How Do We Educate Students With Emotional/Behavioral Disorders?

     What are students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders also known by the anacronym EBD students? EBD students like many students fall within the special needs category of students and EBD students along with other students with all sorts of disabilities fall into Florida’s ESE or Exceptional Student Education category in public schools. The purpose of ESE is to help each child with a disability progress in school and prepare for life after school. However, even with planning and providing everything special needs students need to learn in school some students do not meet those goals easily and these unique frequently troublesome EBD students are one such group.

     EBD students are children with all sorts of mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders like ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Anxiety Disorder and so on and their numbers are growing. It is estimated that one in seven children between the ages of two and eight has either a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder (Who Cares About Kelsey). In many cases these children have been abused in unimaginable ways, suffered extreme neglect, and for one reason or another have been shuffled from one foster care home to another numerous times before they even reach school age, but the issues EBD students have can be either biological or environmental or quite often a combination of both. In general education settings EBD students go far beyond being disruptive in class and are routinely either spending their days in ISS (in school suspension) or getting OSS (out of school suspension) and sent home. EBD students often get angry over the littlest slights by others, can get frustrated over the smallest of things, and will occasionally just go into a full-blown tirade or fit. Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders (EBD) have been known to throw chairs, flip tables, desks, tear up classrooms, and on occasion hurt other students or those who work with and around them. However, no matter how bad these students behave or what some people might think we must try to educate them because first every child has a right to an education under the law, and second our failure to at least try to educate them and help them toward a better life is just sending them on down to the next stop on the freeway to social failure the criminal justice system (Rutherford, Mathur, & Nelson, 2000). 

     What many people fail to realize is that money spent on education is never a waste even if some things attempted do not work as well as expected because the hard truth is it costs far less to educate young people than it does to incarcerate them and the social costs of doing nothing or not trying is even greater than the economic ones. As a result, people all over the country have tried to figure out the best way to educate these challenging EBD students. Some feel EBD children should be educated in their own school or what is called a self-contained school while others think they should be educated in self-contained classrooms within public schools. Research has shown that specialized Emotional/Behavioral Disorder units, self-contained classrooms, in public schools improve students educational and social skills.

     In one study that focused on the academic performance of EBD students from elementary age through middle school in self-contained schools that only provided services to EBD students showed that both elementary and secondary age groups scored far below the 25th percentile in math, written expression, and reading and the secondary age group of students were shown to have even lower skills in all math (Lane, Barton-Arwood, Nelson, & Wehby, 2007). Unlike other studies that used only standardized achievement tests, this study used both curriculum-based measures as well as standardized achievement tests to garner their results (Lane, Barton-Arwood, Nelson, & Wehby, 2007). This study was not without some limitations, but the results did confirm the results of previous studies on self-contained schools that reported substandard academic performance as well as finding them deficient in other areas, like socialization (Lane, Barton-Arwood, Nelson, & Wehby, 2007).

    In another study that compared self-contained schools with self-contained classrooms to see if there was any difference in them. The results showed that the students educated in self-contained classrooms scored much higher academically than those educated in self-contained schools and again both standardized and curriculum-based measures were used in garnering the results (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005).  The students educated in self-contained classrooms had far better skills in math, reading comprehension, oral language, written language, and fluency than students educated in self-contained schools (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005). However, there seemed to be no difference in socialization skills between the two groups, but the results of these skills were derived from teacher assessments. Researchers strongly believe that there is a difference here that favors those in self-contained classrooms and those differences are going unrecognized simply because teachers are not connected well enough with student peer culture to detect the differences (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005).

