Support for Students with Behavioral Disorders

Advice, Tips, and Expert Guidance for Parents and Teachers

According to studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 4.5 million kids aged 3–17 years or 7.4 percent of all American children have been diagnosed with a behavioral disorder. These numbers do not factor in disorders such as ADHD, anxiety, and depression, which account for a further 12.4 million diagnoses. As these numbers continue to rise each year, many parents and educators wonder what they can do to help children with behavioral disorders find the support and help they need to thrive at home and in school. If this sounds like you, keep reading to find actionable information on behavioral disorders, accommodations, tips for student success, and expert guidance.

Behavioral Disorders & Common Challenges in the Classroom

Behavioral disorders can interfere with learning, leaving children feeling stressed or defeated and parents wondering how to best support their children. While no two children are the same, many parents find it helpful to be aware of the realities and learn how behavioral disorders can impact academic success. The following section takes a look at some of the common challenges that students with behavioral disorders can experience that may impact learning and success.

Disruptions

“Students with behavioral issues interrupt the flow of the classroom, impacting not only their learning but also the learning of their peers,” notes Janet Ferone. “Depending on how severe the behavior is, it could also cause other students to want to avoid school or class if the behaviors are violent or disruptive and cause students to feel unsafe.”

Keeping still

“Often staying in one place or sitting quietly is difficult for children with behavioral disorders, says Sherrie MacLean. “Many children need space to roam, and not all learning is done by sitting at a table.”

Taking up teacher’s time

“Teachers’ energies often go to behavior management, which may take away time from the actual content,” notes Ferone. ”If there are several students with behavioral issues, it can sidetrack the whole class.”

Behavior towards others

“Those with behavioral disorders often have trouble accepting guidance,” notes MacLean. “They may lash out at those who try to offer guidance out of frustration.”

Falling behind

“Individual students with behavioral issues can get into a vicious cycle of struggling with learning,” laments Ferone. “They then get further behind in academics when disciplined by being sent out of class and/or out of school for suspension.

Processing sounds

“A large class can be intimidating for some children with behavioral disorders,” notes MacLean. “These children need a quiet area or a body break away to regain themselves in order to be successful for the day.”

FAQ: Understanding Behavioral Disorders

A whole spectrum of behavioral and emotional disorders exist that can impact students. They may make it more difficult to focus, create feelings of fear or panic, cause them to develop depression, or make them behave disruptively in class. In recent years, many new treatments have emerged to help students with behavioral disorders and their parents/teachers help them in effective ways. Researchers have also been able to pinpoint more specific causes of individual types of behavioral disorders to help students, teachers, and parents better understand the challenges. More so than anything else, children are best served by individualized plans and one-on-one attention.

What are the different types of behavioral disorders?

Anxiety Disorders

According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorders cause individuals to experience excessive fear or panic over situations that should not result in such feelings. Common symptoms include feeling fear in normal situations, being unable to focus, muscle tension, and avoidance behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that million children aged 3-17 have received an anxiety diagnosis, with this number rising 4.4 million in recent years. It is also suspected that many additional children face anxiety but have not received a diagnosis.

Examples of Anxiety Disorders:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorders. GAD causes students to experience excessive worries about situations that should not strike fear within them. They feel tense in public settings, avoid taking part in activities, seem irritable, experience muscle tension and headaches, find it difficult to concentrate, and may seem to always be on edge.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. OCD can manifest in two ways: some students may face obsessive urges and thoughts while others feel as if they must compulsively engage in repetitive behaviors. Despite recognizing that these behaviors aren’t logical, those with OCD may feel the need to blink/clap/step in a certain way or for a certain number of times, fixate on the idea that a loved one has been hurt, feel the need to arrange items in certain orders, wash their hands countless times, fear touching specific items, or count things obsessively.
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorders. PTSD frequently arises after a child has experienced a traumatic event. Examples may include the loss of a parent or loved one, being in a car accident, experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or any other type of traumatic incident. Symptoms include emotional numbness, avoiding memories of the event, having nightmares, behaving in impulsive or aggressive ways, or experiencing nervousness.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder. SAD occurs when students feel irrational fear about social situations. They may have trouble maintaining eye contact, using the public restroom at school, entering classrooms, giving presentations, talking to peers and teachers, eating in the cafeteria, or even going to school every day.
Disruptive Behavioral Disorders

