Serious Emotional Disturbance and Inclusion: Information for Parents and Educators

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Students who are severely emotionally disturbed are often unlike any other group of children with disabilities. Since they look like typical children and have “hidden” impairments, many people do not understand the cause of their disability or the lack of control they have over it. These reasons may explain why students with emotional disabilities are one of the last populations to be included in general education. When these students do join inclusive classrooms, misunderstanding, lack of preparation, and behaviors such as tantrums, aggression, poor social skills, and defiance present challenges. Teachers, though, can experience success with students who have serious emotional disturbance and inclusion with staff support, consistent behavioral strategies, and classroom management techniques.

Inclusion of Students Who Are Severely Emotionally Disturbed

To successfully include children who are severely emotionally disturbed in general education, school personnel should have basic training about the nature and range of behavioral disorders. Workshops or seminars can be helpful in providing this training, which should include how to guide students in managing or changing their behavior. Teachers should also familiarize themselves with a student’s educational history by consulting with parents, school psychologists, diagnosticians, and previous educators. Special education eligibility reports, functional behavioral assessments, behavioral IEPs, and behavior intervention plans should be reviewed, along with proposed instructional interventions and academic strengths and weaknesses.

In researching a student’s background, teachers need to learn about triggers that may have prompted past inappropriate behaviors. A child’s characteristic behaviors should be noted, too. Information as to the frequency of disruptive behaviors and past strategies in dealing with them should be provided by support staff. Since a teacher is legally obligated to implement any educational plan developed at an ARD meeting, any confusion regarding plans and the implementation of them should be clarified by those who developed the plan.

In creating an environment for students with serious emotional disturbance and inclusion, structure for self-discipline is a must. Teachers must create rules that are specific and that result in behaviors that are observable and measurable. Rules should be as few as possible and need to be displayed around the classroom so that students can access them frequently. Students who are severely emotionally disturbed require immediate consequences for negative behavior, so establish both positive and negative consequences with these rules. At the beginning of the school year, read and discuss the rules and the positive and negative consequences associated with them. Act out scenarios, too. Most importantly, implement the rules on a consistent basis.

Positive reinforcement motivates students with emotional disturbance and discourages negative behaviors. In fact, positive reinforcement can stop inappropriate behaviors, whereas constant reprimanding and prompting can actually help to maintain them. Educators should review the rules for receiving positive reinforcement, and consistently provide it as appropriate.

Since unstructured schedules and transitions between activities and classes cause stress for students who are severely emotionally disturbed, educators should take steps to reduce these stressors. Students should be seated in the front of the classroom and in the aisle so that teachers can support them easily. Sitting a student with good behavior next to students with emotional disabilities can additionally be beneficial. To reduce unstructured free time, teachers should establish classroom routines and provide students with the schedule. If teachers know of any changes in the schedule, students should be made aware of them before they happen. Students need cues for transitions throughout the day, too, and music or visual cues can signal transitions.

Academic, emotional and behavioral support is essential for both teachers and students with serious emotional disturbance and inclusion. Teachers should reach out and openly communicate questions and concerns about instructing students with behavioral disorders. Students need to feel supported to manage disruptive behavior and to succeed academically.

Source: Ogonosky, A. (n.d.). Emotionally disturbed students. Retrieved March 25, 2010, from

This post is part of the series: Inclusion and Disabilities

Find out about Inclusion strategies, methodologies, and benefits for using it in the classroom

  1. Inclusion Teacher Duties and Responsibilities
  2. Inclusion and High School: Students Left Behind in Educational Reform
  3. Students Who Are Severely Emotionally Disturbed and Inclusion
  4. Inclusion Strategies For Teaching the Hearing Impaired
  5. Teaching Tips for Including Students with Severe and Multiple Disabilities