     The researchers from the previous study did a part two of that study where they again compared self-contained classrooms with self-contained schools to see if there was any difference in them, but this time they followed EBD students that had been placed in both of those settings at the start of the study for a year (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005). The results were like the first study with somethings showing more of a difference and less in others (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005). One significant change was that EBD students educated in self-contained classrooms in this study showed better scores in relation to social and behavioral aspects, so unlike the previous study the social skills of these EBD students improved (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005). On the other hand, the social skills of students educated in self-contained schools decreased noticeably (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005). EBD students in self-contained schools also showed significant decreases in writing scores when compared to students in self-contained classrooms (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005). Researchers feel that because more severe problem behavior was reported in self-contained schools that this score may be because less time was allocated to academics to make more room for social instruction and anger management therapies (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005). However, self-contained classrooms are set up in public schools and they have a steady stream of people coming into self-contained classrooms to observe and to pick up students to work with individually to improve their socialization and deal with their anger issues. Despite some improvements the researchers of this study concluded that collectively over the course of an academic year the EBD students in both the self-contained classrooms and self-contained schools made very little progress in some areas (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005). Researchers also state that their findings, more than anything else, indicate that more support is needed in both settings to show more progress (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005).  These researchers also realized that there were glaring limitations in both their studies and that more research must be done in this area and all future studies should have a much larger sample (Lane, Wehby, Little, & Cooley, 2005).

      Some are now thinking that inclusion of EBD students back into general education classrooms with support and more teacher education in dealing with EBD students is a better idea. However, a study comparing developmental gains on preschool children with all sorts disabilities, including EBD children, in inclusive settings or general education classrooms, and self-contained classrooms showed mixed or no notable differences in social outcomes between students in general education classrooms and those in self-contained classrooms, so as far as socialization is concerned there is little difference in the settings (Holahan & Costenbader, 2000). The researchers go on to state that children with disabilities do not show positive outcomes or benefit from a social skills standpoint just by being near children without disabilities (Holahan & Costenbader, 2000). As far as developmental growth or functioning is concerned these researchers found that children who are already functioning at a higher level do better in inclusive classrooms and children already functioning at a lower level in these things made higher gains in self-contained classrooms (Holahan & Costenbader, 2000). Even though these researchers were not exclusively studying preschool EBD students, their research seriously challenges the reoccurring notion that one educational setting is better or will produce better results socially or academically than another (Holahan & Costenbader, 2000).

     Better socialization or improving the social skills of EBD students is the whole reason behind the idea for inclusion of EBD students into general education classrooms. One study that focused on the social life of EBD children in self-contained classrooms did detailed interviews of fourteen students educated in a self-contained classroom and fourteen children that were closely matched for comparison educated  in a general education classroom and found that EBD children had little to no chance to engage in integrated school activities and that their social networks in school were comprised of mostly those children and adults who were connected to or a part of special needs education (Panacek & Dunlap, 2003). The overall value of this study as far as reliable information is in the least questionable because not only was the sample size very small, but all the students interviewed for this study came from the same school district and to add to that the students used in the study were all pulled from the free lunch roster, so all those interviewed came from low income families (Panacek & Dunlap, 2003). This and other limitations that the researchers themselves recognized with this study makes this study hard to generalize across a whole population (Panacek & Dunlap, 2003).  The truth, from a person who works with EBD students in a public school, is that EBD children in self-contained classrooms in some public schools do engage integrated activities. Public schools refer to things like gym, chorus, and so on with other students as “specials,” and EBD students can be involved in them, but they often lose those privileges quickly do to their behavior. EBD students also encounter general education students on buses, playgrounds and in line for breakfast and lunch each day, so the premise that EBD students are completely cut off from general education students in public schools or that they never encounter general education students as a group or individually in public school is totally ludicrous. EBD student’s inability to socialize normally with general education students and their frequent antisocial behaviors better explains why their social networks are small, not the self-contained classrooms they are educated in.