Disruptive behavioral disorders cause children to exhibit responses to authority ranging from indifference to physical violence. They may intentionally make the lives of others more difficult by using intimidation, defiance, or aggression to violate their rights. According to ADDitude Magazine, approximately five percent of children have been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a type of disruptive behavior disorder. Another study found that 40 percent of those who have been diagnosed with ADHD or ADD also had a disruptive behavioral disorder, causing some professionals to question a link between the two. Common causes include heredity, environment, physical issues (e.g. low birth weight or neurological damage), and psychological disorders (such as ADD/ADHD).

Examples of Disruptive Behavioral Disorders:

  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder. While it’s to be expected that children at times might be defiant, ODD takes it a step further. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists a number of symptoms that must be present for at least six months to receive a diagnosis. These include angry and irritable moods, argumentative and defiant behavior, and vindictiveness. These can also exhibit in mild, moderate, and severe ranges.
  • Conduct Disorder. Considered the more severe of the two types, conduct disorder exists when children demonstrate aggressive, destructive, and deceitful behaviors that violate rules and the rights of others. Examples may include bullying, animal cruelty, arson, shoplifting, fighting, and forcing others to do things they do not want to do.
Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders are characterized by students involuntarily disconnecting from actions, identity, memories, surroundings, and thoughts. The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests that two percent of the population has a dissociative disorder, although numbers for K–12 students are not available. Dissociative disorders usually originate from a traumatic episode as students try to control or forget painful memories. Symptoms may include specific memory loss of people and/or events, depression, detachment, numbness, and out-of-body experiences.

Examples of Dissociative Disorders:

  • Dissociative Amnesia. Children with dissociative amnesia block out memories of traumatic or painful events, leaving them unable to remember personal details about themselves or others. This goes beyond normal forgetfulness. Whereas traditional amnesia results from disease or brain trauma, individuals with DA haven’t actually forgotten details, but the memories are so deeply buried that they cannot retrieve them without therapy or a triggering event.
  • Depersonalization Disorder. Depersonalization disorder is characterized by the feeling that one is observing their life rather than living it. An episode may last from a few minutes to a few years, although the latter is rare. When experiencing depersonalization, the individual may feel like a robot or as if they are observing themselves in a dream. This can lead to feelings of panic, anxiety, depression, or a lack of self-identity.
  • Dissociative Identity Disorder. Also called multiple personality disorder, children with DID may seem to exhibit split or multiple identities/personalities that control how they behave. Depending on the identity at play, children may possess different memories or variations on a single memory that change with the personality. These identities can be strikingly different from the child’s original identity and vary in age, race, and sex.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders. Children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder often lag behind peers developmentally and experience challenges related to communication, language, motor behaviors, and socialization. The medical community previously diagnosed individuals with Asperger’s, autistic disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, but that changed with updates to the DSM-V. Now all of these fall under the category of autism spectrum disorders and diagnoses are made based on the severity of signs and symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 59 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2014—a number that rose significantly from one in 150 in 2002.

What causes behavioral disorders?

After learning about the spectrum of behavioral disorders, many parents naturally wonder what causes them. Medical and educational communities agree that no one cause exists; instead, a mix of biological causes and outside factors contribute to the likelihood of a child exhibiting symptoms connected to one or more behavioral disorders. The following tables takes a look at some of the most common causes.

Biological Causes

Biological Causes

  • Exposure to drugs/alcohol in utero
  • Physical illnesses and/or disabilities
  • Malnourishment or poor diet
  • Brain injuries
  • Brain disorders
  • Genetics
Other Factors

Other factors that may contribute to behaviors associated with a behavioral disorder

  • Trauma
  • Stress
  • Inconsistency
  • Poverty
  • Lack of parental support or care
  • Physical, emotional, or mental abuse
  • Coercion
  • Inconsistent or unfair discipline

What are the general signs and symptoms of behavioral disorders?

