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Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in Children: Characteristics

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

Children with emotional or behavioral disorders are characterized primarily by behavior that falls significantly beyond the norms of their cultural and age group on two dimensions: externalizing and internalizing. Both patterns of abnormal behavior have adverse effects on children’s academic achievement and social relationships.

Externalizing Behaviors

The most common behavior pattern of children with emotional and behavioral disorders consists of antisocial, or externalizing behaviors. In the classroom, children with externalizing behaviors frequently do the following (adapted from Walker, 1997, p. 13):

  • Get out of their seats
  • Yell, talk out, and curse
  • Disturb peers
  • Hit or fight
  • Ignore the teacher
  • Complain
  • Argue excessively
  • Steal
  • Lie
  • Destroy property
  • Do not comply with directions
  • Have temper tantrums
  • Are excluded from peer-controlled activities
  • Do not respond to teacher corrections
  • Do not complete assignments

Rhode, Jensen, and Reavis (1998) describe noncompliance as the “king-pin behavior” around which other behavioral excesses revolve. “Noncompliance is simply defined as not following a direction within a reasonable amount of time. Most of the arguing, tantrums, fighting, or rule breaking is secondary to avoiding requests or required tasks” (p. 4). Clearly, an ongoing pattern of such behavior presents a major challenge for teachers of antisocial children. “They can make our teaching lives miserable and single-handedly disrupt a classroom” (Rhode et al., 1998, p. 3).

All children sometimes cry, hit others, and refuse to comply with requests of parents and teachers; but children with emotional and behavioral disorders do so frequently. Also, the antisocial behavior of children with emotional and behavioral disorders often occurs with little or no provocation. Aggression takes many forms—verbal abuse toward adults and other children, destructiveness and vandalism, and physical attacks on others. These children seem to be in continuous conflict with those around them. Their own aggressive outbursts often cause others to strike back. It is no wonder that children with emotional and behavioral disorders are seldom liked by others and find it difficult to establish friendships.

Many believe that most children who exhibit deviant behavioral patterns will grow out of them with time and become normally functioning adults. Although this optimistic outcome holds true for many children who exhibit problems such as withdrawal, fears, and speech impairments (Rutter, 1976), research indicates that it is not so for children who display consistent patterns of aggressive, coercive, antisocial, and/or delinquent behavior (Patterson, Cipaldi, & Bank, 1991; Trembley, 2000; Wahler & Dumas, 1986). The stability of aggressive behavior over a decade is equal to the stability of intelligence (Kazdin, 1987).

A pattern of antisocial behavior early in a child’s development is the best single predictor of delinquency in adolescence.

Preschoolers who show the early signs of antisocial behavior patterns do not grow out of them. Rather, as they move throughout their school careers, they grow into these unfortunate patterns with disastrous results to themselves and others. This myth that preschoolers will outgrow antisocial behavior is pervasive among many teachers and early educators and is very dangerous because it leads professionals to do nothing early on when the problem can be effectively addressed. (Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995, p. 47)

Children who enter adolescence with a history of aggressive behavior stand a very good chance of dropping out of school, being arrested, abusing drugs and alcohol, having marginalized adult lives, and dying young (Lipsey & Derzon, 1998; Walker et al., 1995). Students with emotional and behavioral disorders are 13.3 times more likely to be arrested during their school careers than nondisabled students are (Doren, Bullis, & Benz, 1996a), and 58% are arrested within five years of leaving high school (Chesapeake Institute, 1994).

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