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When Students Need Emotional Support: Dos and Don'ts

Meghan Mathis

When Students Need Emotional Support: Dos and Don'tsAccommodating Students with Emotional Disturbance Needs in the Regular Education Setting

One of the realities of teaching today is that most teachers work in classrooms with students identified with a wide variety of needs. We often focus on how to best accommodate our students with learning support needs, but when we welcome a student with emotional support needs into our classroom, it can really turn everything upside down. Students with emotional support needs often don’t “play by the same rules” as other students. They don’t always follow our classroom procedures and they don’t adjust their behavior when we correct them–gently or firmly. Some emotional support students are severely withdrawn and we find ourselves desperately trying to bring them out of their shells. Others are overly energetic or aggressive, leaving us scrambling to manage their behaviors so it doesn’t disrupt the learning of their classmates. It can be exhausting. Without the proper support, it can also be intimidating.

Having spent time as both an Emotional Support teacher and a regular education teacher with identified students in my class, here’s a list of dos and don’ts that have helped me to best accommodate these often-challenging students.

DO collaborate.

If you're teaching a class with a student who has emotional support needs, read their paperwork–but also make sure to chat with the Special Education teacher who wrote the paperwork. Often we can tell you more about the student and the best ways to accommodate him/her in your classroom. We might have helpful ideas that were not included in the paperwork or ideas that have helped students with similar needs. It’s important to remember that the Special Education teacher might not be able to solve all of the challenges you may face–but it is equally important to continue to communicate with them about those challenges. The Special Education teacher can document that information and use it to adapt or change the student’s Individualized Educational Plan.

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DON’T be afraid to ask for help.

This goes hand-in-hand with the first “DO.” Don’t be shy about communicating what is working and what isn’t working in your classroom. If you’ve been given a behavior plan to follow and you have followed it for a few weeks and are not seeing any improvement–don’t hesitate to bring that up to the student’s IEP team. If you are concerned that the student is not improving, is overly distracting to other students or if you are concerned for the safety of the student, of other students, or of yourself–don’t feel like you have to deal with it on your own. Reach out to the IEP team and to your administration and communicate your concerns. You should not have to deal with these challenges on your own.

DO talk to the student.

If the student is older, it can be a very good idea to meet with them before or after class to go over the expectations and procedures of the class, as well as what their IEP states. It lets them know that you are aware of what they need to be successful in class  as well as what you need from them to be a successful citizen in your classroom. If the student has a history of challenging behavior, it can also be helpful to let them know that you are aware of that past, but that you are a fair teacher who will always treat him/her just like you treat other students. Let them know that if they make mistakes you will not hold a grudge, but also let them know in a firm but friendly way that there are consequences in your classroom and that, just like everyone else, they will receive them if they do make mistakes. By sharing this information during a calm time you’ll avoid the student feeling like you are picking on them later on. Make sure you let them know that you are looking forward to them being in your room and that the two of you will work together to make it a great year. 

DON’T take it personally.

Even if you’ve had a great start and things seem to be going well, one of the most challenging aspects of working with students with emotional needs is that you may never know exactly when or why they act out. Even more challenging is the fact that this acting out often comes in the form of defying or being disrespectful to the people who have been trying the hardest to help them. They may be attempting to gain attention, avoid an activity, test boundaries, or deflect attention away from something they’re uncomfortable about. It can come out of nowhere… and sometimes students with emotional needs can be surprisingly personal in their attacks. It’s very important to realize that when an Emotional Support student acts out it is not about you specifically. Take a breath, follow the behavior plan or your classroom procedures for dealing with behavior issues, and stay calm. Sometimes, all they want to do is see what it takes to get your riled up. Other times they don’t believe adults who say they’ll be there for them or treat them fairly, so they test it by misbehaving. Staying calm demonstrates that you are an adult, a professional, and that you will always treat them fairly–even when they misbehave.

DO build rapport and trust on the good days.

