Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: Causes and Prevention

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

As is true of most disabilities, the specific causes of emotional or behavioral disorders remain elusive. However, relationships between some causal factors and this disability are becoming clearer. For example, children who experience physical abuse have a higher probability of being identified with emotional or behavioral disorders (Cauce et al., 2000). A link between the factors of poverty and this disability is apparent as well (Children's Defense Fund [CDF], 2004; Hosp & Reschly, 2002). And it is likely that for some children, a biological explanation will emerge (Forness & Kavale, 2001).


The reasons why such problems arise in a particular child are usually difficult to identify precisely, and the disability is likely to be the result of multiple and overlapping factors (Walker & Sprague, 2000). At least three general areas can contribute to emotional or behavioral disorders: biology, home and community, and school. Let's look at each in turn.


Just as for many other disabilities, more and more biological and genetic causes for emotional or behavioral disorders are being identified (Forness & Kavale, 2001). For example, research now tells us that a definite relationship exists between prenatal drug exposure and childhood emotional or behavioral disorders: 53 percent of drug-exposed participants in Headstart preschool programs are identified as having these disabilities as early as kindergarten (Sinclair, 1998). Mood disorders, depression, and schizophrenia may have a genetic foundation (APA, 2000). Knowing ·whether biological reasons are part of the cause of a disorder can play a role in treatment. For example, knowing that depression has a biological cause allows for the development and use of medications prescribed to target this condition (Forness & Kavale, 2001). Antidepressants are now an important component in many treatment programs for depression (Pappadopulos & Jensen, 2001). As researchers continue to find biological causes, more medical treatments will become available.

Home and Community

Environment and culture are the context in which behavior unfolds (Maag, 2000). No one lives in a social vacuum. Everyone is a member of an immediate family, an extended family, or a community network (neighborhood, church, clubs). All of these environments shape and influence each individual's growth and development, whether positively or negatively. Rarely does a single negative experience lead to or aggravate emotional problems, but combinations of poverty, abuse, neglect, parental stress, inconsistent expectations and rules, confusion, and turmoil over long periods of time can do so. Being poor is a contributing factor (CDF, 2004; Hosp & Reschly, 2002). So are lack of supervision, erratic and punitive discipline, low rate of positive interactions, high rate of negative interactions, lack of interest and concern, and poor adult role models (Reid & Patterson, 1991). For example, children whose parents are violent and have arrest records also tend to become violent and to find themselves in trouble with the law (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2006; Rudo, Powell, & Dunlap, 1998). Another link with poverty is clear: Students whose family incomes are in the bottom 20 percent of American families are five times more likely to drop out of school than their peers whose family incomes are in the top 20 percent of American families (NCES, 2001).

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