Tips for Teachers

Given how common mental health disorders actually are, it’s likely that you may have a student or two with an emotional disturbance in your classroom. How do you best help them, support their learning, and encourage their well-being? Consider these tips and strategies, and consult with the experts as you need to, including those in your school, district, and community.

1 | Learn more about the student’s specific mental health disturbance. A mood disorder such as depression will affect a student’s demeanor, thinking, learning, and behavior differently than an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. Knowing how the particular emotional disturbance manifests itself and is managed can help you support the student’s education in individualized, informed, and effective ways. Consult the organizations we’ve listed in our Emotional Disturbance fact sheet for expert guidance about specific emotional disturbances.

2 | Learn more about the student’s strengths, too. The student brings much more than an emotional disturbance to class. What about his or her strengths, skills, talents, and personal interests? All of these are tools in your hands as you adapt instruction, give out assignments, ask the student to demonstrate learning, and create opportunities for success.

3 | Remember, they’re kids first. By and large, students with emotional disturbances aren’t scary, dangerous, or time bombs waiting to go off. They are themselves, in need of your skill and support, and quite capable of learning. Do not permit bullying, teasing, demeaning, or exclusion of the student by other students—or by the system.

4 | Support the student’s inclusion. Emotional disturbances, by their very nature, can make it difficult for people to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships. You can support the student with an emotional disturbance in subtle but meaningful ways, especially during group work, cooperative learning activities, peer interactions, and team projects. There may also be times to let the student work alone, take a break, or have a hall pass for some quiet time apart.

5 | Set clear behavioral rules and expectations for the entire class. Students with emotional disturbances are frequently the targets (rather than the initiators) of other students’ misbehaviors. Having a stated, explicit classroom management plan provides a solid structure by which both teacher and students can address inappropriate behavior, understand consequences, and develop a shared approach to behavior in class and toward one another. This IRIS training module may help you set up such a plan.

6 | Provide accommodations. The student’s individualized education program (IEP) will spell out what accommodations the student is to receive in class and during testing. If you’re not part of the team that develops the student’s IEP, ask for a copy of this important document. Also check with your school district for guidance on local policy and appropriate classroom accommodations for students with emotional disorders.

Although accommodations will vary depending on the nature of the student’s emotional disturbance, often the appropriate accommodations will address:

*side effects of medication

*behavioral unpredictability

*impairments in concentration and memory

7 | Join the student’s IEP team and help shape his or her special education program. As a team member, you can make sure the IEP includes accommodations and classroom adaptations appropriate to the student’s needs and success in your class. You can also advocate for program modifications and supports for yourself, to help you support this student in class.

8 | Communicate with the student’s parents. Parents are a great source of information about their own children. As members of the IEP team they are likely to have a multitude of suggestions for what would benefit their child with an emotional disturbance in school. They can also keep you informed as to events and developments in the child’s life, new medications or treatments, and how these might affect the student in school.

In Closing

Emotional disturbance in children is very disturbing, it’s true. But it’s not uncommon, any more than it’s unusual in adults. As a teacher, there is much you can do to address the special needs associated with students’ emotional or behavior difficulties, provide the support they need, dispel the stigma associated with mental health problems, and stand up as your students’ advocate for learning and success. We applaud all your efforts!

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