     One article or study looked at the outcomes of a three-year project that examined the consultation process and what would be needed to develop or ready staff for the inclusion of EBD students back into general education classes (Shapiro, Miller, Sawka, Gardill, & Handler). Apparently, it is believed by some that inclusion in general education classes is better for EBD students, but they realize that general education teachers and staff need to learn how to deal with and handle EBD students and that consultation will be needed before and after training or developing the staff to make inclusion of these students successful. These researchers tried to ascertain how much consultation would be needed and whether it needed to continue after training and developing staff and how much staff development would be needed (Shapiro, Miller, Sawka, Gardill, & Handler). The results of this study showed that consultation services are critically important for continued staff development and thought it to be a solid strategy to improve the chances that the inclusion of EBD students in general education classes would be effective and successful (Shapiro, Miller, Sawka, Gardill, & Handler). However, researchers found that even with an intensive experience based in service programs to help teach and develop staff to create and implement intervention strategies a large majority of the teams assembled failed to implement the strategies they created and selected (Shapiro, Miller, Sawka, Gardill, & Handler). People in many school districts were uncertain of

how to proceed, their communication broke down, and there was a lack of follow through with interventions (Shapiro, Miller, Sawka, Gardill, & Handler). The researchers concluded that for inclusion of EBD children in general education classes to succeed all school personnel must be provided with intensive training, have a lot of or a significant amount of consultation support, very specific interventions that are accepted by a majority of those involved, and continued collaboration efforts (Shapiro, Miller, Sawka, Gardill, & Handler). Some groups in the study that utilized the training well and did all the things necessary to make this successful and where the EBD students received effective intervention seventy percent of the EBD students maintained or increased their time in general education classes (Shapiro, Miller, Sawka, Gardill, & Handler). The study did show that putting EBD students back into general education classes and having it work out is possible, but for this transition to work, even a little, would not be without a massive effort and cost.          

     Unfortunately, there are several things not considered or even mentioned when inclusion is discussed by researchers in these studies. First, is the fact that no one considers the good students in the general education classes with these EBD students. How will it affect their education and safety? If a teacher must focus on one EBD child that is frequently out of control and disrupting the entire class, how will that affect the education of the majority students in that class? Isn’t that teacher losing precious class time that could be more productively spent on the students in the class that behave? If an EBD student hits a student with chair or attacks one of the other students in a way that requires outside medical help or hospitalization, what are you going to say to the parents of that student? How are you going to explain to them that the violence perpetrated on their child was caused by a student with emotional and behavioral issues or better yet asks you why that violent of a student was in their child’s class to begin with? Would having EBD students in general education classes not increase the school’s overall liability? Second, EBD students are often removed from the school they are in and bused to schools that have EBD units or self-contained classrooms. If you were to completely end self-contained classrooms and schools for EBD students and put all the EBD students back in general education classes in the schools they were in and the number of EBD students keeps increasing, schools in some areas will be overburdened with EBD students while other schools would have few. Wouldn’t having a huge number of students in any school that are consistently one or two grades behind effect funding or the quality of the education provided in that school? Third, the EBD students that are in self-contained schools and classrooms now were once included and in general education classrooms and their actions or better yet their inability to socialize and their antisocial behaviors is what resulted in them being evaluated by someone in the school system with a psychology degree and placed in a self-contained classroom in the first place. Since they were evaluated and placed in a self-contained classroom, it is safe to say that the EBD students in self-contained classrooms have the severest of problems or issues and most likely could not be integrated back into general education classes easily. If integration back into a general education setting was attempted for all EBD students, it would not be without a lot of trouble and great cost.

     One reason why research done on EBD students in schools is limited and what research has been done is all over the place and checkered with spotty or inconclusive results is that there is little to no advocacy for EBD children. There is no one out there with any real desire to try and figure out what is best for these children educationally or otherwise because these unlucky children are not disabled in a way that is acceptable to most of us. No these are the crazy kids that have meltdowns over nonsense, wreck things for no reason, and are constantly wanting to punch the living daylights out of anybody that angers or irritates them even slightly. They are the children that many people think need nothing more than a swift kick in the butt to correct their behavior and refuse to accept that they may have a mental disorder because mental illness is something we do not like to talk about. We do not fundraise for mental illness or have a Special Olympics for crazy children, we lock it away and pretend it does not exist. There is no one out there willing to speak up and say what might be best for EBD children or say what type of education or educational setting would be best for EBD students and be able to explain why.  

