Adolescents and Behavioral Problems
- Lee Kern is a professor of special education at Lehigh University's College of Education in Bethlehem, Pa.
- Richard White is a professor of special education at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, and the president of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, a subdivision of the Council for Exceptional Children.
Hello everyone, and welcome to today's online chat about educating adolescents with emotional and behavioral disorders. My name is Christina Samuels, and I cover special education for Education Week. I'm happy to welcome Lee Kern, a professor of special education at Lehigh University. Dr. Kern will be leading a federally-funded research effort that will explore and develop "best practices" for reaching this population. Richard White, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, is the president of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, a division of the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children. We've already received over a hundred questions for this chat, so clearly there is a lot of interest out there on this topic. Let's get started!
Dr. Kern, I'd like to start the chat by asking you a bit more about the research you and your colleagues plan to do that might help the field create "best practices" for educating students with behavioral problems.
Our research will focus on identifying an intervention package that addresses the comprehensive needs of adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. We will focus on three areas. The first is enhancing the capacity of teachers and schools to serve this group of students. The second is building youth skills and competence. The third is increasing family and community supports. We will work on developing the interventions first. Once we have preliminary data that the intervention package will be effective, we will further test it with a very large sample of students.
How is a teacher (or anyone else) to know when a student has a behavioral disorder, and when the student is just choosing to misbehave?
The individuals with Disabilities Education Act has established guildelines for identifying children with emotional and behavioral disorders. In a nutshell, the problems have to be chronic and they must interfere with learning. Some of the signs you can look for are ongoing problems in relationships with peers or adults, frequent incidents of inappropriate behavior, extreme withdrawal, or frequently appearing to be unhappy, depressed, or afraid.
Where would we find some current journals relating to behavioral or emotional problems in adolescents?
How can staff be effectively in-serviced, and how can the services needed by these students be provided without further impacting already "lean" budgets?
Hi Mike, No easy answer here. I note that you are on a school administrative team, so that tailors my response. First, it can be aggravating but effective schools work hard to build partnerships with mental health, juvenile justice and child welfare with agreements that the school cannot pay for everything the student and usually the family needs. This is termed wraparound services in the literature. How to serve is a big dilemma at the secondary level given the differences among EBD students. Some students do need intensive service; some do better in general education with support. You cannot service in isolation from other issues such as transition services either. This is why this topic is so vexing; it is just not easily solved. My preferred inservice is to identify a teacher who is really good and knowledgeable with these and use inservice funds to let teachers observe him/her in action.
What advice would you give to new teachers regarding these adolescents? (i.e., warning signs, ways to reach out to them, etc.)
New teachers too often take the refusals, noncompliance, disrespectful speech, etc. very personally. My first advice always to any of us who teach these students is to learn NOT to take this personally. Also, hate the misbehavior but never hate the student. Our students at all levels need to know that we care and are on their side in spite of what they do. This does NOT mean that we do not correct inappropriate behavior. It does mean that we try not to get emotionally upset about what students do. To be effective with students with emotional/behavioral disorder, you need to be tough and loving at the same time. Also know that it takes time to build relationship with students who often do not trust adults.
What are quality program indicators for a high school program for students with behavioral disorders?
In my opinion, a quality program addresses the array of problems that students with emotional and behavioral disorders typically exhibit. Specifically, a strong academic program is in place to improve students' academic deficits. Also, an effective social skills intervention addresses social interaction difficulties. Finally, interventions are designed to address behavioral problems, particularly focused on encouraging good behavior. Ideally, a school also would have screening for mental health problems and evidence-based interventions available in the school.
Some people think that more physical punishment would prevent problems like ADD. Does physical punishment prevent physical and emotional problems of youth? What are the effects of family violence?
We have known for some time that over the long haul, physical punishment promotes emotional problems. You may get cessation of behavior in the immediate, but you foster it in the long-term. I encourage you to look up Russ Skiba and Reesce Petersons research on this. Family violence begets violence. We know that violence is socially learned (Bandura- the famous Bobo doll experiment).
