Special Education Series

“Keep your emotions in check.” “Don’t let emotions distract you from doing what you need to get done.”

Friends and family, even strangers offer words of wisdom, but for people with an emotional/behavioral disability, it’s not easy.

In a school setting, students’ social, emotional or behavioral functioning can adversely affect academic progress. Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act became law 40 years ago, services have been made available to help students with an emotional/behavioral disability.

Susan Probst, School District of Milton director of student services, reports Milton High School has 25 students with emotional/behavioral disabilities. Nationally, she said 1 to 2 percent of the population is EBD.

When MHS teacher Jessica Dowd says she works with students who are “EBD,” people sometimes assume she’s working with “naughty kids.”

While Dowd has been sworn at and had a student acting out get within inches of her face, EBD encompasses much more. Many EBD behaviors are internal.


Students who are EBD may display an inability to develop or maintain satisfactory relationships; an inappropriate response to a normal situation; pervasive unhappiness, depression or anxiety; physical symptoms associated with personal or school problems; extreme withdrawal from social interaction; or extreme aggressiveness for long periods of time. Those are some of the items on a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction checklist that helps determine whether or not a student is EBD and eligible for special education services.

Another consideration on the DPI checklist is whether the behaviors occur at school and at home or in the community.

“We’ve had students who maybe struggle at school but do fine at home and in the community, so they don’t qualify for special education services,” Dowd said.

The checklist also asks if the behaviors are severe, chronic and frequent.


Once students are deemed eligible for EBD services, some are served in regular education classrooms with supplementary aids, others require self-contained or “pullout” programming. According to the DPI website, there is an increased emphasis on developing positive behavior intervention plans, as part of the Individualized Education Program when the student’s behavior impacts learning.

At one time, Dowd worked with 12 students who are EBD. Today, she along with five others are cross-categorical case managers. Not all of the 16 freshmen and sophomores with whom Dowd works are EBD. Some have other disabilities.

To an outside observer, EBD may not look like a disability.

“Sometimes people think that these students have control over their behavior when they don’t,” Probst said, clarifying that students do have some control. “They need to have the right environment to make good decisions. Please don’t hear me say, ‘We need to excuse everything they do.’ That’s not what I’m saying. Some of their behavior is just outside of their control until we teach them how to control it and provide opportunities for them to be able to control their behavior.”

A freshman who is EBD said, “Things come out of my mouth and I don’t think before I speak. I don’t mean to cause anyone hurt, but stuff comes out and I don’t realize –“

He didn’t say “implications,” but Dowd said that’s what he meant.

“A lot of times kids will speak or act one way, then feel bad afterwards, and they don’t know how to make amends for what they did,” she said.

A functional behavioral assessment helps Dowd and other case managers look at why students are doing what they’re doing. They then can create plans to improve behaviors.

At the start of the school year or semester, teachers are given student profiles. If a student has an IEP or a behavioral plan, it’s attached to the profile.

MHS math teacher Jan Bue-Wells said she reads the profiles, then sets them aside.

“I think if I’ve forgotten a student is on a plan, that’s actually a good thing,” she said, explaining that means she’s not having discipline issues.

Bue-Wells doesn’t look at students and see labels.

“I think when you teach kids, you look at them all as individuals,” she said. “A student who comes to my classroom with a disability is just one more student who has a different set of needs than everybody else in the classroom.”

Her motto is to treat students fairly, but that doesn’t mean equally.

“You look what every student needs,” she said.

She may, for example, need to approach students who are EBD differently than others by using a different choice of words or tone of voice.


Bue-Wells continued: “The path that I may lead the students on is different, but I want to get them to the same place in the end. Maybe I don’t look at the work so much but does a student know the process, can he explain it to me, can he get the right answer. I think teachers make accommodations for all sorts of students.”

Dowd and others in the special education department help teachers understand what accommodations students need.

“Where the student was seated, the amount of noise, unstructured time in class – there are a wide variety of things that can be controlled environmentally,” she said.

In turn, Dowd reminds students that everyone makes mistakes; teachers might forget what accommodations students need.

“How do you advocate for yourself?” she asks the students. “How do you learn how to do this without a plan in place? It’s problem solving with them because you can’t control everything.”

To improve behavior, Dowd also uses pre-teaching and practicing.

Say, for example, a student swears in class, Dowd will work with the student and talk about and teach different behaviors.

If the student then swears in class, a teacher can turn to the student’s individualized behavior plan, which might say ignore the behavior the first time, redirect or “Call Mrs. Dowd.”

If the situation escalates, the student may end up going to the principal’s office.

“I try to get involved before that happens so that we can process, talk things over, find out what happened and learn from it,” Dowd said.

That doesn’t always stop students who are EBD from being sent to the office.

“Sometimes it gets to the point where the choices a student has made leads to consequences for those choices,” she said.


Students who act out aren’t necessarily the most challenging.

“It’s much easier for me to deal with an explosive kid,” Dowd said. “We can talk through it. They get to a point where they are rational again and ready to move on.”

Sixteen years ago, in her first year of special education, Dowd had a student who could speak but chose not to.

“It was very hard not to take it personally,” she said. “I do better now.”

She understands when a student acts up on a Friday, it’s likely because there’s no school the next two days and he’s going to miss her and the predictability she brings to his life.

Each student exhibits a variety of different behaviors and there’s no one right way to react, she said.

“It really takes a lot of getting to know the students and understanding why they’re exhibiting the behaviors they’re exhibiting,” she said.

For Dowd, that’s not only her job, but a job she loves.

Before I.D.E.A., Probst said students who are EBD did not stay in school.

“You suspended them, expelled them because there was no obligation to educate them,” she said. “Now we are obligated. Even if a student with EBD does something expellable, the district is responsible for educating them.”

Their education will not look the same, however, as students’ who are not in special education.

Nonetheless, Probst concluded, “Lots of these kids will make a huge difference in the world when they get out there.”

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