     The people that would make the strongest advocates for these children, particularly in education, are the people that work with and around EBD students in the schools every day. Special Education Teachers because they work so closely with EBD students would be the most aware of the unique educational needs of these students and their families and that awareness would make them great advocates for all the services necessary to meet the needs of these students and their families (Murry, 2005). Unfortunately, there are barriers that keep or at least inhibit Special Education Teachers and other people that work with these children in schools from advocating effectively on behalf of these children and their families (Murry, 2005). Some of those barriers would be the school bureaucracy itself, time constraints, the threat of losing standing or face because someone is to blame, employment insecurity because many teachers in school systems are on a three year probation, the need to step outside the normal operating routines, opposing perspectives from others within the school system, school wide need versus individual need scenarios, and the possible threat of some type of litigation (Murry, 2005).

     How do we educatestudents with emotional/behavior disorders? Is a question that appears to be a difficult one to answer because not only are the issues and problems surrounding EBD children and their education complex, but there is a serious lacking in the depth of knowledge regarding EBD children and their education. Research on this issue is wrought with many limitations and clear external validity issues not only illustrates that lack of knowledge, but clearly indicates that more research must be done in this area. However, we do know that self-contained classrooms are a far better choice for EBD students both academically and socially than self-contained schools because all the research points in that direction. All the data relating to self-contained schools indicates academic and socialization problems and one study clearly showed a decline in these things in EBD students educated in them. In contrast, EBD students educated in self-contained classrooms showed clear academic increases or higher academic scores than EBD students educated in self-contained schools in both the short term and over a whole school year. Researchers did not find much of an increase in socialization skills between the two settings, but self-contained classrooms scores on this were still better than self-contained schools and some researchers thought the scores on this should be higher for self-contained classrooms and offered a reason as to why the scores of the two settings were closer than they should have been. The findings of another study done on not just EBD students, but all students with disabilities challenged the whole idea that one educational setting would be better than the other for socialization.  Unfortunately, the difference in scores academically and socially between self-contained classrooms and self-contained schools was not enough to keep some people from considering integrating EBD students back into the general education classes they were taken out of because of their antisocial behaviors to improve socialization. However, inclusion of EBD students back into general education classes will be difficult, costly, and present other problems not fully considered or overlooked.    

     In 2006 there were over two million young people in the United States with emotional/behavioral disorders and that number has increased and continues to grow (Who Cares About Kelsey). Students with emotional/behavioral disorders are three times as likely to be arrested before leaving school and often in middle school because the graduation rate for EBD students is far worse than students with other disabilities (Who Cares About Kelsey). After getting out of school EBD students are more than twice as likely as students with other disabilities to wind up living in a correction facility, a half-way house, in a drug rehab center, or on the street and females with emotional/behavioral disorders will become teenage mothers at more than twice the rate of females with other disabilities (Who Cares About Kelsey). The statistics on children and young people with emotional/behavioral disorders are mind numbing now and will certainly get worse if we do not try to educate more of these young people enough to be at least somewhat productive citizens and the economic and social cost will be much, much greater if we make no attempt to try to educate them. It comes down to what people want the government to spend their taxes on. We can spend more on the front end to try an educate these difficult children, or we can spend it on the back end and build more prisons and juvenile detention centers. In either event a good deal of money is going to be spent whether we like it or not.

         Yes, it is imperative more research is done on trying to figure out the best way to educate students with emotional/behaviors disorders or if educating them more than one way is not a better approach to the problem and while doing this we must also consider the impact our fixes or solutions to this problem will have on the education and safety of other children. The research that has been done so far with all the limitations and generalization issues recognized in it really doesn’t tell us a lot other than self-contained classrooms are better than self-contained schools and that there are problems with inclusion and that there are some problems with inclusion researchers are not even considering. Future research on this issue is going to require larger samples, fewer limitations, and better external validity otherwise we will not have achieved anymore than we have and that is not good enough. The clock is ticking, and we know the problem is not going to get better because the number of children with emotional/behavioral disorders is increasing, so the need for answers will become even more important in the future.