Specifically, what is the newest research saying are the most effective interventions used with adolsecents with behavioral disorders? What can school systems do to help these students be most successful?
Unfortunately, there is very little research that has identified effective and comprehensive interventions for adolescents with behavioral disorders. Most of the research is with younger students. That is why the Department of Education funded our large research effort. We know that adolescents benefit from structure in schools and classrooms, with clear expectations, positive feedback for adhering to expectations, and consequences for inappropriate behavior. Also, academic instruction needs to be strengthened. Adolescents also need to be connected to their schools, which is important to reduce drop out. Programs such as mentoring appear to help establish connections. In addition, evidence-based mental healh services need to be available at school. The Department of Education "What Works Clearinghouse" website describes interventions that have been researched and found to be effective.
Hi Richard, I'm teaching an intro class on BED AS WE SPEAK and my class has a question for you or Lee. Question: Can effective behavioral change (reshaping/reconditioning)for a student with moderate to severe behavioral disorders be accomplished within a fully inclusive setting while meeting the standard course of study and without disrupting the general education classroom? If so,.......HOW?? Thanks, Lou
Hi Dr. Lou my good colleague! As you know CCBD supports a full continuum of services so tough questions do need to be asked here. I have seen inclusive classes work in these cases with some students but only if the conditions are just right. If the student is reinforced by the general ed setting (wants to be there/does not want to escape), and if there is co-teaching with a really good SPED teacher-Gen ED teacher partnership, then maybe. The student though must know clearly that he/she will be removed (consequences clear)at a clear point of escalation and then there must be provision for services elsewhere, like a behavioral intervention resource classroom. We have few of these in NC but they exist elsewhere. I do not need to tell you that these conditions do not often exist.
Does your research touch on any sort of medical basis for behavior disorders?
Although many times behavior problems can be linked directly to environmental factors (e.g., difficult academic work, lack of attention), we always consider the role of biological variables. It is well known that underlying mental health problems (depression, anxiety) or psychiatric disorders (ADHD) are associated with behavior problems. In these cases, it is important to understand and treat both the underlying disorder (e.g., intervention to reduce depression) and the behavioral problems (e.g., consequences for inappropriate behavior and rewards for appropriate).
Hi Lee and Richard, My question concerns gifted and learning disabled students who, through lack of appropriate challenge in their strength subjects and appropriate support in their learning deficit areas, arrive in high school angry, frustrated, and with emotional or behavior disability labels. What is the best way to turn these talented but disabled students into successful high school students, and prepare them to be successful college applicants?
Carolyn, you raise a very good point about the close relationship between academics and behavior problems. A large percentage of students with emotional/behavioral disability labels also are learning disabled. When work is too difficult (or not challenging), we often see behavior problems. Unfortunately, the research shows that there are often low expectations of students with emotional and behavior problems. It is critical to provide effective academic instruction and intervention, such as strategy instruction, to meet the needs of struggling learners. Good academic instruction will resolve many behavior problems.
How can we get families involved in seeking treatment for these students? We have a student that we have practically led the family to places where they can get family therepy but it has not happened.
First, please forgive ignorance re Hawaiian culture. We know that culture influences family behavior. You cannot force families to do anything or students to do anything of course. What we try always to do is to make that first successful small step and reinforce that. So what small step can we ask this family to accomplish that is feasible? Going to a place for therapy may seem like a big jump. Also, families across cultures stil find services for mental health issues stigmatizing. So we must start small, avoid consternation (families pick up on this quickly), and have a plan for building upon first steps.
When working with emotionally disabled students in an inclusion classroom it's likely that at some time the student will present a behavior that isn't appropriate for the class. How do you recommend addressing the behavior with the student with an emotional disability? With the general education students who may not understand the behavior? With the general education students who may perceive a "double standard" for the teacher's behavior expectations?
