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October 23, 2018

How to Support Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

I am the mom of a toddler, a typical toddler who has his share of tantrums and meltdowns (sometimes in public, sometimes at home). Although his receptive language skills are strong, his expressive language skills are still developing, causing frustration when trying to communicate his wants, needs, and feelings, hence the tantrums. When I can figure out what he is trying to tell me, we can work together to solve the problem. Determining the reasons (or functions) behind his behaviors is known as functional behavioral assessment.

One common function of problem behavior is to communicate feelings, wants, and needs. Many students who struggle with behavioral and social challenges also often face receptive and/or expressive language barriers. For example, a student might not understand a given assignment, and he/she doesn’t know how to communicate their need for help. The student might become defiant, disruptive, or withdrawn. These behaviors are all forms of communication that we, as teachers, must get to the bottom of. Consider what might be going through the student’s mind:

  • “This is too hard for me.”
  • “I’m embarrassed because I’m the only one who doesn’t know how to do this.”
  • “I’ll look stupid if I ask for help.”
  • “I’d rather get in trouble and have to leave the classroom than look stupid.”

Sometimes students demonstrate problem behaviors because their basic needs are not being met. Sadly, many students go to school hungry or sleep-deprived. Perhaps a student is being neglected at home and is seeking attention from peers and teachers through inappropriate, disruptive behaviors. When we understand the function of one’s behavior, we are better equipped to manage the behavior in positive and empathetic ways.

Students with behavioral and social challenges need explicit instruction on social skills and problem-solving skills. They also need opportunities to practice these skills to increase their abilities to effectively communicate their wants, needs, and feelings. More importantly, they need the support and guidance of trusted adults.

Feeling overwhelmed with meeting the diverse behavioral, social, and emotional needs of your students? Seek support and consult with school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, speech-language therapists, special education teachers, and other staff members who are trained in working with students with behavioral and social challenges. Also, other teachers who have worked with students in the past might be able to provide some helpful insights on how to best support him or her.

To support my own son through his challenging behaviors, I taught him some basic sign language and often use the words, “show me what you need” to guide him with expressing his wants and needs. Most importantly, I keep calm (easier said than done when we’re facing a public tantrum) when he is upset to show him I am there to support him no matter what.

Interested in learning more about behavior support and functional behavioral assessment? Check out Course 5014: Reaching Success: How to Support Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders.


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