A Documentary by Dan Habib
Director of Including Samuel

What is an Emotional/Behavioral Disability?

Picture of Kelsey with a reflection

Over two million young people in the United States have an emotional/behavioral disability (EBD), yet EBD is often difficult to diagnose. To be diagnosed with an EBD, a person must demonstrate an established pattern of one or more of the following:

  • Withdrawal or anxiety, depression, problems with mood, or feelings of low self-worth
  • disordered thought processes with unusual behavior patterns and atypical communication styles
  • aggression, hyperactivity, or impulsivity

These emotional or behavioral responses must negatively impact educational or developmental performance; be significantly different from appropriate age, cultural, or ethnic norms; and be more than temporary, expected responses to stressful events.


Why should I care about kids with emotional/behavioral disabilities?

Principal Dittmar with student

Statistics released by the Southern Poverty Law Center and The Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders reflect the grim outcomes for students with emotional or behavioral disabilities:

  • Students with EBD have the worst graduation rate of all students with disabilities. Nationally, only 40 percent of students with EBD graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 76 percent.
  • Students with EBD are three times as likely as other students to be arrested before leaving school.
  • Students with EBD are twice as likely as other students with disabilities to live in a correctional facility, halfway house, drug treatment center, or on the street after leaving school.
  • 75 percent of young adults with EBD have been involved with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives.


Traditional responses to problem behavior in school

Incarcerated youth, Latoya Fletcher

Students with EBD typically do not respond well to traditional discipline policies and educational programs. Schools can easily and wrongly dismiss them as “problem kids,” further reinforcing the characteristics of EBD (anxiety, depression, low self-worth, aggression), which lead to cycles of discipline referrals.

With the rise of school violence in the 1990s, schools responded by securing the safety of their students and faculty by the initiation of zero-tolerance policies. The goal of zero-tolerance is to deter problem behavior by providing swift consequences for misconduct, sending a strong, “one strike and you’re out” message to students.

By focusing solely on punishment, zero-tolerance neglects to examine the root causes of problem behavior and consequently does little to prevent the behavior from reoccurring. Rather than increasing school safety, zero-tolerance often leads to increased suspensions and expulsions for both serious and mild infractions and disproportionately impacts students with disabilities.


What Works?

Armstrong cafeteria

The good news is there are numerous alternatives to zero-tolerance policies that work. Rather than cling to ineffectual strategies, many schools around the country are embracing proven (also known as “evidence-based”) models that help all students — including those with EBD — achieve success in school. These models are effective because they are rooted in prevention, build upon the inherent strengths of each student, and seek to address the underlying causes of problem behavior.


Response to Intervention

Many successful evidence-based models that address issues facing schools and students — particularly those with disabilities — fall under the educational framework called Response to Intervention (RtI), which is sometimes referred to as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). In short, RtI:

  • provides all students with the best opportunities to succeed in school
  • identifies students with learning or behavioral problems
  • ensures that students receive appropriate instruction and related supports


Evidence-Based Practices

Thasya running in a field

The key components of safe and supportive conditions for learning are rooted in the best practices of RtI and include:

  • School-wide frameworks, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), that prevent negative behaviors such as bullying, violence, gang involvement, substance abuse, and truancy.
  • Comprehensive and coordinated learning supports (e.g., effective discipline and positive behavior supports) that directly contribute to student social–emotional wellness, mental health, and positive behavior.
  • Positive school climates that promote student connectedness and family engagement.
  • Effective use of data to identify and address the most critical issues related to school safety and engagement.
  • School-based specialized instructional support personnel who are integrally involved in development, delivery, and evaluation of these services.
  • Youth-directed, person-centered planning models such as RENEW (featured in Who Cares About Kelsey?) which support youth who are struggling in school, at home, and in their communities


From PBIS to bullying prevention, inclusive education to transition planning, the educational resources presented in the Who Cares About Kelsey? Education Kit capture best practices for helping all students achieve and sustain success in school and beyond.