It surely is likely! We all teach academics and we all teach behavior. We differentiate for students academically (not all students are at the same reading levels etc)and we do not call this a double standard; we must differentiate behaviorally. Students can understand that for some students an office referral is very undesired, and for others very desired (yea out of work). (I encourage you to have discussions like this straight out with your MS students. This is why I do this with you but this with others. Also, pull peers into your corrections. They can get this. For example, one tactic that many teachers use is to teach students to ignore the EBD students who is inappropriately seeking attention. Give them responsibility for helping their peer. The single standard is I will correct eveyone in the most effective way for them, but that may differ.
Describe appropriate responses to misbehavior of early adolescent students with and without behavior disorders?
As a point of departure, the literature on PBS encourages consistent correction with clerly taught consequences. My favorite coinsistent correction sequence is derived from the Boys Town corrective teaching model. State the Rule Violated State the Consequence Model Appropriate Alternative. Provide Direction to Self-Correct (Replicate the model). Reinforce Self-Correction Provide Encouragement Example: Consistent consequence: Jason you are out of seat. You are breaking our rule, Stay in assigned area. Its my job to give you your first warning. Corrective teaching: Jason, show me take you seat. There you go. Nice job . Way to stay in assigned area. Keep it up Jason, show us you can do this rule. So you end up positively by reinforcing self-correction if you can get it. This is used by me for most corrections of non-violent misbehavior. If you do this consistently, they learn that thisis what you do when misbehavior happens and that it is procedure not personal.
Alternative placements for seriously emotionally disturbed students are very expensive. What are your thoughts about placement outside of the district when all resources have been exhaused? What would you expect from the alternative school?
There are a number of exemplary alternative schools for children with emotional and behavioral problems. At the same time, the outcome data indicate that overall, students in alternative placements do not fare well, either behaviorally or academically. Further, research shows that students in alternative placements, in general, do not receive more services or different services than those in public school settings (even though IEPs may state otherwise). Thus, it is important to examine what services students actually need and how those can be provided in typical school settings. My expectations of alternative schools are that they provide different and/or more intensive services that could not be provided in a students home school.
Is delinquency a behavior disorder?
Delinquency, itself, is not a behavior disorder. There are many students who engage in delinquent behavior who do not have behavior disorders. With that said, a high rate of youth with behavior disorders engage in delinquent behavior. Certainly, the support needs of any youth who engages in delinquent behavior must be considered. If they do not meet the characteristics required for a label of behavior disorder, hence do not receive services through special education, referrals for support elsewhere should be considered.
What 2 or 3 most vital strategies would help "regular" classroom teachers deal with behaviorally/emotionally disturbed students in their classes?
Hi, 1. Practice responding to misbehavior without getting emotionally entangled or upset. If you get upset and the student is upset, it goes downhill fast. 2. Practice "catching the student being good." Too often we ignore when students do it right and attend when they do it wrong. Aim for 3-5 specific praise statements (genuine and age appropriate)for every correction. 3. When correcting use a consistent verbal correction sequence. I gave an example in another answer. A consistent correction sequence teaches the students that correction is procedure and not personal. I hope this helps.
What is the research or is any current work being done with having these youngsters mentor or work with younger students or do volunteer work in their community as a way of engagement and responsibility as well as building self esteem? Thanks
Oooh great question. Howard Muscott has been a colleague who has investigated the use of service learning projects with EBD youngsters with great success. One of our (CCBDs) past issues of Beyond Behavior was devoted to service learning. I know a teacher who consistently takes her students on community work projects and she never experiences episodes of misbehavior when the students are serving other. Search for this research with service learning as the descriptor.
What are some positive alternatives to suspension, both in school and out of school?
The best alternative is to be proactive by putting preventive strategies in place. We generally know what students have a high liklihood of being suspended. We need to identify why the student is engaging in behavior that leads to suspension and put interventions and supports in place to reduce those behavior problems. A comprehensive assessment should identify issues such as academic problems, mental health needs, and family problems, which frequently contribute to severe behavior problems. Interventions can be designed to address these issues.
What do you do with students who just don't care if they do any work? Students that are the bullies of the school and don't care if they get suspended? Grade 6 student who is violent, verbally abusive to administrators and demonstrated complete defiance.
