Education of Students with Emotional and Behavior Disorders

John Wills Lloyd, Ph.D.
University of Virginia

Education of Students with Emotional and Behavior Disorders is an area in the field of special education that focuses on emotional or behavioral problems experienced by some children and adolescents. These problems disrupt relations with peers and adults and interfere with schooling. In the United States, school officials commonly identify students with these problems as having “emotional disturbance,” or emotional and behavior disorders (EBD). Estimates of the number of students who have EBD in the United States vary from 0.5 percent to over 20 percent of the population. Studies indicate that about 7 to 12 percent of U.S. students experience behavior problems at some time during their school years. However, only about 1 percent of all students receive special education services for their problems. Others may receive services from community mental health agencies or they may receive private psychotherapy.


Many problems that students experience are normal responses to stressful events in their lives. These problems are generally temporary. However, the difficulties of students with EBD make it impossible for them to complete fundamental tasks, such as acquiring skills and interacting with teachers or peers. These difficulties may vary considerably in degree. Some problems may be so subtle that experts will disagree about whether they constitute EBD at all, but others may be so substantial that experts identify them as childhood schizophrenia, psychosis, or autism.

Children and adolescents who have EBD typically experience problems that are markedly different from the behavior of students of similar age and cultural background. Their problems persist or recur frequently, even when schools provide nurturing environments. These problems occur both in school and at home or in the community.


Although there has been an awareness of EBD among children throughout history, concern for these individuals increased substantially during the 20th century. Governments passed laws mandating the education of these children. In the United States, notable federal legislation included the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, and was amended in 1997 and 2003. Because of provisions in IDEA, students in the United States who are identified as having “serious emotional disturbance” qualify to receive special education services.


Students with EBD may exhibit any of a wide variety of problems. Experts often categorize these problems as one of two general types: externalizing disorders or internalizing disorders. Externalizing disorders, also called undercontrolled disorders, include such problems as aggressive or disruptive behavior, negative attitude, stealing, and truancy. Internalizing disorders, also known as overcontrolled disorders, include such problems as anxiety, immaturity, shyness, sluggishness, and social withdrawal. Students with either externalizing or internalizing disorders sometimes have problems with attention, although these problems do not necessarily indicate attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.


EBD may result from many causes, including biological, familial, and environmental factors. Genetic disorders, brain damage, and biochemical imbalances are examples of biological contributors to behavior disorders. Familial factors include child abuse, neglect, and poor disciplinary practices at home. Environmental factors include peer pressure, cultural influences, and schooling practices that are unresponsive to individual needs. In most children with problems it is likely that two or more factors combine to cause a disorder, although experts have difficulty isolating the causes of any particular problem. Preventing a child’s behavior problems by eliminating the fundamental remote cause is therefore highly unlikely.

A popular misconception about children with EBD is that they are unusually smart. Research about intelligence, achievement, and behavior disorders all contradict this notion. Although the most obvious characteristics of EBD are problem behaviors, most students who have behavior disorders also have other problems. For example, these students usually have slightly below average intelligence quotients (IQs) and substantial deficiencies in their ability to learn.


Treatment of EBD has provoked controversy. Because the problems experienced by these individuals are diverse and difficult to understand, the field has sometimes attracted treatments of questionable value. People who work with students with emotional disturbances use many different strategies to improve behavior. Methods that emphasize helping students to understand the influence of their own motivations and thoughts on their behavior have gained popularity, but their effectiveness has not been studied extensively. Methods to enhance social skills, although also popular, have shown consistent but not dramatic benefits. The methods with the most substantial and consistent effects are those that systematically teach students how to behave appropriately and provide environments where appropriate behavior is valued and rewarded.

Copyright © 2012, John Wills Lloyd.

Originally published in Microsoft Encarta 1993-2009; copyright reverted to author when when Microsoft abandoned it.

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