     One of the reasons why this early research is not more concise or conclusive is because researchers are going in many directions and looking at many angles on the issue because there are little or no advocates out there for young people and students with emotional/ behavioral disorders, so there is nothing to send researchers in one direction and no one to create a push to find solutions to the problem quicker. The people best suited and most knowledgeable that could advocate for students with emotional/ behavior disorders are the people working closest with these students at schools, but they are afraid to because there are barriers that make it hard to get involved. Another reason is because we are talking about children with mental health issues and mental health is something we do not like to talk about or in some cases even acknowledge it exists. There is such a stigma associated with mental illness that we do not want to hear about mental illness period and God forbid someone in your family has a mental illness and a few people know about it the gossip whispers around you will be lower than dreaded cancer whispers. If you have a child with a mental illness that is violent and has fits of rage, an EBD child, that you cannot not handle, it is even worse because then you must be bad parents for not being able to control your child. Your child doesn’t have a mental illness all he or she needs is a swift kick in the butt that you are not giving them. My point here is the stigma around mental illness and public perceptions must change because along with everything else this stigma effects is one big one called advocacy.                             


Holahan, A., & Costenbader, V. (2000). A Comparison of Developmental Gains for Preschool Children with Disabilities in Inclusive and Self-Contained Classrooms. Topics in Early    Childhood Special Education, 20(4), 224-235. doi:10.1177/027112140002000403

Lane, K. L., Barton-Arwood, S. M., Nelson, J. R., & Wehby, J. (2007). Academic Performance of Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Served in a Self-Contained Setting. Journal of Behavioral Education, 17(1), 43-62. doi:10.1007/s10864-007-9050-1

Lane, K. L., Wehby, J. H., Little, M. A., & Cooley, C. (2005). Academic, Social, and Behavioral Profiles of Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Educated in Self-Contained Classrooms and Self-Contained Schools: Part I—Are They More Alike than Different? Behavioral Disorders, 30(4), 349-361. doi:10.1177/019874290503000407

Lane, K. L., Wehby, J. H., Little, M. A., & Cooley, C. (2005). Students Educated in Self-Contained Classrooms and Self-Contained Schools: Part II—How Do They Progress over Time? Behavioral Disorders, 30(4), 363-374. doi:10.1177/019874290503000408

Murry, F. (2005). Effective Advocacy for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders: How High the Cost? EDUCATION AND TREATMENT OF CHILDREN, 28(4)

Panacek, L. J., & Dunlap, G. (2003). The Social Lives of Children with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in Self-Contained Classrooms: A Descriptive Analysis. Exceptional Children, 69(3), 333-348. doi:10.1177/001440290306900305

Shapiro, E. S., Miller, D. N., Sawka, K., Gardill, M. C., & Handler, M. W. (1999). Facilitating the Inclusion of Students with EBD into General Education Classrooms. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 7(2), 83-93. doi:10.1177/106342669900700203

Rutherford, R. B., Mathur, S. R., & Nelson, C. M. (2000). Severe Behavior Disorders of

            Children and Youth. Education and Treatment of Children and Educating Students with    Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities in the 21st century: Looking Through Windows, opening doors, 23(3), 203-218

Who Cares About Kelsey. (n.d.). Key statistics. Retrieved from

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I have been writing quite a number of years. I have been published numerous times and I have won several writing awards throughout the years. I won one for poetry just last year from a state contest through my college, the College of Central Florida. I graduated Magna Cum Laude from that same college in 2015 with a degree in Mass Communications. I now have a BA in Psychology from Saint Leo University and I am working on a Masters in Forensic Psychology at SNHU.

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