Well we know that violence, verbal abuse, and bullying are somehow working for this student. If suspended often, he may have learned that this behavior is his ticket out of work and out of school. For him to have a chance in life he needs to learn to give up violence and bullying for appropriate behavior. There needs to be a commitment of all is the school not to tolerate this behavior and to remove him when it happens, but there must also be a commitment not to suspend since it probably is adding fuel to the fire. There must also be intense instruction (special education) on alternatives to verbal abuse and bullying and effective reinforcement when he does it. This will not be successful overnight. We must gradually decrease what we do not want and incraese what we want. In short he needs a PBS plan, but you need help with it.
I have an identified O.D.D. child who receives no support services. Are there laws related to the rights of the other students in regard to the learning environment?
If your child is identified as a child with a disability and eligible for special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees your child a free, public, appropriate education with an individualized education program and related services (mental health for example)that addresses the child's needs. If your child is not eligible, Section 504 of another federal law guarantees your child the right to what is called a "504 plan." I encourage you to locate in your state your Parent Information and Training Center (all states have one). They provide excellent parent to parent support and advocacy.
Hello Professors Kern and White, I work with teens who have been expelled from or have dropped out of high school. Few of them have had a psychological evaluation, but many of them would probably be diagnosed with a behavioral disorder if they had been. Is there a resource for getting them evaluated? What resources can I use since we are essentially a one room school house with many non-disruptive students in attendance as well? Thank you. Cathy Daniels
A cost and time efficient approach would be to administer a screening assessment to identify whether they have a significant behavioral/mental health problem that is not being addressed. There are a number commercially available. They can then be provided or referred for appropriate services. For many students, alternative programs, such as yours offer a curriculum that meets their needs better than the public school curriculum. Thus, if they are doing well in the setting, there may be no need for a diagnosis.
Do you have data on how there are obvious undiagnosed personality disorders and how these might play a role in lack of achievement? How might these otherwise bright students be helped? What resources from tne federal level are directed towards this problem.
Data suggest that as many as 30% of youth experience a significant mental health problem during their school career. Mental health problems absolutely interfere with academic functioning. Unfortunately, the majority of students with mental health problems do not recieve services. It is critical that schools screen students for mental health problems. Also, for those few students who do receive mental health services, approximately 80% are provided by the school. This means that if intervention is not provided by schools, it is unlikely it will reach studednts. There are resources available in schools that could be used for providing essential services. Schools need to take a close look at the types of services they are providing and reallocate resources so that they are using evidence-based interventions. This would be an efficient and effective use of resources.
New teachers out of college will often agree that their post-secondary training did not adequately prepare them for a real teaching job. What is being done to make teacher certification programs more "real?"
Hey Matt, This has always been a dilemma. Even great experienced EBD teachers have difficulty preparing students for the real world when they teach prospective teachers in campus programs or surely when the preparation is via distance learning. It is a major generalization problem. Part of the answer is immersion in classrooms as part of teacher preparation long before student teaching. There are some promising uses of virtual reality technology that may ultimately make teacher education more real. All teachers experience the first year, but is is something else for EBD teachers.
Which two or three books would you recommend reading to increase my effectiveness when working with students with emotional or behavioral disorders?
Maggie Kerr and Mike Nelson's Strategies for Addressing Behavior Problems in the Classroom. Sylvia Rockwell's Teaching the Tough to Teach. Rutherford and Mathurs Handbook of Research on EBD come to mind right now!
Have you decided on specific topics your research will focus on? Can you explain how you will be doing your research and if you will be looking for schools/classroom that are currently teaching emotionally disturbed/behavior problem students to participate?
Thank you for your interest in our study, Mindy. Or research is focused on enhancing school and teacher capacity, building youth competence, and increasing family and community supports. We will be working with schools nearby the participating university sites in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and Kansas. We will be including all high schools who wish to participate. We are continuing to look for high schools interested in participating.