Because we know the challenging days are inevitable, it’s important to take advantage of the times when students with emotional support needs are working well and being positive. Enjoy getting to know the student while they are willing and in the mood to share. Find things that both of you enjoy and have in common, and begin to build the rapport and trust that will make the challenging times easier to get through. 

DON’T get backed into a corner.

Students with emotional support needs can sometimes be very good at manipulating situations. Teachers I spoke with about this article relayed stories of being fooled into letting students do far less work than they were capable of because they believed the student couldn’t do it, or getting so frustrated with a student’s behavior that they threatened a consequence they were unable to act on. It’s imperative when working with students with emotional support needs that we remain consistent, firm, and fair. Ignoring behaviors we would not tolerate from our other students because they are being “reasonably good,” or issuing consequences (like loss of break time if their IEP specifically states they are to receive a certain amount of it each day) that we can’t carry out weakens our position as a trusted adult in their life. 

DO have a plan for when things go badly.

It can be downright frightening when a student with emotional support needs has a true breakdown during class time. Although we’ve read the IEP, reviewed the behavior plan, and think we are prepared–the first time you see a student cursing, spitting, throwing, biting, hitting, or worse, it can put even the most experienced educator at a loss for what to do. That’s why it’s good to have already considered what exactly you will do when a student exhibits dangerous or inappropriate behaviors. When reading the student’s IEP and/or behavior plan, think to yourself, how will I handle this when it happens? If you don’t know what you should do, ask the IEP team for suggestions, but do not wait for it to happen before thinking through your plan of action. Will there be an aide in the room who can move other students to a safe location? Is the student to be restrained or allowed to move around? Is there another classroom you can send the student to if he/she needs to calm down before becoming too upset? Try to work through these types of questions during the calm times so you know what to do during the not-so-calm times.

DON’T panic if a behavior plan doesn’t work right away.

Behavior plans are wonderful when they work, but they are never perfect solutions. Sometimes they work beautifully for a time and then seem to stop. Other times they are implemented and do not seem to change the behaviors they were put in place to deal with at all. It is important, however, to commit to an agreed upon behavior plan and to follow it completely for several weeks before deciding to modify it. There are several reasons for this. One, quite frankly, is that an approved behavior plan is part of a student’s Individualized Educational Plan and therefore, we’re required by law to follow it. Failure to comply with behavior plans can lead to lawsuits for the school district. More relevant to our classrooms, however, is that if we want behaviors to change, we have to consistently address the reasons for the behavior and provide a suitable alternative to deal with those causes. If a student is withdrawing and refusing to speak as a way to avoid math, we need to find a way to make math less intimidating. A plan to do that may take a while to work and that requires us to be patient and consistent. That being said, if we have given a plan time to work and are not seeing improvement, it is important to communicate that information to the IEP team so that adjustments can be made as needed.

DON’T let them get away with misbehavior.

While there may be certain behaviors that you will be required to overlook because their IEP or behavior plan states that you must, there will be plenty of other aspects of your daily classroom management routine that a student with emotional support needs may test. Many teachers, myself included, have found themselves bending the rules for these students–ignoring behaviors that we would not ignore from others–in an attempt to gain the student’s trust or to get them to participate in class activities. While there may be times when this is necessary, it is also vital to hold these students accountable for their behavior. As members of your classroom they need to know that you have high expectations for them just like you have for all of the students. 

DO stay calm.

I know I went out of order here at the end, but I wanted my last point to be the “DO” I have found the most valuable when dealing with Emotional Support students. Students who are dealing with this type of disability require the guidance and support of steadfast, reliable adults. They need to know that we will encourage them when they are at their best and that we will be fair and safe when they are at their worst. They will test us frequently to see if we are honest in our claims. Some of their tests will hurt. One of the hardest aspects of working with these students is the “one step forward, three steps back” feelings that occur when you feel you’ve made progress with a student one day only to have them act out the next. It is vital at these times to remain calm, to remind ourselves that we are professionals helping a hurt child, and that we promised we’d be here to support them.