Supporting Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Supporting Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

The middle school years are notorious for student behavior challenges and bullying. Even emotionally strong students may find the social world of middle school difficult to manage. It is no surprise then that the middle school years are particularly difficult for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. In their article, “An Examination of School Climate, Victimization, and Mental Health Problems Among Middle School Students Self-Identifying With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders,” authors Tamika La Salle et al. explain that students with disabilities have statistically evident negative experiences in middle school. They constitute 12% of public-school students but are suspended at twice the rate of students without Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). They are also the victims of bullying more often than students without disabilities: “more than half of SWD [students with disabilities] experience peer victimization, in comparison with approximately 32% of students without disabilities” (383).

“Peer victimization rates for SWD [students with disabilities] range from 1 to 1.5 times larger than the national average for SWOD [students without disabilities]” (384).

Of students with disabilities, students with emotional and behavioral disorders (SWEBD) “have the highest risk for negative school outcomes of any disability category” (383). The very nature of these students’ emotional and behavioral challenges may be perceived by their peers as reasons to bully. And as victims of bullying, SWEBD may face additional challenges that stem from peer harassment: impaired learning, memory, focus, organization, and problem solving (384).

“Approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder, but 70% of these youth are left untreated” (385).

La Salle et al. note that school climates have powerful effects on student performance and health. Positive school climates encourage cooperation, respect, trust, and emotional and physical safety, and have been associated with higher student achievement, lower rates of student misconduct, and better student social and emotional attitudes (384). In contrast, negative school climates have been associated with “low student connectedness, lack of caring and trusting relationships among students and teachers,” and a lower likelihood that students who are bullied will seek help from adults on campus (385).

For their study, La Salle et al. asked two central questions: (1) What are the views of school climate among SWEBD? and (2) Do “school climate and mental health predict peer victimization for SWEBD?” To answer these questions, the authors analyzed data from the Georgia Student Health Survey, administered during the 2014-2015 school year to students in grades 6-8. This included responses from 121,425 students without disabilities and 2,128 students with disabilities (385).

The Findings:

“SWEBD reported significantly lower perceptions of school climate, higher rates of peer victimization, and more mental health problems than SWOD” (388).

  • SWEBD may report more negative views of school climate because they:
    • may have difficulty carrying out positive relationships with peers and teachers
    • may feel socially rejected, isolated, or targeted by peers (388)
  • Students with mental health problems, including SWEBD, were more likely to be bullied by their peers: “Mental health significantly predicted peer victimization” (388).

For La Salle et al., supporting students with disabilities, including students with emotional and behavioral disorders, involves not only IEPs and academic supports, but the creation of school-wide efforts to create positive school climates. This involves the consistent building of trust, peer cooperation and cohesion, team-building, common goals, social and academic support, and fair and supportive disciplinary processes (388-389). In this way, SWEBD will “have the opportunity to engage with students, feel like an important member of the school, and get their needs met in targeted and appropriate ways” (388).

Paper Title:  An Examination of School Climate, Victimization, and Mental Health Problems Among Middle School Students Self-Identifying With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Authors: (a) Tamika La Salle, (b) Healther Peshak George, (a) D. Betsy McCoach, (a) Tiffany Polk, and (b) Lauren L. Evanovich

(a) University of Connecticut  (b) University of South Florida

Full Paper:

Published: Behavioral Disorders, Volume 43, No. 3, 2018, Pages 383-392

Photograph: Thanks to Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash