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).

Internalizing Behaviors

Some children with emotional and behavioral disorders are anything but aggressive. Their problem is the opposite—too little social interaction with others. They are said to have internalizing behavioral disorders. Although children who consistently act immaturely and withdrawn do not present the threat to others that antisocial children do, their behavior creates a serious impediment to their development. These children seldom play with others their own age. They usually do not have the social skills needed to make friends and have fun, and they often retreat into daydreams and fantasies. Some are fearful of things without reason, frequently complain of being sick or hurt, and go into deep bouts of depression. Obviously, such behavior limits a child’s chances to take part in and learn from the school and leisure activities in which normal children participate.

Children who exhibit the internalizing behaviors characteristic of some types of anxiety and mood disorders may be less disturbing to classroom teachers than are antisocial children. Because of this, they are in danger of not being identified. Happily, the outlook is fairly good for the child with mild or moderate degrees of withdrawn and immature behavior who is fortunate enough to have competent teachers and other school professionals responsible for his development. Carefully targeting the social and self-determination skills the child should learn and systematically arranging opportunities for and reinforcing those behaviors often prove successful.

It is a grave mistake, however, to believe that children with emotional disorders that result primarily in internalizing behaviors have only mild and transient problems. The severe anxiety and mood disorders experienced by some children not only cause pervasive impairments in their educational performance—they also threaten their very existence. Indeed, without identification and effective treatment, the extreme emotional disorders of some children can lead to self-inflicted injury or even death from substance abuse, starvation, or suicidal behavior.

Academic Achievement

Most students with emotional and behavioral disorders perform one or more years below grade level academically (Cullinan, 2002). Many of these students exhibit significant deficiencies in reading (Coleman & Vaughn, 2000; Maughan, Pickles, Hagell, Rutter, & Yule, 1996) and in math achievement (Greenbaum et al., 1996). In addition to the challenges to learning caused by their behavioral excesses and deficits, many students with emotional or behavioral disorders also have learning disabilities and/or language delays, which compound their difficulties in mastering academic skills and content (Glassberg, Hooper, & Mattison, 1999; Kaiser, Hancock, Cai, Foster, & Hester, 2000).

The following dismal academic outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral disorders are derived from several nationwide studies (Chesapeake Institute, 1994; U.S. Department of Education, 1998, 1999; Valdes, Williamson, & Wagner, 1990):

  • Two-thirds cannot pass competency exams for their grade level.
  • They have the lowest grade-point average of any group of students with disabilities.
  • They have the highest absenteeism rate of any group of students.
  • Only 20%–25% leave high school with a diploma or certificate of completion, compared to 50% of all students with disabilities and 76% of all youth in the general population.
  • More than 50% drop out of high school.

The strong correlation between low academic achievement and behavioral problems is not a one-way relationship. The disruptive and defiant behavior of students with emotional and behavioral disorders “almost always leads to academic failure. This failure, in turn, predisposes them to further antisocial conduct” (Hallenbeck & Kauffman, 1995, p. 64).


Many more children with emotional and behavioral disorders score in the slow learner or mildly retarded range on IQ tests than do children without disabilities. Valdes et al. (1990) reported a mean IQ of 86 for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, with about half of their sample scoring between 71 and 90. The students in a study by Cullinan, Epstein, and Sabornie (1992) had an average IQ score of 92.6. On the basis of his review of research related to the intelligence of children with emotional and behavioral disorders, Kauffman (2005) concluded that “although the majority fall only slightly below average in IQ, a disproportionate number, compared to the normal distribution, score in the dull normal and mildly retarded range, and relatively few fall in the upper ranges”.

Whether children with emotional and behavioral disorders actually have any less real intelligence than do children without disabilities is difficult to say. An IQ test measures how well a child performs certain tasks at the time and place the test is administered. It is almost certain that the disturbed child’s inappropriate behavior has interfered with past opportunities to learn many of the tasks included on the test. Rhode et al. (1998) estimate that the average student actively attends to the teacher and to assigned work approximately 85% of the time, but that students with behavior disorders are on task only about 60% or less of the time. This difference in on-task behavior can have a dramatic impact on academic learning.

Social Skills and Interpersonal Relationships

The ability to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships during childhood and adolescence is an important predictor of present and future adjustment. As might be expected, many students with emotional and behavioral disorders experience great difficulty in making and keeping friends (Cartledge & Milburn, 1995; Gresham, Lane, MacMillan, & Bocian, 1999). The results of a study by Schonert-Reichl (1993) comparing the social relationships of secondary students with behavioral disorders with those of same-age peers without disabilities is typical of much of the published literature on social skills of students with emotional and behavioral disorders. The students with behavioral disorders reported lower levels of empathy toward others, participation in fewer curricular activities, less frequent contacts with friends, and lower-quality relationships than were reported by their peers without disabilities.