Emotional or Behavioral Disorders: Classroom Conflicts

Winter 1994 Masthead

Terry W. Neu
Project High Hopes
Hamden, CT


Jake wears his sandy hair short and he is well built and dresses fashionably. Yet, his clothes show the signs of wear around the knees one would expect of an active young boy. Jake is twelve years old and is the youngest in the family of five children. After several years of behavioral problems in school, Jake was diagnosed as Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at a state children’s hospital. Jake received educational support services from a special education teacher. He was also involved in the gifted education program. The classroom teacher chose to restrict Jake’s access to the gifted education program as punishment for inappropriate classroom behavior. Jake has a full scale IQ score of 141.


Ethan than is a tall, slim thirteen year old seventh grader. His hair is cut short but tends to stick out from his head. He wears glasses and appears to look like the stereotypical gifted student. He enjoys baseball, is active in the Boy Scouts, reads constantly, and is involved with building models from plastic airplanes to Estes rockets that fly 1000 feet high.

Ethan’s kindergarten teacher first reported behavioral difficulty in the classroom. This resulted in a psychological assessment that determined no special services were needed at the time. In third grade Ethan was simultaneously recommended for the gifted program and for special education. Subsequently, Ethan was recommended for special education and denied entry to the gifted program due to his hyperactivity. Ethan has been identified as having ADHD by a local physician. He receives special education services while being classified as having a specific learning disability in writing skills. Ethan has a full scale IQ score of 135. He has been prescribed Ritalin and receives two doses each school day.

Gifted Students With Emotional or Behavioral Disorders

Gifted students have often been considered immune to Emotional or Behavioral Disorders (EBD). Unlike Jake, most high ability students who are also classified as having an EBD condition are eliminated in the identification process or disqualified due to classroom behavior or hyperactivity (Baum, Owen, & Dixon, 1991; Davis & Bull, 1988). In the case of Ethan, a second area of exceptionality was identified.

To learn more about twice exceptional individuals, 10 students who have simultaneously demonstrated gifted behaviors and those characteristics associated with EBD as defined by Forness and Knitzer (1990) were sought for participation in a recent study (Neu, 1993). EBD refers to a condition in which behavioral or emotional responses of an individual in school are so different from his/her generally accepted, age-appropriate, ethnic or cultural norms as to result in significant impairment in self-care, social relationships, educational progress, classroom behavior, or work adjustment.

Several students in the study by Neu were identified by professionals as having Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or oppositional defiant disorder, and in most cases were also diagnosed with a specific learning disability. Some of these students were also identified as gifted by their local school system, but few actually received the services of a gifted education program.


Qualitative methodology, including open-ended interviews, document review, and naturalistic observations of the classroom, guided the research. The researcher spent a minimum of three days in the classroom of each student as well as interviewing the parents, the students, and their teachers.

The Student in His Environment

The students in this study spent seven hours of the day, five days a week in the educational environment. The behaviors of two of the students will be highlighted.

Jake sits in a reserved seat in the front of the class next to the door. While this prevents him from interfering with other students, unfortunately it is very close to the coat rack which provides Jake with several opportunities for distraction.

The classroom teacher sits at the back of the room with her desk facing the blackboard. The student desks are aligned in five rows all facing the board. The board is covered with the day’s assignments. The students work on assignments while other members of the class attend a reading group which is held at a large table located near the windows. Jake appears to be extremely bored.


Ethan’s time in the special education resource room is shared with four students at the long work table. The student next to Ethan engages him in conversation on occasion, but they are not friends. Ethan sits with his back to the wall and leans his chair back on two legs, until the teacher corrects his position. Ethan spends little time on the class assignment, while the teacher works with other students.

Dead Time

During data analysis, recorded observations were coded for recurring themes. It became apparent that participants in this study experienced a large amount of time in school that was noted for the lack of student engagement. In the classroom observation of these students this phenomena was entitled “dead time.” Dead time owes its origin to two sources: the teacher’s use of instructional strategies and the high intellectual ability of the students. Because these students were bright, they often completed their work in less time. The material was assigned to all members of the classroom, without consideration for the advanced abilities of some students. The students in this study finished this work before their peers and entered a period of dead time. With dead time, student energy had no outlet in the classroom, and off-task behaviors occurred. The interrelationship of their high abilities, the emotional or behavioral disorder, and their academic environment contributed to excessive dead time.

For Jake dead time usually occurred when the students were called to their reading groups, and Jake and his other classmates should have been engaged in working the math problems on the board. Jake had difficulty starting the task. He talked to his neighbors or shuffled through the pile of papers in his desk until the teacher left the reading group to help Jake begin the math problems. He finished his work much earlier than his peers, and began looking for challenging work on his intellectual level to engage his time. Finding nothing stimulating, Jake glanced toward the classroom teacher to check her position. She was busy with the last reading group. Jake then moved toward the teacher’s desk. After a few moments, the teacher noticed Jake and told him to return to his desk. Jake did not respond and continued to manipulate an egg timer on the teacher’s desk. The teacher called a second time, and Jake gave no response. The teacher called Jake the third time and then started to approach him. Jake then placed the timer behind a stack of books on the teacher’s desk. The students filed out of the room to go to music and Jake looked back as he left the room with an unusual smile on his face. The egg timer subsequently went off during the interview with the researcher.

Ethan was also diagnosed with ADHD and dead time typically occurred around inappropriate instructional practice in the resource room. When Ethan was confronted with inappropriate remediation, he displayed the classic manifestations of EBD behaviors which were noticed by his teachers as seen in the following description:

Ethan received remediation in writing skills for his diagnosed learning disability in the resource room. The 50 minute period consisted of direct instruction of descriptive writing skills. Ethan had a paper clip that kept him amused for 10 minutes. He twisted it out of its original shape and invented new shapes. Ethan cleaned his finger nails with it and then would bend it around his pencil. The paper clip proved to be much more interesting than his assigned task. Ethan finally turned to the required assignment and finished quickly. Ethan occupied himself the last 15 minutes of class by reading an article in The National Geographic.


Behaviors Observed

These short scenarios depict emotional or behavioral disordered behaviors commonly used in the identification of ADHD (American Psychological Association, 1987).

  • often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat
  • has difficulty remaining seated when required to do so
  • is easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  • has difficulty following through on instructions from others
  • has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities

At the same time, these students demonstrated above average abilities. Both of these students completed unchallenging work quickly, and in most cases before their peers. They also completed work accurately and, in some cases, Ethan’s other teachers even used his worksheets as an answer key to correct his peers’ papers.


hen Jake and Ethan hit dead time, EBD behaviors drew the teacher’s attention. In both cases, the regular classroom instruction was below the intellectual needs of the individual student. Jake and Ethan had difficulty starting their work, yet still finished work before many of their peers. The challenge, then, for educators is to escalate the level of curricular opportunities; otherwise these students will camouflage their high abilities and enter into “dead time.”

American Psychological Association. (1987). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed., rev. ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Baum, S. M., Owen, S. V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To be gifted and learning disabled: From identification to practical intervention strategies. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Davis, C. R., & Bull, K. S. (1988). Emotionally disturbed gifted/talented students in rural schools. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 8(4), 15-22.
Forness, S. R., & Knitzer, J. (1990). A new proposed definition and terminology to replace “Serious emotional disturbance” in education of the handicapped act. The National Mental Health and Special Education Coalition.
Neu, T. W. (1993). Case studies of gifted students with emotional or behavioral disorders. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT.


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