Emotional Signs & Symptoms
  • Heightened emotions. “Children with behavioral disorders can demonstrate several behaviors that speak to heightened emotions,” says MacLean. “These may include crying, sitting alone, or hiding their eyes and/or head.”
  • Anger. “Students may appear angry or annoyed, with limited frustration tolerance,” says Ferone. “They may argue and have temper tantrums and rebel against rules and authority.”
  • Lack of engagement. “It’s common for children with behavioral disorders to withdraw or seem extremely quiet when in a social setting,” notes MacLean. “They may also be incredibly soft-spoken or not speak at all.”
  • Difficulty with relationships. A common sign of emotional disorders revolves around how the student interacts with others,” says Ferone. “Students may find it very difficult to engage in peer and adult relationships.” MacLean adds: “They may find it difficult to eat, sleep, or sit beside someone else.”
  • Depression. It’s common for students with emotional disorders to exhibit signs of unhappiness, which could lead to depression if left untreated.
  • Inability to learn. While there may be no intellectual, health, or sensory factors identified, students with emotional disorders may fall behind in school and find it difficult to process new material.
  • Unbalanced responses. Students with emotional disorders may exhibit unbalanced or inappropriate responses to normal occurrences and may seem to be overreacting.
Physical Signs & Symptoms
  • Above normal levels of hyperactivity. “Children may be excitable or unable to remain calm or still in social settings,” says MacLean. “They are often unable to focus on a single task, or forget about completing tasks, and can be easily distracted and interrupt people when speaking.”
  • Inability to stay still. “Students may be constantly in motion and out of their seats,” says Ferone. “This points to the potential for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).”
  • Heightened Emotions. “Children could have persistent patterns of angry outbursts, arguments, or disobedience targeted at parents, siblings, teachers, or peers,” notes MacLean. “This behavior can be very disruptive in a class setting—not only for others, but for the child exhibiting the behavior as well, so they may seem confused and unable to make a sound decision when needed.”
  • Inability to not do/stop doing something. “Children may often engage in ritualized, repetitive behaviors,” notes Ferone. “These behaviors can be a sign that the child has obsessive compulsive disorder.”
  • Panic attacks. “A child suffering from anxiety could have a panic attack within the class, especially if the room is crowded or busy,” says MacLean. “Children who suffer from anxiety cannot seem to relax in social settings and could exhibit heavy breathing, crying, shyness, no eye contact, or an inability to focus.”
  • Violence. “Students who are unable to process their emotions could demonstrate several physical signs,” notes Ferone. “These can include engaging in violence against property, people, and/or animals. They may also engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting or burning their skin.”
  • Ailments. “Students with behavioral disorders may frequently request visits to the nurse, stating they have a headache, stomach ache, or other ailment,” notes Ferone.

What should I do if I think my student has a behavioral disorder?

Meet with school administrators. According to Janet aFerone, U.S. schools are required to provide services for students with disabilities, and behavioral disorders fall under this category. “Parents and guardians should request a meeting to discuss the issues, ask for a functional behavior assessment, and request a behavior intervention plan to determine triggers and strategies to improve the behavior.”
Implement supportive measures. After finishing the assessment and creating a plan, parents should take time to learn about available support measures. “Ask what services are available. These could include access to a school counselor, peer groups, and after-school programs.”
Seek medical help. In addition to speaking with relevant individuals at your child’s school, take time to speak with their pediatrician as well. “Pediatricians can test for medical or other reasons for the issues they are experiencing,” says Ferone. “They may identify that your child has ADHD, OCD, nutrition issues, allergies, family crises, or past trauma that contributes to their behavioral challenges.
Keep records. The onus is on the parents to support their requests with research, so they should keep thorough records. “Parents should document all the facts they have over a short period of time,” says Ferone.
Talk with others. Children interact with teachers, administrators, peers, parents of other students, and friends throughout the course of their day. These individuals may be able to shed additional light on how your child behaves when they are not with you. “Inquire with these people to get a sense of what’s happening so you’ll have more thorough information to share with those who are trying to help your child,” encourages MacLean.
Review helpful resources. If a parent suspects their child has a behavioral disorder, they want to know as much as possible to best help them. Thankfully, many resources exist to provide support. PACER provides an extensive resource on the many steps parents can take to best support their child.