We are trying to develop an effective program to address the needs of ED students on our High School Campus. How do inclusion programs compare with pull out programs? Do you have any programs models that we can copy to help provide effective care to decrease residential placements?
CCBD has a mongraph on inclusive programs for youth with EBD (see the CCBD store on the CCBD web site). Several model programs are profiled. For such programs to work, they need to be very well planned, ther needs to be full school commitment to a PBIS approach, and there needs to be provision for crisis services when the student is overwhelmed by the regular setting.
Have you found anything that really motivates these students to attend school or return to school? Many seem to think a GED program will be a quick fix. In their mind 2 - 3 months and then they will have the equivalent to a high school diploma.
I agree, Georgia, that many of these students are difficult to motivate. We are working on trying to modify their curriculum so it is personally interesting and to get them connected to their schools. Also, we are evaluating interventions to work on the social and interpersonal skills they will need post-graduation as well as teaching them to make healthy choices. We hope this will improve their motivation and decrease drop out.
Given that interventions provided early on allow us to deliver the most appropriate services, what is the earliest point at which you would recommend conducting assessments & making diagnoses; which instruments are most valid & reliable for that age group; and what cautions would you give regarding assessments/diagnoses? Thank you.
The Systematic Screening for Behavior Disorders Preschool edition is well known and not difficult to administer. I surely wish that we would screen for mental health as well as we screen for vision and hearing. See Hill Walker's research on this. The only caution is that identification need not be categorical at this age and services should surely be inclusive at early ages. If identified families deserve a well constructed IFSP.
Is there a recommended age that children should be screened, what screening tools should be used, and what type of referrals would the screener/health care provider be looking at?
Great question. It is difficult to accurately identify certain mental health problems in very young children, although the field is rapidly improving. With that said, behavior problems and symptoms of many underlying challenges (e.g. ADHD) generally emerge at a very young age. There are several systems used to screen and intervene. First Steps to Success and the Systematic Screening for Behavior Disorders are examples.
How do you differentiate emotional disturbance, which may involve special education interventions, from social maladjustment, which may primarily involve disciplinary interventions? Is this distinction even important?
Hi Alan and Lee, May I jump in here. I recommend to you the May 1990 Special issue of Behavior Disoders that addresses this issue fully. CCBD argues that there is no valid method of making this distinction and that the exclusion clause was a mistake inserted by Congress. It has been used by some to deny needed special edcuation services to youth with externalizing EBD or conduct disorder.
I teach girls in a Shelter setting many of whom have behavior disorders. They do well in my setting but frequently do not when they return to the public school. What is the best method for helping them with that transition.
This is the classic generalization problem in EBD. There are two basic answers. When they are ready to transition, you remove some of the supports like your more intensive management system so that your setting is more like a regular school. The better way is to program for this by making the receiving school more like your setting. I know that it is an expense but one setting I know has a transition paraeducator. The para goes with the student for the first several weeks to be sure that the recieving school puts into place similar structures as your place. Or, the receiving school must commit to coming to your setting to meet the student and be a part of the transition. Just sending and hoping does not work.
What constitutes a behavioural disorder? It sometimes seems too facile to classify someone as having a disorder when the education system is not compatible with her/his normal personality. One example: I have some concern for extroverted concrete learners who are labelled as ADD or ADHD.
I agree that many students would fare much better if schools were more flexible, alternative instructional situations were available, or more preventative services and supports were in place. The category of behavioral disorder, as defined by IDEA, is quite vague....hence the many problems with diagnosis and identification. Your point is excellent that school environments may be fairly rigid and structured such that teachers do not accommodate differences.
What needs to happen (that isn't) on the elemnentary level to reduce the likelihood that students with emo/beh disorders become alienated and drop out during high school?
They need to experience academic and behavioral success. Success is the only antidote to failure. We get that success by getting down to their present level of academic and behavioral performance and we get them moving in the right direction step by step with determined instruction. They also need to have adults in their lives who love them even though their behaviors are not lovable.
I would appreciate some advice on how to motivate students who do not care about their own success? I have tried different incentives, pep talks, etc...but they really do not seem to care if they fail their classes. How do I instill hope in these students who seem to have none? How can I instill faith when there seems to be none?
Hi Sandra, I answered a similar question previously. Motivation comes when failure stops and success takes hold. We need to get down to their present level of academic and behavioral performance and make them sucessful at a baby step, then the next step etc with determined instruction. We cannot motivate them if they continue to "fail" Failure just makes the problem worse.
Why do we still try and force the round peg into the square hole? For so many of the students with behavioral disorders you so often see more success in the earlier grades where there is typically more support, however, as they go on through the grades and the support becomes less and the student numbers become more we begin seeing the lean towards dropping out. We do this knowing that for many of these students there is often times other options for success. Why do we not look for more in depth vocational programs where students who do feel alienated in the academic setting can have a setting where they themselves can be a leader?
Excellent point, Bob. There needs to be many more options available to students who do not fit in the system. At the same time, there is much more research on effective interventions for younger students. This is one of the reasons the government provided funding for our project. We hope to find effective supports for older students so many more can pursue and succeed in an academic curriculum.
Is there research that shows how the system has failed these kids, therefore contributing to the creation of these 'disorders'?
I share the concern you seem to be expressing, Taylor. There is plenty of data showing that the needs of this group of students is not being met. In fact, their progress has not improved over the past 40 years. Many systems are failing these kids and the long-term outcomes show it is a tremendous cost to society, not to mention the personal hardship to the children themselves and their families. It is critical that find new and effective interventions and make sure those that are already available reach the kids who need them.
What are some practices that have helped students recognize and manage their behaviors in stressful situations?
Hi, Iam really interested in what Lee's research effort will provide, but I anticipate that for secondary students, self-management strategies will be part of the research. There are self-recording strategies where students self-record instsnces of either their misbehavior or apprpriate behavior. Self-evaluation strategies are the same but the students give themselves a grade. Self-instruction involves learning a sequence to accomplishing a task and checking off completion of th e"to do" list. Social skill instruction, based on real world experinces of the student can help too. Role play what happened, but then practice what could have been done instead.
I am concerned about the potential mis-labeling of agressive behaviors among young african american males. I believe thier behaviors are a cry for help, but many school and health personnel are intimidated and respond with more aggressive penalities, such as suspensions and alternative schools. Are there any programs or models that address this particular population that have met with success in keeping these youth in school and working with them to improve family functioning?
Hi, There are some social skills programs specifically targeted at AA male students (Be Cool; there is another slipping my mind now!). You are correct I believe in your conclusions. Russ Skiba's rsearch on suspension concludes that this aversive treatment injures AA males disproportionately.
Have the researchers noted contrasts/similarities in how caregivers of various ethnicities/cultures seek information about behavior disorders? If so, please give some examples.
This is a very important topic, Renee. There are many issues pertaining to ethnicity/culture and emotional/behavioral disorders, such as the overidentification of minorities. There has also been research examining teacher-student interactions of various ethnic/cultural groups as well as cultural identity. I am not specifically aware of information seeking patterns, although in general, there is still a stigma in general associated with seeking services for emotional/behavioral problems. It would be a great topic of research.
Will these funds be used for professional development in teaching elementary, middle, and high school educators how to manage dysfunctional student behaviors? The tradtional "behaviorist" approach of reward/punishment does not meet the deep emotional /social/mental health needs of our at-risk children. Many teachers report a lack of confidence and skill in working to produce sustained improvement. Since children are so impressionable and spend so much time in school, it would be wise to reteach how to address the emotional/behavioral needs of children in the 21st century. Families and society require it.
I agree, Jennifer. Because of the absence of effective and comprehensive interventions to address the needs of this population, our funds will be primarily on evaluating interventions to demonstrate they are effective. Along with this will come professional development. However, the bulk of professional development will come after we have clear evidence that we have identified effective interventions.
I'd like to thank Dr. Kern and Dr. White for taking the time to answer questions on this very important topic, and thank you for submitting your questions! Please keep reading Education Week for more coverage of education issues.
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