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by: Lynette Walters

Dealing with emotionally disturbed students is no easy task.  No, let me place the emphasis on the words ‘NO TWO’ emotionally disturbed students are alike.They are simultaneously precious and fragile by nature.  Does expertise play a big part in handling? Or is instinct a better approach?

Let’s look at both to ensure we cover all angles and achieve the desired results: meeting the student where they are, providing for their needs, and making them feel secure.  In my opinion,there are  five essential approaches have proven to be the most effective when dealing with students who are emotionally disturbed:

1) Be sensitive – Think of your job as being to provide a security blanket for the student. I’m not saying for you to enable them, or give them a crutch, but to instead model your sensitivity to their needs.

2) Be informed – Study and/or observe the student, if you will. Read the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Read the Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) where applicable, and research the disability to further increase understanding.

3) Be proactive – Knowing triggers that may offset an episode is essential.  Always think PREVENTION.

4) Be a team player – Consult and collaborate with parents, students, other teachers, coaches, etc. to ensure that everyone is on the same page.  Working together always enhances a students’ chance of educational survival and success.

5) Be an advocate – Advocate for the child’s ability to cope with the emotional disorder in varied settings. Encourage them to be active, remind them that they are in control of their behavior, and encourage others to in be inclusive.

Understandably, the a fore-mentioned methods may seem a little overwhelming and time-consuming to both new and veteran teachers. Just remember that practice makes perfect when dealing with students who are emotionally disturbed. While trial and error is inevitable at best, making a viable effort never fails.  Most importantly, the student needs to know they have someone in their corner actively seeking ways to assist in their ‘special’ educational journey. Will that be you?

Have you ever dealt with students who are emotionally disturbed? Share some strategies you used with them?

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  1. Complementing them at EVERY opportunity can be really helpful even if the complement is for a relatively small thing. A lot of these students rarely hear praise in their lives, especially in school. Also, making sure you think highly of them can go a very long way. Having a hallway conversation to tell that student that you think he's great can have a drastic effect on your relationship with him and consequently on his behavior. They often don't know or believe these things until we tell them, and sadly they rarely believe that they are good kids inside. Reminding them of that is crucial.

  2. PBIS is key. And they need to know that no matter what YOU are on their side and will love and support them. I make sure my kiddo knows I am never going to get mad at him, raise my voice, or make a mean face. NO MATTER WHAT. He also is allowed to come to my classroom whenever he feels he is in trouble because otherwise it always escalates. He has faithfully come to my room every time where we can work it out calmly without further problems.

  3. Teaching the ED student is very challenging and requires the highest standard of execution. It's like the Navy Seal standard of teaching. Being very consistent, calm, and systematic is the beginning. Keeping up to date with new developments with medical, psychiatric, and parental can be daily.

  4. I have taught elementary age students with moderate to severe emotional "disabilities" for many years. First, and foremost, I must find a reason to love them. This is usually not difficult, but sometimes takes a few days as they try REALLY hard to push me away and show their worst side. They are certain I will reject them and want to get it over with. I refuse to reject them. I am unwaveringly consistent with expectations and consequences AND love. I have been able to turn kiddos who have not been able to attend public school for several years. It's simple. They need love (and you can't fake it), and security. Unfortunately, the government is continuing to push compassion and humanity out of the schools with policy decisions, so this is becoming more and more difficult. I am pushed to teach so many standards so fast, on schedule! Not only does this fuel the fire in the already overwhelmed child (and teacher!), but it leaves no time or energy for dealing with emotional and social needs.

  5. Sure, work as hard as you can to insure the success of the ED student. But, also be mindful of the needs of the rest of the class. If the rest suffer because of an inappropriate placement, the ED student needs to be moved to a better setting. If you feel that is the case, fight for the rest of the class as hard as you do for the special needs student.

