Technology Aided Strategies for students who are Emotionally DisturbedThis is a featured page

by Jason Bernard and Suzette Bradley

This web page was developed as a resource for educators and parents of students who are emotionally disturbed. Although most of this website is dedicated to assistive technology, we as special educators understand that our students who have emotional disturbance need a variety of support systems, strategies and programs in order to succeed in their schools, at home and in the community. This page will focus on how assistive technology can be used to motivate and help students gain access to the many support systems and strategies that are available today.

Although most of the strategies we will discuss here can be applied to all ages, our primary focus is on high school age students who are preparing to enter the community as adults.

We will look at low tech approaches such as point sheets and goal charts, mid-tech gadgets such as personal assistive devices and high tech solutions such as software programs and websites that can be accessed to help students accomplish specific tasks. Understanding how to help students with emotional disturbance can be difficult because the observable behaviors and abilities of these students are only part of the picture. We are dealing with the students' personality differences, moods and feelings that often provide an obstacle for the students' ability to learn.

What is Emotional Disturbance?

(It is common for the terms emotional disturbance and behavioral disorder to be used interchangeably depending on your school district). IDEA uses the term Emotional Disturbance.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines emotionally disturbed as:
  1. The term means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree, which adversely affects educational performance:
    • An inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;
    • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;
    • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
    • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or
    • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
  2. The term includes children who are schizophrenic, but does not include children who are socially maladjusted unless it is determined that they are emotionally disturbed.

Some of the characteristics and behaviors seen in children who have emotional disturbances include:

  • Hyperactivity (short attention span, impulsiveness);
  • Aggression/self-injurious behavior (acting out, fighting);
  • Withdrawal (failure to initiate interaction with others; retreat from exchanges of social interaction, excessive fear or
  • anxiety);
  • Immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills); and
  • Learning difficulties (academically performing below grade level).

Children with the most serious emotional disturbances may exhibit distorted thinking, excessive anxiety, bizarre motor acts, and abnormal mood swings. Some are identified as children who have a severe psychosis or schizophrenia.

Many children who do not have emotional disturbances may display some of these same behaviors at various times during their development. However, when children have an emotional disturbance, these behaviors continue over long periods of time. Their behavior thus signals that they are not coping with their environment or peers.
(Adapted from the Emotional Disturbance Fact Sheet provided by

Products and Resources

Low Tech

The following resources provide low tech ideas for managing students with an emotional disturbance. These are great ideas for the teacher or parent who is beginning a behavior plan. Examples of low tech support tools for behavior plans include multipurpose point sheets, behavior contracts and behavior charts or graphs. Having a student's goals and expectations written down on an organized chart or point sheet can help lower the student's anxiety about what is expected. Pairing specific goals with positive reinforcement can help teach the student a routine as well as motivate a student to monitor his/her own behavior.

Point Sheets and Behavior Charts
This website is a great place to start for free printable point sheets and behavior charts.These charts help students track their progress toward specific goals and encourgae students to monitor their own behavior.There are a variety of formats for everyone from young children to young adults.
A point sheet can be used in the classroom to keep track of general behaviors such as transition between subjects and participation. It can also include specific goals for each student such as finishing assigned work or having positive interactions with others. Teachers can issue points at the end of each subject based on the students' performance. Point sheets are a great way for students to keep track of their own daily goals as well as for teachers to collect data on each student's behavior for each subject or class period.

Before you get started you should read:

How to effectively implement and use a behavior chart with a student.

Some other low tech solutions...

Teaching Self Discipline
This book offers ideas on how you and your students can incorporate self discipline into your general curriculum. According to the authors, lack of discipline is a common cause of ineffective instruction. This book shows you how to present discipline to students by cueing them to performances by socially competent same age peers and incorporates discipline training into the general curriculum. This book can help students set goals for their own behavior, make decisions about their own actions and moderate theor actions in accord with their peers.

Book of Possibilities
A book of activities complete with supply lists. This book can be a useful tool for the teacher that has students that need to be occupied at all times.

Mid Tech

The following resources will provide information about mid tech solutions to problems associated with students with and emotional disturbance. These sites provide lower cost technology to assist with the challenges faced by students with emotional or behavioral needs.

The Motivaider
This little device is similar to a pager and can be set to buzz or beep at certain intervals reminding students to stay on whatever task they are trying to accomplish. This can be really helpful for students who have difficulty paying attention or are easily distracted. The idea is to pair one specific goal the student is working on with the buzzing of the Motivaider. When used effectively, it can promote independence because the student would not need continuous prompts from a teacher.

The Talklight
The Talklight is a noise management tool. The light looks like a stoplight and changes from green to yellow to red depending on the noise level of the class. The sound level is adjustable so it can be used in different social situations.
A red light can serve as a visual clue that the noise level in the room is too loud. The yellow light can be used as a warning and a green light, of course, means go for it! This tool can increase the student's self discipline and create a quieter classroom by encouraging students to monitor their own noise level.

Using an iPod in the classroom may seem strange to some but it can serve several very practical purposes if you set limits with the students. Students can listen to books on tape or you can record a reading on the Ipod for the students to listen to. This can lower the frustration level of students resulting in fewer discipline problems. You can also use an Ipod to provide the students with calm and relaxing music. Music can lower the stress level of a student who is having a rough day and it is an easy way to be proactive about discipline problems.

High Tech

The following resources will provide information about high tech solutions to issues encountered when dealing with students with emotional disturbance. These resources provide information on higher end technology that will assist students with emotional or behavioral issues both in and out of the classroom. These items can be used as classroom resources as well as part of incentive plans.
Brainpop is a site that contains simple videos and activities that you can use to supplement your curriculum. The videos can make difficult ideas easier to understand. This website is designed to capture student interest by making the lessons fun and interactive. A variety of subjects are available and many fo the lessons are free. A full subscription for teachers is $175 per year.

These math games feature arcade style play and increase high school math skills. These games can be a good way for your students to practice their skills or provide a constructive activity when they need to be away from the group because of stress or frustration.

Inspiration is a great program for organizing thoughts, making visual aids and outlining essays. This program can take lots of the stress out of essays and larger projects. Stress reduction will lead to reduced the behavior problems that arise from work frustration.

One of the best ways to promote positive behavior with students is to provide tangible rewards. Although video games do not seem to provide educational value at first they can be a great tool for students with behavior issues. The use of a Nintendo Wii as a reward for earning the week's points can be a great motivator. The System also improves the students social skills because it requires the ability to take turns and the use of good sportsmanship. The best part of this system is that it is wireless and requires the user to move to control the games. Students with lost of energy will enjoy this aspect of game play.

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