Students With Emotional And Behavioral Disabilities (ED, EBD, SED, EI)


IDEA defines serious emotional disturbance (SED) as "a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree, which adversely affects educational performance:
1. An inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
2. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
4. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems."
Students with schizophrenia fall under this category. Emotional disturbance does not include socially maladjusted or at-risk students. EBD also includes anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, conduct disorders, eating disorders, OCD, and psychotic disorders.

Causes: Five Theories of Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities

  1. Biophysical: The problems come from within the child. The disturbed child is one who because of organic and/or environmental influences, chronically displays:
    • the inability to learn at a rate commensurate with his/her intellectual, sensory-motor, and physical development
    • the inability to establish and maintain adequate social relationships
    • the inability to respond appropriately in day to day life situations
    • and a variety of excessive behavior ranging from hyperactivity, impulsive responses, to depression and withdrawal. These problems come from within the child.
  2. Psychodynamic: The psychodynamic model is a mixture of theories that attempts to explain motivation of human behavior. It is concerned with the needs of the student. Conflict, anxiety, and guilt are believed to serve as catalysts for personality development. It is believed that the unconscious mind affects the child. The problem comes from within the student.
  3. Cognitive: Cognitive psychologist contend that what a person thinks, believes, expects, attends to (in short, his/her mental life) influences how he or she behaves. Disordered cognitive processes cause some psychological disorders and by changing these cognitions, the disorder can be alleviated and perhaps even cured.
  4. Behavioral: Emotional disturbance consists of maladaptive behaviors. As a learned behavior, it is developed and maintained like all other behaviors. Behavior is reducible to responses or actions that can be observed, analyzed, and measured. Behavior can be controlled through administering reinforcements and consequences. Behavior is modifiable through learning.
  5. Ecological: Behavioral disabilities are defined as a variety of excessive, chronic, deviant behaviors ranging from impulsive and aggressive to depressive and withdrawal acts (a) which violate the perceived expectations of appropriateness, and (b)which the perceiver wishes to be stopped. Emphasis is placed not only on the child but also on other individuals and factors in the child's ecosystem


  • Internalizing Behaviors: Inwardly Directed Behaviors
    • Social Withdrawal: lack of assertiveness, low self-esteem, frequent embarrassment, narrow safety zones (areas where the student feels comfortable, ie.home), socially involved with family members and/or well known peers.
    • Anxiety Disorders: excessive level of anxiety or worry extending over a six-month or longer period of time. Can also include separation anxiety
    • Depression: persistent experience of a sad or irritable mood and loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities. These feelings can be accompanied by a range of additional symptoms affecting appetite, sleep, activity levels, concentration, and feelings of self-worth.

  • Externalizing Behaviors: Overt Manifestation of Defiance and Disruption
    • Aggression
      • Verbal: yelling, teasing, whining, tantrums, use of profanity, threatening, humiliating others, disrespectful comments, attempts to engage others in arguments.
      • Physical: hitting, kicking, grabbing, punching, biting, throwing, and other violent acts
    • Noncompliance: student actively choose not to follow written or verbal directions, rules, and/or requests. By refusing to comply, academic and social development is halted.
    • Students can also demonstrate the inability to form and/or maintain friendships. Some students lack the ability to show warmth or affect.


Less than one percent of students are identified as emotionally impaired. It is common for students with emotional impairments to live in households that face risk factors such as poverty, single parents, unemployed parents, or illness/disabilities.


Since there is a lot of difficulty in developing a 100% objective definition for EBD, it can be difficult to systematically identify students in need of services. When identifying a student with EBD, just like all other disabilities, academic achievement and cognitive testing takes place, as well as classroom observations. Schools usually use a three step approach to identifying students with EBD:
  1. Screening: Teachers observe students during daily instruction in order to identify students with problem behaviors. This is an informal process and can be difficult at times to judge properly. Teachers with a high tolerance for behavior issues might overlook students who require interventions and support while teachers with a low tolerance for behavior issues might over identify students. Some school districts require teachers to use commercial screening checklists when observing students' behavior
  2. Assessment: When students are identified as having problem behaviors, more formal assessments are put into place. Teachers, parents, and students are asked to complete behavior rating scales that measure visible behaviors. Students are also administered personality-oriented scales to assess thoughts and feelings. These assessments must be administered by the proper individual which can include an outside doctor or a school psychologist.
  3. Identification: At this point, specific behaviors are identified for each student and a functional behavioral assessment is put into place. This serves as a tool which identifies the antecedent to the behaviors and offers interventions and adjustments that can help with the targeted behaviors. The FBA or BIP (Behavior Intervention Plan) is built by the IEP team lead by the school psychologist who is the expert in this area.

Strategies & Tips:

Area of Need
Instructional Needs
  • chunk assignments and instruction allowing for breaks in between sections
  • smaller classroom environment if behaviors dictate
  • preferential seating near the teacher or in an area that offers a safe environment for the student
  • connect skills to students' lives
  • use verbal responses or assistive technology as apposed to written responses
  • peer tutoring
  • collaborative learning groups in the inclusive setting with attainable tasks/job assignments for the special needs students
  • use of audio for reading (kurzweil, books on cd, podcasts)
  • high interest/low reading level texts
  • offer choices for assignments (allow them to pick the type of differentiation used)
  • images and visuals during lessons to increase interest
  • use of a timer during assigned tasks
Behavioral Needs
  • access to crisis intervention
  • extra assistance (inclusion teacher or para-educator) in inclusive settings
  • token classrooms (students receive "money" toward desired prizes)
  • clearly defined classroom rules
  • school-wide positive behavior program
  • frequent breaks
  • daily progress reports between school and home
  • use of a timer
  • student and teacher checklists
  • behavior intervention plan for target behaviors (shouting out, time on task, appropriate social interactions)
  • "Brain Break" areas when brief breaks are needed within the classroom
  • therapeutic milieu: softer lighting, ascetically pleasing room decorations, comfortable furniture for breaks, lack of distracting decorations
Social Needs
  • group counseling with guidance counselor or social worker
  • peer tutoring to encourage relationships
  • collaborative learning groups
  • one-on-one counseling
  • direct social skill instruction (programs are available or can be teacher built based on needs)
  • class meetings
  • teacher modeled social skills
  • skits/scenario reenactments that offer/display replacement behaviors


The Council for Exceptional Children
The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities
Classroom Management for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: School Based Practice by Roger Pierangelo and George A. Giuliani
Interactive Reading Website
Alice's Garden (website focused on support for children with depression and parents of children with depression)


Falk, K. Lane, K. Wehby, J. (2003). Academic Instruction for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, Vol. 11, No. 4. Retrieved from

McLeskey, J. Rosenberg, M. Westling, D. (2010). Inclusion: Effective Practices for All Students. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Education, Inc.

Pierangelo, R. PhD. (2004). The Special Educator’s Survival Guide: Second Edition. San Fransisco, CA. Jossey-Bass Inc.