Emotional and Behavioral Disorder EBD Diagnosis and Special Education

The mental health of our children is obviously a top priority for parents worldwide. As a mother of three young children, this is something I can relate to.

But many mental health disorders that start in early childhood or adolescence often go undiagnosed for years. When it comes to a diagnosis early evaluation and intervention is best. This helps ensure that the child gets the proper treatment and support they need to succeed both inside and outside of the classroom.

This extensive guide is perfect for parents who recently had a child diagnosed with EBD. It’s also an excellent resource for teachers and educators who are teaching kids with an EBD diagnosis. You’ll learn more about the different types of EBDs, alternative placement options for special education students with EBD, and tips for teaching children who need a little extra assistance.

Everything You Need to Know About EBD and Special Education

The following sections should answer all of your questions about EBD diagnosis and special education:

  • What Are Emotional and Behavioral Disorders?
  • Types of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders
  • Common Traits of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders
  • Does an EBD Diagnosis Require Alternative Placement?
  • How to Teach Students With EBD (Tips For Parents and Teachers)

What Are Emotional and Behavioral Disorders?

Emotional and behavioral disorder—EBD—is a broad term covering different mental health diagnoses. As the name implies, the diagnosis is given to children who have difficulties dealing with both emotion and behavior. These difficulties stem beyond the classroom. EBD often makes it challenging for children to communicate behavior and regulate their emotions in their daily lives. 

EBD typically affects a child’s social development, cognitive functions, behaviors, and feelings. Children diagnosed with an EBD may have trouble controlling their emotions and actions, which can be difficult when forming relationships.  

By definition, children diagnosed with EBD display the following elements:

  • Patterns of disruptive behavior.
  • Intense and prolonged emotions.
  • Impaired ability to function in social situations, at school, and home settings.
  • Emotional and behavioral issues that last for at least six months. 
  • General mood of depression or unhappiness.
  • Struggles with learning that can’t be tied to other sensory, intellectual, or health problems.
  • Inability to maintain personal relationships with teachers and peers.

It’s worth noting that it’s normal for children to display some of these characteristics at some point during their development stages in life. So if your child hasn’t officially been diagnosed with EBD, don’t be alarmed if you’ve noticed one or two of these instances in isolation. 

But when these types of behaviors are severe, last for a long duration, and continue past toddlerhood, they could be signs of an underlying disorder.

Types of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Within the umbrella of EBD, a diagnosis typically falls into one of two main categories—psychiatric disorders and behavioral disorders.  

Psychiatric Disorders

There are a wide range of conditions that fall within the scope of “psychiatric disorders.” By definition, people with psychiatric disorders display patterns of mental, behavioral, or perceptual anomalies. These anomalies can cause distress in their lives and impair daily functions. 

Examples of psychiatric disorders can include:

  • Bipolar disorders (sometimes called manic depressive disorders)
  • Eating disorders (like bulimia, binge-eating, or anorexia disorders)
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD)

As an educator, dealing with children who have an EBD diagnosis can present several challenges in the classroom.

Some students who have psychiatric disorders might be taking prescription medication recommended by a physician. Everyone reacts differently to medication, and since a child’s prescription information is private, some teachers may not understand why kids are behaving a certain way. Not understanding the root cause of the behavior can make it tough for teachers to respond appropriately. 

If a child diagnosed with EBD can’t meet certain academic or behavioral expectations, they may need an individualized education program (IEP).

Behavioral Disorders

Behavioral disabilities may lead to disruptive actions in the classroom. In some cases, these actions can be harmful to the student with an EBD diagnosis and others around them. 

To have a behavioral disability, the behaviors associated with the child’s actions must not be associated with one of the psychiatric disorders mentioned above. 

Within the umbrella of “behavioral disabilities,” there are two categories to consider—oppositional defiant disorders and conduct disorders.

  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder — These disabilities lead to significant non-compliance. Children with oppositional defiant disorders show an unwillingness to follow directions or cooperate with authority. Kids who are diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorders are not aggressive or violent. They just refuse to cooperate with directions from adults or peers.
  • Conduct Disorder — Conduct disorders are a severe type of EBD. These students show aggressive and violent behavior. They may inflict harm on themselves or their peers. Some students with conduct behaviors may need to be placed in a self-contained special education classroom until their behavior improves.

I’ll explain some strategies for dealing with these behaviors shortly.

