3 ways to support students with emotional and behavioral disorders now

How to work with students in person and online when the spring and summer months have resulted in regression of self-regulation abilities and inappropriate behaviors
By: | July 27, 2020
Photo by Luz Fuertes on UnsplashPhoto by Luz Fuertes on Unsplash

Students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBDs) may not have received consistent responses to their challenging behaviors during school closures and in the summer, particularly if one or both of their parents had to return to work in person. This may have allowed students to develop some inappropriate behaviors and regress in their ability to self-regulate.

“It only takes 21 days to develop a habit, and these students may have developed some new habits that aren’t very good,” says Larry Brunson Jr., an educational consultant and executive director of Brunson Educational Consulting Group in Corona, Calif.

Starting school partially in person and partially remotely may be even more confusing for students. You have to ensure they know what is expected of them in both settings. You also must ensure that the teachers who are working with them remotely know how to avoid exacerbating any behavioral eruptions.

“Students have been out of school for almost six months,” Brunson says. “Behavior and [social-emotional learning] need to be the focus this fall.”

Follow these tips to support students with EBDs who are participating in a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning this school year:

1. Provide parent guidance.

Arrange for at least twice-monthly videoconferences with parents to discuss what behavioral challenges they are seeing at home and what kinds of situations they need help navigating. You or another school mental health expert may want to carve out 60 minutes for a virtual discussion. “The students in this population have a great deal of difficulty with being able to have some control over their emotional state, so we need to give parents tools and strategies to work with their children,” Brunson says. Putting supports in place now may help a student stay on track behaviorally if there is a second wave of the virus that shuts schools’ doors and requires more remote learning.

“We have to continue the dialogue because we may be partially back to school and moving forward, but we could be closed down again,” he says. “You want to put those pieces in place.”

2. Review strategies with the student.

When possible, chat or have another school mental health colleague chat individually with the student online or on the phone about how he can practice his self-regulation skills and respond to challenging situations during online learning and with his parents, Brunson suggests. Continuing to build this connection is particularly important if the student’s home life is typically tense and school had been a haven in the past.

Consider bringing together a few students with similar behavioral challenges for a regular group videoconference, Brunson says. Just be sure to review and adhere to your district’s privacy policies first.

3. Clarify how to remotely respond to behavioral issues.

Discuss with educators how they can reduce triggers for behavioral outbursts while they work with students online and ensure they offer a student options if she becomes dysregulated, Brunson says. For example, a teacher can softly advise the student to walk away from the screen to breathe, then encourage her to come back to learning when she is calm and ready. Pushing back may create a power struggle that may lead to much more damage—emotional and physical—if the student lashes out at home.

“The student may shut down,” he says. “If you let them have their moment and don’t push them, most children will come back to you and say, ‘I’m sorry I did that and I’m able to talk now.'”

Reminding the student she can talk with the school psychologist or another adult she feels safe communicating with virtually may also help prevent more traumatic situations, such as the student throwing her tablet or chair at home in frustration and losing learning time and getting into trouble with her parents.

Just ensure teachers understand that it is not appropriate to teach new strategies for self-regulation while the student is upset regardless of whether they are teaching the student in person or remotely.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.