Emotionally Disturbed Students: A How-To Guide for Teachers and Principals


article how to help emotionally disturbed SED students


Emotionally Disturbed Students:


A How-To Guide for Teachers and Principals



workshop on severely emotionally disturbed studentsTeachers, Principals and Counselors: Are you seeing more and more seriously emotionally disturbed (S.E.D.) students than ever before? The problem may not be with your perceptions. The problem may be that in fact, you are seeing more emotionally disturbed children and youth than at any time before.

Hello from Youth Change Director, Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. I'm a veteran counselor and trainer, so let me use this educational article to explain why there may be many more students struggling with S.E.D.

SEDFirst, many settings such as schools and Job Corps, are accepting youth with increasingly serious emotional problems. Second, mainstreaming has shifted many kids from sheltered or specialized settings, into mainstream classrooms, sports teams and scouting troops. Third, and perhaps most important, there may be, in fact, more and earlier serious emotional disturbances developing in children. Or, perhaps we are just getting better at noticing and identifying these problems. No one knows for sure the answer to that last one.

In late 2000, the U.S. Surgeon General formally reported that an amazing 1 in 10 children may have a serious mental health disorder. This report noted that the typical wait for severely emotionally disturbed children to get an appointment with a mental health professional was 3 to 4 months. Some communities lack children's mental health services entirely, the report also noted. This report quotes a study that indicated that many children with severe emotional problems don't gain access to proper school services until age 10. The report emphasizes that many of these severely emotionally disturbed children will ultimately wind up incarcerated, in part,  because their problems went unnoticed, or were addressed way too late. The report advocates for more mental health resources for emotionally disturbed children, and better training in children's mental health for everyone who works with youth. Those are interesting recommendations that might have a lot of impact. Sadly, these proposals don't seem to be gaining traction.

That's where we fit in. We're Youth Change Workshops and we've been talking about students' mental health for many years. From our viewpoint, here's the bottom line: If you are not a mental health professional, but you work with kids, you need to acquire a basic mental health background in order to fully understand your changing population, and to best meet their changing needs.

Youth Change can help you move towards that goal with our monthly Behavior and Classroom Management blog articles, but these brief educational posts will not give you all the detailed information you need on the myriad of mental health issues you now see every day. Be sure to consider acquiring our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Online Workshop, schedule us to present a live or online workshop at your site for your entire school faculty, or make plans to come to one of our live workshops. Any of these options can help make your job much easier, and could even some day help you save or salvage a young life.

troubled studentAcquiring more essential mental health basics will also help you know when to access help from mental health professionals. It will also give you the basic terms you need to convey what you see. There is no substitute for the expertise of a mental health worker, and if budget cuts have reduced this option at your site, that is serious. While a class like our Breakthrough Strategies Workshop can help non-mental health workers learn key basics, it is not a substitute for a veteran counselor or skilled social worker. With the incidence of severe childhood emotional problems apparently on the rise, it makes relying on that counselor, social worker, or psychologist more important than ever before.

If you are a mental health professional you may also want to consider doing a check-up on your skills too. We are always surprised at our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshop how many mental health professionals confuse conduct disorders and thought disorders, for example. These are two basic and essential mental health concepts for anyone who helps severely emotionally disturbed children or teens. (Ironically, thought disorder is the single mental health problem that many clinicians believe may be increasing the most in frequency– especially in young children.)

We also need more organizations like the Family Resource Centers in Kentucky. Kentucky's Family Resource Centers are located in just about every school in the state. Their staff exist only to assist the student, family, teacher, counselor or anyone involved in the child's life to help that child succeed in school, community, family and life. Sadly, most of us lack a Family Resource Center worker to turn to. Your challenge becomes: how do I still provide my service to a child with serious emotional problems? Here are a few key do's and don't's as starters, but be sure to also consider developing a plan to more thoroughly upgrade your basic mental health skills if needed:


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severely emotionally disturbed studentHow to Help
Severely Emotionally Disturbed Students


Strike the Balance

Especially in this age of widespread, mandated education performance testing, teachers can feel pressured to get students to perform and produce. But tests don't "understand" that a child has a serious emotional disturbance and make allowances– but you can. Strive to balance your school or agency's mission with the severely emotionally disturbed child's special needs. Keep the goals, but don't accomplish them at any cost.

When I'm Not Sure What to Do

A good general guideline for anytime that you just don't know for sure how to work with a child, is to ask the child. That child is the expert on that child. If you get no useful response, a fall-back plan is to consider what would work or not work with you if you were in that situation. You can also reverse roles and have the child offer suggestions how to help you. Alternatively, ask the child for suggestions for a friend or peer. Many of the suggestions may be ones you can use with the student.

But I Have to Be Fair

You may worry that if you give a troubled child extra time to complete a task, for example, that the other kids will complain that it is unfair. In the work world, bosses are required to accommodate employees' special needs from providing a ramp for a wheel chair to arranging for  a sign language interpreter. The ultimate mission of most schools and youth agencies is to prepare the child for the real world. In the real world, providing some accommodation is either legally mandated, a common courtesy, or just good sense. Most schools attempt to give a bigger desk to a bigger student, and a smaller desk to a smaller youngster. Simple human courtesy and common sense should never be viewed as unfair.

They Can Take It

Some teachers or youth professionals will tell you that the child can "take it." The truth is that you have no way of looking into a child and accurately gauging their resiliency. Since kids do not generally announce that they were beaten last night, or that they haven't eaten for two days, you don't know how fragile or strong a child actually is. You don't know whether or not a child can "take it." There is a risk that a harsh, embarrassing, or aggressive act could harm or undermine a child. While it is never okay to yell, demean or humiliate any child for any reason, it is especially true with children who are severely troubled.

These Children Are Manipulating the Adults

While some emotionally disturbed children are very adept at manipulation, many, perhaps most emotionally disturbed children do not manipulate at all. There are many types of emotional disturbances, and each has its own completely unique dynamic. Because an adult works differently with different types of students, tailoring methods to fit each child and that child's unique circumstances, does not mean the adult has been manipulated. It means that the adult has a sophisticated understanding of different types of youth, and has chosen the correct tools for each type of child.

Bonus Tip

One way to tell if you need to upgrade your mental health skills is to assess how well you can distinguish different types of mental health problems and apply varied interventions for each type. While non mental health workers can't diagnose, it is still important to be able to understand and identify the difficulties you are seeing. For example, if you do not know the difference between conduct disorder and thought disorder, that means you probably can not work effectively with youngsters with those issues. The best practice would to use completely different sets of tools with each of these two types of youngsters, something you can't do without a basic mental health foundation. The upshot: you may find "nothing" seems to work, and that safety issues abound.


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About Ruth Herman Wells

Author/Trainer Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. is the director of Youth Change Professional Development Workshops. In 2011, Ruth was rated as a Top 10 U.S. K-12 educational and motivational speaker by Speakerwiki and Speakermix. She is the author of several book series, a columnist, adjunct professor for two universities, and a popular keynote speaker and workshop presenter. Ruth's dozens of books includes Temper and Tantrum Tamers and Turn On the Turned-Off Student.