingency contracts are

effective for increasing academic and social behaviors (Evans, 2012, p.88). A way to support the

growth of self-management is for teachers to discuss their own thought processes when they are

managing their emotions in more difficult situations. Contingency contracts are an option that is

good for almost any student in the classroom. These are contracts drawn up between the student

and their teacher. The way to make it the most effective is for the teacher to prompt the student

to come up with the majority of the consequences of bad behavior. If they come up with it

themselves, they will be much more likely to respect the contract when they do misbehave than

if it were ordained by the teacher with no student input.

Application for Case Study

I have been a third grade teacher for two years now, and this is my third year of teaching

this grade. I have a female student in my classroom this year named Amanda who has been

diagnosed with a combination of anxiety disorders called General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and

Social Anxiety Disorder. Both of these disorders affect her success--both in the classroom and in

life in general. These are both classified under the umbrella of being an emotional disturbance,

which qualifies her for an IEP. She has had an IEP for one full year, as the process was begun

when she was in the first grade. Now that we are several months into the school year, I have had

a chance to truly get to know Amandas specific disorders, how they affect her learning, and how

I can best support her educational and emotional growth.

For Amanda, group assignments are often a trigger for panic attacks. If I say the words

Pair up, class, she immediately freezes and shuts down. Her mind races a mile a minute, but,

on the surface, she is nearly unresponsive. Even after a couple hours, she still may not have

completed the assignment because of the state of panic that her mind stays in. If her body and

mind believes that she is in immediate danger, which is what her disorder is telling her, there is

no possible way for her to simply force her mind to focus on the task at hand. This has made me

learn to watch closely to observe the students that are kind, patient, and gentle with her, and I

will explicitly pair her with those students before I tell the rest of the class to pair up. Without

drawing attention, I will tell her and her partner that they will be working together, after which I

will turn and tell the rest of the class to pair up. This has actually led me to assign partners for

everyone more frequently than not, since I have seen how much more effectively Amanda works

with the correct partner.

Another thing that I have learned by working with Amanda is that her GAD makes it

difficult for her to express herself even to me sometimes if she is having a high-anxiety day. In

my research, I discovered an article by K.S. Regan, written in 2003, that promotes the use of

dialogue journals for students with emotional disturbances. Dialogue journals are used to allow

students to voice their opinions, thoughts, and emotions in a private way to their teacher or other

trusted adult. The teacher writes a prompt of sorts to each student individually in a small class,

or a more general prompt for a large-sized classroom. Regan states that students with emotional

disturbance tend to remove themselves from others, and their expressions of self can be

misinterpreted, expressed inappropriately, or not expressed at all (Regan, 2003, p.37). I know

that Amanda falls into the latter category, that her personal voice is often lost amongst the bigger

personalities prevalent in a large classroom size. In order not to single Amanda out, about a

month into the school year I began asking every student to write in their dialogue journals for 10-

15 minutes every day after lunch. This gives the rowdy ones time to settle in, while allowing

Amanda to collect her thoughts and let me know how she is doing in a private and safe

context. In the dialogue journals, I take the time to write in at least ten students journals every

single day, with a specific few that I make sure to write in every day, such as Amanda.

Since Amanda has social anxiety, she is not entirely capable of showing her grasp of

content in any assessments that involve performance or public speaking. In fact, calling on her in

class is almost catastrophic for her. Being singled out in front of others is a major trigger for

panic for Amanda, and I must be very conscientious of this when planning my assignments or

assessments. If I assign the class into groups and ask them to perform a skit or song that they

create to prove their knowledge of a topic, I will still put Amanda in a group and expect her to

contribute to the creative process. This will be more difficult for her than others, but working

with others is a vital life skill, so it will be a struggle that will be well worth it in the end. I will

pay close attention to her participation in the group, making sure the participation is always an

element on the rubric. I will allow her to always take a background role in the presentations

themselves, and will have a separate discussion with her about what she knows at a different


Amandas IEP does not require a resource teacher to come visit the class as she is on

track with her peers intellectually, if only slightly behind. Once a week, however, she will leave

the class to meet with a school counselor for an hour. In this meeting, they will discuss exercises

to help her better her self-talk when anxious thoughts intrude, form healthy attachments to adults,

and support her in her acquisition of necessary social skills. Consistency is vital for all

emotionally disturbed students, and this is even truer for students with anxiety. To help ease

Amandas mind as we go through the day, I will have the schedule for each day written out on

the board. I will attempt to never deviate from the schedule, and will try to have a similar

schedule every day so that she knows what to expect. Consistency is so important, not only for

students with emotional disturbance but for every student--and not only in scheduling but in

every single action I perform as a teacher. I will take that lesson and apply it to every situation

in my teaching from this year forward.

Resource Page

Cavin, C. (1998). Maintaining Sanity in an Insane Classroom: How a Teacher of Students with

Emotional Disturbances Can Keep from Becoming an Emotionally Disturbed Teacher.

Education And Treatment Of Children, 21(3), 370-84.

Emotional Disturbance. (2010, June 16). Center for Parent Information and Resources. Retrieved

from http://www.parentcenterhub.org/emotionaldisturbance/

Evans, C., Weiss, S. L., & Cullinan, D. (2012). Teacher Perceptions and Behavioral Strategies

for Students with Emotional Disturbance across Educational Environments. Preventing

School Failure, 56(2), 82-90.

Fast Facts- Students with Disabilities. (2016). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved

from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=64

IDEA- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (2016). Retrieved from


Regan, K. S. (2003). Using Dialogue Journals in the Classroom: Forming Relationships with

Students with Emotional Disturbance. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 36(2), 36-41.