Are there techniques to manage or prevent behavioral disorders?

According to our experts, many techniques exist to help manage and prevent behavioral disorders; these can be tailored to each child. Some of these include:

Behaviorism. “This involves creating a structured setting with consistent and predictable rewards and consequences,” notes Ferone. “This has been the standard strategy for many years.”
Develop routines. Routines can go a long way in helping students with behavioral disorders, according to MacLean. “Make sure they understand the routine, as many children with behavioral issues cannot adapt to change quickly,” she notes. “If something needs to change, tell the child step-by-step what is going to happen and allow them time to process this. Be ready to address their feelings of disappointment with the change.”
Use the “first and then” technique. “Many children respond to this very well,” says MacLean. “Give the child time to process, and say first we will ____, and then we will _____.”
Use rewards. “If your child behaves in a positive manner, reward them as a way of reminding them of what a great job they have done,” encourages MacLean. “Give them high fives during the day and praise their efforts—this will keep them feeling motivated.”
Allow for body breaks. “When it seems to be too much, it probably is,” counsels MacLean. “Allow the child to take a break by jumping on a pillow or small trampoline or playing with fidget toys. Water tunnels and sand timers are also good ideas for giving their eyes and minds something to watch/do.”
Keep it simple. With any technique, try to pare down the steps. “Keep the rules simple and clear,” says MacLean. “Long drawn out rules or instructions with too many steps are not helpful.”
Seek counseling. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven very effective for some children with behavioral disorders as it helps reconfigure their emotions and thoughts about stressors. This can be helpful if the child feels stressors related to unrealistic school goals and the anxiety those goals create.

Stress Management in School

Academic Accommodations & Adjustments for Students

Finding out that your child has a behavioral disorder can feel discouraging and overwhelming. While some changes may need to be made at home and at school to help them navigate the disorder, several support systems exist to encourage achievement. In this section, parents and educators can read about what schools can do to best care for learners and create environments that contribute to their happiness and success.

Knowing Your Rights

Once parents confirm that their child has a diagnosed behavioral disorder, it’s important to work with school officials and teachers to develop a plan. Fortunately, schools that receive state or federal funding are usually required to provide reasonable accommodations and adjustments for students, as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitative Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Each of these provides specific requirements that schools must follow once a child is diagnosed with a disability—including behavioral disorders. Most parents and schools end up working together to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan that provides concrete steps on how to best support the child. According to Understood, several key differences exist between these plans, and parents need to understand them before agreeing to either.

Types of Accommodations and Adjustments

Many different types of accommodations exist to help children with various behavior disorders succeed in school and beyond. While the following section gives an overview of common accommodations based on grade levels, parents should work with educators, administrators, and medical professionals to determine the most effective accommodations for the individual child.

Pre-K and Kindergarten

  • Encourage social interactions. Examples include creating games and seating arrangements that encourage students to interact with one another in non-stressful ways.

  • Provide a buddy. Pair the student with another child who they can observe and learn from throughout the day.

  • Offer alternate transition times. If the child struggles with transitions, allow them extra time to walk through the transition after other students have left the classroom.

  • Create calm. Provide peaceful activities that allow students to sit quietly with soothing music, dimmed lights, and other tools that help lower anxiety.

  • Use a timer. Set timers for various assignments/expectations that help children learn about time limits.

Elementary School

  • Create mini-assignments. Rather than giving the student one large assignment, break it down into smaller tasks that feel achievable.

  • Remove distractions. Create a classroom environment without unnecessary visual or auditory distractions so students can better focus.