  6. Working with ED children demands that you be well informed. To know and understand psychology is essential. We have to be well balanced on our feet and realize that these children come to the table with poverty, shame, trauma, neglect, and poor nutrition and that often what occurs can not be taken personally. We also have to realize what we bring to the table as a “normal” human being. Each and every one of us have our challenges in life. Whether it is dysfunction in our own family, having a fight with a rude stranger or sitting in traffic getting anxious about being late to work, we are affected by our external realities. How we are able to deal with these life events will also determine how “present” we can be for our students. Are you able to realize the countertransferences that occur frequently with ED children? I liken it to two dances. One wants to do the waltz and the other the cha-cha. Our BD or ED students become masters of manipulation to survive and we must become aware of how they can “push our buttons”. Ultimately, they want to know if we will still be there after they have so aggressively “dissed” or disrespected us. And….we must be there. It is a delicate business to provide structure, discipline and nurturing simultaneously. However, when be are ready all of this lends to the beginnings of building trust and a relationship. Sadly, many of our ED children do not have many healthy relationships. By giving them our time is a gift and will accomplished far more than those who have passed them along, because they were rude, impossible, a lost cause, a failure or not worth the time. Each of these students will become our greatest teachers. I can not tell you how much I have learned about life, relationships and more importantly myself from having the privilege of working with them.

  7. I recently worked for a daycare catering to abused children. I had 20 children and was occasionally left alone with all of them ages ranging from 5 to 14. I am wondering what the actual legal requirements are for the amout of staff necessary to care for this many emotionally distressed children.

  8. I love all the positivity! I am a veteran teacher and brought my daughter to my school after she homeschooled with her retired teacher grandmother for 3 years. My mother provided her with a very nurturing environment and is was very successful. In 5th grade, we decided it was time for her to experience “real school.” She has a special education IEP for anxiety/Autism. Her school experience was a disaster. She had good and bad days. Her teacher of record had no idea what she was doing and when I tried to step in as a parent, I was accused of acting unprofessionally. At the end of the year, they recommended we take her somewhere else. They said they didn’t have the services she needed. I find it very hard to believe that any public school has the necessary knowledge or resources to adequately meet the needs of these ED kids! I am presently searching for a job in a different district and we have no idea, still, what to do with our daughter!

    1. I am a Paraprofessional that assist children, teenagers and young adults on IEPs and I am embarrassed that your school did this to you but most importantly your daughter. I would say that they most likely did not follow her IEP. They absolutely had no right to tell you to take her somewhere else! She deserves to be there just like any other child. I would look into seeing if they did follow her IEP and if they did not, I personally if she were my child would look into getting an attorney just so that this does not happen to another child. I hope you have found a great and supportive school for your daughter and a great school for you to teach at. God bless!

  9. Hi Kari! Your post is the reality of many exhausted parents and you’re an educator! Wow! Is there a county board for developmentally delayed individuals in your area? I am aware of areas that have them, however where I live we are very rural and isolated. Many of our parents are forced to move with their middle school to high school age children in order for them to have transitional services and be part of the community. Best of luck to you and your daughter.

  10. Thank for this podcast. I have just been hired to teach middle school ED or a Behavior Class, and this will be my first year teaching. I’m feeling anxious. This has been a wealth of knowledge listening to this information.

  11. The title of this article is horrible. “Deal With”?? How about:
    “How to Support”
    “How to Encourage”
    “How to Create Relationships”

    The title of your article perpetuates the stigma that these children should be ‘dealt with’.

    1. Totally agree with you, Amy! Probably wasn’t intentional, but you are SO spot on. Wish they’d chosen a more positive (and accurate) title.

  12. Make sure you are friendly with a child having emotional disorder……….that way, he/she will feel very confortable discussing with you.

  13. I have a middle school academic self-contained class and just had an extremely difficult day with two ED students. One threw a book at me and the other pulled out a chair from under a student who fell to the floor. In addition they call out constantly, get up out of their seats, go onto the computer without permission to listen to gangster rap, and say mean things to staff and peers. Today at then end of the day I teared up in front of them. I tried to pull it together but had a difficult time. Then, when another teacher came in to help I told him I’m done with these kids. Any advice for how I can repair the damage tomorrow?

    1. I am not a SPED teacher (yet), but working on it, and one of my own children is ADD/ED. My personal advice is to just be honest. Apologize (if that is necessary and appropriate) and just let them know that you’re human too, and even adults get stressed, overwhelmed, upset, etc. One of the most freeing things I discovered after becoming a parent is that no matter how poorly I react to something (or how poorly I *think* I’ve reacted), I can apologize and share my feelings honestly, and then go right back to loving my kids and trying to be the best parent/teacher I can be.

  14. In that moment when the child is upset, even if they are screaming the most hurtful/personal words in your face because they aren’t sure how else to release their emotions in that moment…Reach your hand out to them. Literally. Open your arms to them and offer a hug.
    Watch their facial expression change.

    Love is everything.

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