Music & Students with Special Needs (Special Learners in Music) Special Learners in Music
Bartlett - Established 1884 in New York City

Emotional or Behavior Disturbances

Seriously emotionally disturbed was the term used in 1975 when PL 94-142 (now IDEA) was enacted. Today, that term is criticized as inappropriate. Behaviorally disordered is a term consistent with the name of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders (CCBD), a division of the Council for Exceptional Children, and has the advantage of focusing attention on the clearly observable aspect of these student’s difficulties - disordered behavior. Many authorities favor terminology indicating that these students may have emotional or behavioral differences, or both.

In 1990, the National Mental Health and Special Education Coalition, proposed the new terminology emotional or behavioral disorder to replace serious emotional disturbance in federal laws and regulations.

Characteristics of students with emotional or behavioral disabilities (differences)

  • Emotional or behavioral differences sometimes overlap with other disabilities, especially learning disabilities and mental retardation.
  • Students with emotional or behavioral differences have behavior that goes to an extreme - that is not just slightly different from the usual
  • These students may have a behavior difference that is chronic - one that does not quickly disappear.
  • These students may display behavior that is unacceptable because of social or cultural expectations.

According to IDEA, students with serious emotional disturbances.

  • The term means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked extent, which adversely affects educational performance:
  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory 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.

Teaching strategies for students with emotional and behavioral differences

  • Make rules and routines positive, concrete, and functional, relating them to the accomplishments of learning and order in the classroom.
  • Design rules and routines to anticipate potential classroom problems and to manage these situations. For example, teachers may want students to raise their hands when they need help rather than calling out or leaving their seats to locate the teacher
  • Establish classroom rules and routines, and continue to provide opportunities for students with emotional and behavioral differences to practice them until they have mastered them.
  • Associate rules and routines with simple signals that tell students when they are to carry out or stop specific activities and behaviors.
  • Monitor how students with emotional or behavioral differences follow rules and routines, rewarding students for appropriate behaviors.
  • Foster a climate of cooperation and caring. Reinforce acts of kindness in your classroom and communicate values of cooperation and tolerance. Praise students when you observe them resolving a conflict peacefully.
  • Mediate student disputes and teach conflict resolution skills. Empower the “silent majority” to take appropriate action to end any instances of “bullying”. Coach students in how to respond to teasing or bullying and be sure to supervise unstructured activities closely.
  • Provide the student with emotional or behavioral differences with a “cooling-off” area.
  • Recognize good behavior and find positive ways to satisfy the student’s need for attention.
  • Decide whether to ignore or respond to particular behaviors. Redirect attention when necessary.

Talk with the student privately when disruptions occur to seek his cooperation. Consider a private signal to let the student know when her behavior is “out of bounds”.

Behavior Management Plans

Before beginning a behavior management plan, discuss areas of difficulty with the student, other teachers, and parents. Read the student’s IEP or 504. Ask the student for input regarding her behavior. Begin the plan with baseline data and a target of behaviors. If possible, continue the plan already in existence in another classroom. Allow the student to assist in the design of the plan. Provide opportunities for the student to self-monitor and self-reward whenever possible. These opportunities help the student build ownership in the process, self-esteem, and gives less responsibility to the teacher.

  • Praise positive behaviors often. Reward systems can greatly increase the amount of on-task behaviors during class. Check the student’s IEP to see if it includes a behavior management plan. If it does, create a plan similar, if not identical, to the plan used by other teachers.
  • The class behavior management plan is not always an appropriate plan for all students in the class. The student may need a supplemental plan with extra warnings, and a separate reward system. It is important that the plan remain consistent.
  • “Time Out” can be used, if appropriate according to the IEP, as a time for the student to regroup. The goal of “Time Out” is the allow the student time to calm down and rethink the situation.
    • “Time Out Step 1" - Time out in a designated classroom area. Some teachers call this area the “thinking area”. This area, usually located in the classroom, is appropriate for all students who need a few minutes to think something through without interruption.
    • “Time Out Step 2" - Time out outside the classroom area. Sometimes the student will need to leave the classroom environment. A supportive teacher, guidance counselor, or principal can help the student cool down and work through the situation.
    • “Time Out Step 3" - A telephone call home can help alert parents to a situation in the classroom and perhaps help the teacher gather further insight into the student.
  • A token system is appropriate for some students. Tokens may consist of small laminated paper shapes, buttons, or beads. You may choose to make your own. With a token system, the student is responsible to keep the tokens with their classroom materials and redeem the tokens for a reward. In the beginning, students tend to work for rewards that can be easily obtained. Encourage the student to set goals and work towards a larger reward.
  • With the student, create a list of reinforcement activities. The student may choose from these activities when their individual goal has been met. What motivates an adult will not always motivate the student. Create the list together and keep the rewards simple. Some suggestions may include stickers, pencils, pens, basic school supplies, ten extra minutes on the computer, five minutes of free choice activity with a friend, or a coupon for one “excused” homework assignment.
  • Keep parents informed about the reward system and let them know when the student has shown improvement in class. This can go a long way to increase positive behaviors and the self-esteem of the student and the parents often will provide additional reinforcement at home.

Additional Resources

The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice web site.

WrightsLAW - Parents, advocates, educators, and attorneys come to Wrightslaw for accurate, up-to-date information about special education law and advocacy for children with disabilities.

Hunter College Web Site - Social Skills Activities

Dr. McIntyre's Behavior Management Advice Site - Special Ed

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry - Facts for Families

Jefferson County, Colorado Sheriff's Department web site:

Council for Children with Behavior Disorders

Principal refuses to allow special education student in spelling bee - article from the Kansas City Star

Copyright 2005 Project Seven Development