  • Clearly display rules. Provide a list of rules and behavioral expectations that students can easily see and review every day. Consider reading these as a class at the start of each lesson.

  • Establish routines early. At the beginning of the school year, create consistent routines and review them with students. Continue to review these monthly, weekly, or as necessary.

  • Schedule breaks. If the student needs to move around, work with them to identify set break times (every 10 minutes, etc.) so they know when it’s permissible to get up.

Middle School

  • Allow for personal space. If the student experiences social anxiety, ensure they have enough space and don’t feel claustrophobic. Consider sitting them at the front/back of the classroom to help ease fears.

  • Create a body break space. Designate a portion of the classroom where students can pace, use fidget toys, or move around if they are feeling anxious or restless.

  • Give adequate notice. If something in the child’s schedule needs to change, notify them and their parents as soon as possible so they can internalize those changes over time.

  • Provide work models. If the student seems overwhelmed by a task, provide models/examples of work so they can visualize the assignment and get an idea of expectations.

  • Create a class contract. At the beginning of the semester, work with all students to create a list of acceptable behaviors and ways they want to be treated. Ask every student to sign the contract and agree to treat each person with dignity and respect.

High School

  • Develop errands. If the student needs to step away from class, create a list of tasks/errands they can do for you that allows them to move around but keeps them focused on a goal.

  • Designate a point person. Identify a teacher or administrator who the student can check in with each morning before class to discuss any issues and create daily goals.

  • Establish silent signals. If the student struggles with anxiety, anger, restlessness, or lack of focus, create a silent signal you can give the student to help them focus without putting them on the spot in front of the entire class.

  • Allow headphones. While they can’t be used during a lesson, allowing high school students to use headphones while completing in-class assignments can help them focus, feel less stressed, and calm any frustrations or anger they may feel.

  • Involve them in accommodations. Rather than sitting with administrators and parents to create an IEP, involve the student in setting goals and figuring out what type of supports they need to reach them.

How to request accommodations

  1. Get evaluated. Parents should ask a medical doctor, licensed counselor, or psychiatrist to evaluate their child and ascertain whether they have a behavioral disorder.
  2. Review the evaluation. After receiving results, schedule a meeting to sit down with the individual who did the evaluation to learn more. Ask if they can convey this information to school administrators, teachers, counselors, and others at school who interact with your child.
  3. Sit down with school staff. After the school receives the evaluation, meet with the school psychologist, your child’s teachers, the principal, and other relevant parties to create a plan.
  4. Figure out what your child needs. Most students with behavioral disorders receive support through the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 for the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA allows for children to receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and access to special education services. 504 plans are formal agreements that ensure students with disabilities receive the support they need.
  5. Make a plan. While both IEPs and 504 plans work to ensure children receive support, only the IEP is enforceable by law. The IEP provides individualized and special services to help the child succeed, while the 504 ensures access to services and provides accommodations to help their needs be met as adequately as other learners. Whether opting for an IEP or 504 Plan, ensure the school creates a new, unique, and individualized plan rather than relying on a generic one. Do not sign off on the form until you feel it adequately addresses all your child’s needs.
  6. Document all communications. Whenever you communicate with medical professionals or school staff, keep detailed records of those interactions. Note the date and time when you make requests or ask the school for updates, write emails whenever you voice concerns, and circulate memos outlining all the points discussed to anyone with direct involvement in your child’s education. Parents carry the burden of proof when it comes to demonstrating whether or not a school provides adequate support to a student with behavioral disorders.

For Parents: Behavioral Disorders & Supporting Your Student

7 Tips Help Your Child Succeed in School

Tell teachers.

“Make sure the teacher knows about your child’s issues, as hiding it does not help,” says MacLean. “Consider involving the teacher in the diagnosis.”

Keep the school updated.

“Allow teachers to read the notes or referral from a doctor and keep him/her updated on any new issues at home,” says MacLean. “You should also update them on any medications your child is taking.”

Listen and believe teachers.