Common Traits of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Kids with an EBD diagnosis often have distinct character traits and common behaviors. Some of the most common characteristics associated with EBD include:

  • Constant arguing
  • Refusing to follow the rules
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Causing self-harm
  • Difficulties maintaining relationships with peers, teachers, and family members
  • Angry and unhappy moods
  • Problems handling frustration
  • Immaturity (like excessive crying or temper tantrums beyond a certain age)
  • Blaming others and not taking responsibility for their own actions
  • Short attention span
  • Not respecting authority
  • Learning difficulties

Again, one or two of these character traits displayed in isolation is not necessarily a sign of EBD. It’s normal for kids to display these characteristics. But if your child has a long history of displaying lots of these traits at a severe level, then you may want to seek help for a professional diagnosis. 

As a parent, it’s normal to be worried or scared if your child is struggling with mental health. But you should know that EBD is a psychiatric illness. This means that it affects the brain, which is what’s causing the adverse behaviors and emotions. 

Your child likely isn’t trying to be defiant or resist authority. They just need some support and assistance with their mental health.

Does an EBD Diagnosis Require Alternative Placement?

In my years of experience working in school systems, this is one of the most common questions I hear from parents and teachers alike. Does a child diagnosed with an emotional and behavioral disorder need an alternative placement? 

Alternative placement means that a child needs to be placed in a separate room or facility due to their specialized needs. 

For most children with an EBD diagnosis, the general classroom environment in a traditional school setting will always be the preferred placement option. There might be additional modifications or accommodations in the classroom based on the child’s specific diagnosis. 

Examples of these accommodations may include curriculum adjustments, assistance from a paraprofessional, or positive behavior support. If these accommodations are unsuccessful, the parents and educators might consider an alternative placement option. 

It’s usually in the child’s best interest to be in the least restrictive setting. Unless the child is causing severe harm to themselves or their peers, it’s best to try and keep them in the classroom. If it’s decided that an alternative placement is a better option, the goal should be to eventually move the child back to the general classroom when their behaviors improve.

Examples of alternative placement options for students with EBD might include day treatments, residential placements, or correctional placements. 

I’ve personally spent time as the Dean of Students at a juvenile detention center. So I can tell you from first-hand experience that a correctional placement is rare. This is only for children who have committed a felony or multiple misdemeanor offenses. Another aspect that’s unique about correctional placements is that they’re determined by the court system, not an IEP team.

How to Teach Students With EBD (Tips for Parents and Teachers)

Children with an EBD diagnosis can still live normal lives. So there’s plenty of hope for parents who are worried or teachers who might feel a bit overwhelmed. 

Based on years of experience and tons of research, these are the top tips and best practices for teaching students with EBD:

  • Establish Rules — Create clearly defined rules at the beginning of the school year. Put them in writing and make sure they’re positive and easy to understand. For example, “respect your teachers and classmates” is a better option than “don’t hurt yourself or others.” Avoid lists longer than five or six rules.
  • Establish Consequences For Breaking the Rules — What happens if the child doesn’t follow the rules? Make sure the child knows these consequences ahead of time, and be consistent when applying them. Always administer the consequences in a clear and calm manner. Be firm and kind without getting too emotional.
  • Create a Routine — Students with EBD often have trouble with unexpected changes and transitions throughout the day. So keep the child informed with the schedule. You may want to begin each day by visually going over the schedule of events with the child.
  • Support Positive Behavior — Find ways to support positive actions. Examples of this in the classroom include a “token economy” system. In this scenario, students can earn stars or points for each instance of positive action. Then they can redeem those tokens for rewards in a “store.” If a child has an EBD diagnosis they may also qualify in behavior on their IEP. If this is the case an FBA and BIP would need to be performed to determine an individualized behavior plan for the student to increase positive behaviors. 

Classroom behavior charts and positive peer reviews (essentially the opposite of tattle-telling) are also great ways to support positive behavior. These strategies can be applied both in the classroom and also in the home setting.


Parenting and teaching children with EBD can be challenging. But you should find comfort in knowing that there are ways to support these children and get them the help that they need. The first thing you need to do is confirm the diagnosis. Next, it’s all about finding the best path to treatment, which might include an IEP.

If you start applying some of the tips and strategies that I shared in this guide, I’d love to hear your feedback! Please let me know what worked well for your child and what didn’t. Then I can pass that information along to other parents and teachers going through the same experiences.

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments