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Changing the stigma of emotional disturbance in schools

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One of the most misunderstood groups of kids in schools are those diagnosed with an emotional disturbance. The stigma is so severe, that it is not uncommon to hear special educators try to find a way to have a student's IEP classify the student as Other Health Impaired (OHI) rather than Emotionally Disturbed (ED). These students are often whispered about and find themselves often not wanted in the general public school setting by students, teachers, administrators, and parents. There isn't always something we can do about how parents feel, but there is something that can be done about how we feel and the way we project those feelings to the students.

How can schools and teacher change the stigma?

  • It is important to always remember that students, no matter their diagnosis, are still kids. You may have to talk to them in a different way, give them time to themselves, help them focus by rubbing lotion on their hands or never touch them at all; they are kids.
  • Not all students with an ED diagnosis are dangerous. With school shootings and bullying taking a forefront in the media (both the news and entertainment), it is commonly thought that a student with a mental illness is a danger to everyone around them and could suddenly "snap" at any time; stigmatizing these kids as completely unsafe in the general classroom. This is simply untrue. Many students with an ED diagnosis just need the opportunity to learn how to handle the ups and downs of their illness, recognize when they need a break, and be given the chance.
  • Some emotional disturbances are genetic disorders or caused from other illnesses/conditions and not because of trauma. No matter what the cause is for the emotional disturbance, these kids should not be looked at as "damaged goods".
  • Students with ED can be successful in a general classroom setting. There may be some things that teachers need to keep in mind when working with a student who is diagnosed with an emotional disturbance, but the number one thing to remember is that these kids can and need to learn how to be a part of a general classroom so that they can be a successful part of society as adults.
  • When talking about the student with other teachers and administrators, don't immediately share that the student is emotionally disturbed. Share positive information and ask for ideas or help only when truly needed. Often times these kids are "known" before teachers even meet them because stories have been told and talked about all over the school. It may seem like it's good to warn teachers and let them know what they're "getting into", but it often is not as helpful as it is meant to be.

Ending the stigma can be as simple (or difficult) as giving each student an opportunity to be successful no matter the diagnosis, giving each student what he/she needs, and spreading positive information about the student. We can end the stigma for these students and show them that they are worth the time and energy to help them be successful.

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