Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

By Jennifer Oden, Loyola Marymount Los Angeles, Masters in School Psychology
Photo of student experiencing emotional stress.

Learn how to identify students with emotional or behavioral disorders

Children and teenagers who are confronted with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders are challenged with feelings of discomfort on a daily basis within their home and school environments. Fortunately these disorders are treatable and youth with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders have proven to be resilient with the correct treatment. Here you will discover the basics of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and preliminary steps for treatment.


Stanley Hall was the first psychologist to specialize in the study of children with mental illness. Overtime, three schools of thought developed about kids with mental illnesses:

  • The Functional Approach or Mental Hygiene Movement
  • The Organic Approach
  • Behaviorism
    • Emotional or behavioral problems were learned and could be addressed by teaching other more appropriate behaviors.
Definitions of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (EBD)

Two Definitions:

1.) Federal Definition used by IDE: Emotional Disturbance is a condition exhibiting one or more of the following over a long period of time:

  1. Inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors.
  2. Inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers or teachers.
  3. Inappropriate behavior or feelings for circumstances
  4. Passive mood, unhappy, depressed.
  5. Development of physical symptoms or fears with personal or school problems.

This differs from children who are socially maladjusted or who suffer conduct disorders. So a different definition was created by...(see number 2).

2.) Definition of the National Mental Health and Special Education Coalition: Emotional Disturbance is a disability characterized by behavioral or emotional responses in school so different from appropriate age, cultural, or ethnic norms and affect educational performance. Such a disability:

  1. Is more that a temporary expected response to stressful events in the environment.
  2. Is consistently exhibited in two different settings, at least one of which is school related.
  3. Is unresponsive to direct intervention in general education or the child’s condition is such that general education interventions would be insufficient.

Though the second definition was never passed, it is still the preferred definition among psychologists. Other disorders that contain classification systems and definitions of emotional disorders include ADHD, Mental Disorders, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Mood disorders.

Prevalence and Causes of EBD

  • It is the 4th largest disability category under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
  • Far more males than females are diagnosed. This could be due to the observance of behaviors seen to be more disturbing in boys that the same behavior in girls. 
  • BIOLOGICAL FACTORS: 20 to 60 percent of kids with ED have at least one parent who also suffered from such a disorder. Also, brain injury could be the cause. For example children   with mothers who abused drugs or alcohol.
  • PSYCHOSOCIAL FACTORS: When a child is influenced by their social and environmental surroundings. They are influenced by events and living conditions such as…
    • Chronic Stress- parents fighting, low income, bad area, homelessness, etc.
    • Stressful Life Events- a divorce or a death or witness of violence in home.
    • Childhood Maltreatment- child abuse and neglect.
    • Additional Family Factors- Depressed parent or extreme sibling rivalry. 
  • There seems to be a problem with correlated constraints here, however these children do tend to have resilience!


Emotion and Behavior

  • Internalizing vs. Externalizing Behaviors
  • Same emotions and behaviors typical students have, but are more intense and more often.
  • Fears and Anxieties associated with coming to school
  • Might have Anger with externalizing behaviors and aggression
  • Might be depressed, internalizing behaviors


  • Hard to establish and maintain peer and adult relationships
  • Lack of social skills and appropriateness

Cognition and Academics

  • Low to average intellectual ability
  • Lowest GPAs and highest dropout rate
  • Many students with EBD also show comorbid or additional disabilities



  • Emphasis is on emotional behaviors and social concerns
    • Formal Assessments- Such as the Scale for Assessing Emotional Disturbance (SAED)
    • Classroom Assessments- Rating scales and observations within the classroom. Can include curriculum based assessment too.
    • Other Strategies- Might obtain family history records and medical information and records. Also some take the Strengths based assessment approach which focuses on the students social strengths.


  • The team must observe behaviors and answer questions in order to determine the presence of an Emotional Disturbance (ED).
    • Does the student have one or more of the chars in the definition of ED?
    • Do students’ chars, as assessed, adversely affect educational performance?
    • Can social maladjustment be eliminated as the sole cause of the student’s behavior problems?
  • If the team answers yes, yes, yes, then the student is identified as having an EBD and can begin to receive special education services.


  • The younger you can provide treatment, the better! Children can relearn behavior.
  • Early intervention programs like, “First Steps to Success” are encouraged.
  • Inclusive classroom practices are concerning due to:
    • High pressure of curriculum that insists on success
    • Social rejection within the classroom
    • Need for mental health treatments that are not minded in classrooms
  • Transition to Adulthood- Students with EBD often has difficulty finding jobs. So training programs and measurable goals and self-determination skill building are all very important!
Image of baby working on laptop


  • Prevention and Early Intervention is the way to go. Stop the progression of the disorder before it worsens!
  • Set up Positive Behavior Supports (PBS):
    • Approach to discipline that is agreed upon by all school staff
    • A positive statement of purpose of the PBS
    • A small number of rules for student and staff worded positively
    • Clear procedures for teaching behavior expectations to students
    • A set of procedures encouraging students to display appropriate behaviors
    • A clear plan for monitoring school wide PBS and evaluating its effectiveness
  • Collaboration is also very important!
  • Take the System of Care approach which is guided by ten principles that organize a network of service providers that is child and family centered, community based and sensitive to cultural diversity.
IDEA Intervention Requirements
  • IDEA requires that school professionals use a very systematic procedure system to document the behavior problems that students display, analyze the reasons for the behaviors, and develop systematic interventions untended to reduce the inappropriate behaviors!
  • Use the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) model to solve the problems
    • Identify the problem behavior
    • Describe the details of its occurrence
    • Gather info using rating scales, interviews, observations, etc.
    • Review the data
    • Form a hypothesis about the behavior
    • Based on the hypothesis, make a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). If the BIP is not successful, the team goes back and reviews the data to come up with another BIP.
  • Cooperative Learning and Peer-Mediated instruction has also shown to have positive affects.
  • Teachers should:
    • Make lesson objectives clear
    • Engage students and teach in a lively manner
    • Encourage students
    • Build student interest
    • Prompt for answers

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