“Parents should be open to hearing about their child’s behavior in class, as it is rare in my experience that teachers make up behaviors to tell parents,” says Ferone. “The most unproductive thing I’ve heard is when parents say ‘my child doesn’t do that at home, so I know she/he wouldn’t do it at school.’”

Stay in regular communication.

“Having a system of regular communication with your child’s teachers is essential,” says Ferone. “Consider using email, text messages, phone calls, or a shared notebook.”

Create a contract.

“A shared behavior contract which determines rewards at home based on school behavior can be an effective motivator,” suggests Ferone.

Create down time.

“Allow the child time off, time to play, and time to relax,” encourages MacLean. “All of these things will be important in successful learning.”

Be calm around your child.

“All children learn differently,” reminds MacLean. “Don’t worry or get upset—especially around your child—about issues that can be solved down the road.”

Finding Support on Social Media: 12 Resources for Parents to Follow.

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Educator Tips: 10 Teaching Methods for Students with Behavioral Disorders

Helping students with behavioral disorders presents teachers with the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those learners, but it is not without challenges. When faced with endless grading, large classroom sizes, and never-ending lesson planning, teachers need a game plan for serving the needs of these students without neglecting other learners. The following tips exist to help teachers find balance and identify the best support mechanisms in the classroom.

  1. Collaborate with parents. Keeping the lines of communication open with parents can help teachers gain a better sense of how to best support the child, notes MacLean. “Parents and teachers need to work together to create a smooth transition between home and daycare/school,” she says.
  2. Take time to understand the diagnosis. “In order to address issues most effectively, determining the cause of the behavior is important, as strategies differ for a student with ADHD vs. a student with clinical disability or one acting out due to learning disabilities,” says Ferone. “For students with diagnoses, medication and therapy might be recommended or academic support.”
  3. Create a routine. “Having a structured classroom with predictable routines while developing positive relationships with students goes a long way to addressing the needs of many,” encourages Ferone. “If your school has adopted PBIS or other behavioral systems, use this for consistency.”
  4. Introduce Social Emotional Learning. “This method helps teachers educate students on how to identify emotions and self-regulate, rather than the teacher doling out consequences for misbehavior,” says Ferone. If you want to learn more about SEL, check out our guide: Why is Social-Emotional Learning Important?
  5. Introduce Restorative Justice principles. “Restorative justice practices include ‘restoring the relationship’ goals which are more productive than punishment,” notes Ferone. “Particularly with younger students, explicit teaching of expected behaviors is recommended, as teachers often take for granted that students know what they mean when they tell them to ‘behave’.”
  6. Use visuals. “Visuals are great for all students – including those that spell out rules, provide graphics of good classroom behavior, provide charts for work completion, and offer stars for productive behavior,” says Ferone. “I do not recommend the new trend of using red, yellow, and green clips to call out student behavior, as it seems like ‘shaming’ learners and encourages other students to ‘tell on’ fellow students and chips away at the relationships.”
  7. Go beyond RTIs. “These general strategies can reach 80% of the student population,” says Ferone. “For those who need more support with behavior, using student contracts and checklists to monitor behavior and earn rewards can be effective.”
  8. Complete assessments and plans. “Functional Behavior Assessments and Behavior Intervention Plans can be used to identify the triggers and causes of behaviors,” notes Ferone. “It is important to understand the underlying root of the behavior, e.g., is it depression, ADHD, difficult family/home circumstances, undiagnosed learning issues, developmental delay, etc.”
  9. Rely on other school staff. “Teachers should be encouraged to use supports of the school, including the school counselor,” encourages Ferone. “A referral to the student support team may be in order and could lead to a special education referral if interventions do not help.”
  10. Create a good classroom culture. “Keeping the class as calm and nurturing as possible by using soft voices and having quiet areas can really help set the tone,” says MacLean. “Try to invite students with smiles and feel prepared for the children each day.”

Additional Mental Health Resources for Student Success

After reviewing this guide, some parents and educators may want to learn more about related disorders or learning disabilities in secondary and postsecondary settings. Check out these other guides to learn more.