Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Fostering Student Success: Five Strategies You Can (and Should) Do, Starting Next Week


Larry Kortering is a professor in the Department of Language, Reading and Exceptionalities, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina.

Youth with emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD) have a difficult time completing a high school education. Specifically, a recent report from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (2002), puts their school completion rate (including that of students with standard diplomas and alternative certificates) at less than 50%. The lack of a high school education, combined with the nature of their disability, greatly jeopardizes the likelihood they will become productive adults (Bullis, 2004). In addition, research shows that these youth seldom access services beyond those offered in high school (Hight, 1999), making their secondary special education program their final opportunity to secure an education, services or training.

Fostering success in high school for youth with EBD is challenging and complex. This article does not address this complexity, but rather outlines five practical strategies that should be a part of any secondary education program: access to vocational assessments, explicit links between learning and adult life, opportunities to control their destinies, involvement in the non-academic side of schooling, and engagement in the learning process. These strategies are low cost, ready for implementation, and come from our research over the past 12 years that has focused on improving secondary programs from the perspective of students. The research has included interviews with hundreds of youth with learning or behavior disabilities, surveys with over 5,000 high school youth, and related experiences in high school general education classrooms and various teacher workshops.

The strategies involve three assumptions about youth with EBD. First, nearly all report a desire to get a high school education (Kortering, Braziel & Tompkins, 2002). Second, they are informed consumers of high school services; they have a distinct perception of what works, services that will help them succeed, and what they want to learn (Kortering, Tompkins, & Braziel, 2002). Third, to help these youth become productive adults, we must help them access and succeed in the general education classroom. With these assumptions in mind, the remainder of this article outlines the five strategies to foster student success.

Access to Vocational Assessments

The first strategy is use of vocational assessments. Their proper use provides a basis to understand youth with EBD in terms of individual talents, weaknesses, and ambitions. Youth also enjoy participating in these assessments because they have the opportunity to focus on an exploration of themselves and to know that a school professional is interested in helping them. Generally, a minimal vocational assessment would include a background survey about their family, personal interests and ambitions, an interest inventory to establish insight into their likes and dislikes relative to career options, aptitude testing to determine if they have special talents that otherwise would go unnoticed, and personality assessment to better understand their preferences and personal style in school and work settings (see Kortering, Sitlington, & Braziel, 2004 for a further description).

Our research consistently shows that the most prominent motivation for wanting to be in school is youths’ perceptions that in some way it is preparing them for what they consider a productive adulthood. This adulthood, in their view, could entail getting them ready for college or related training, entry-level employment or simply providing them with the means to enjoy life as an adult. Teachers must nurture this motivation by providing direct links between in-school learning and their desire to have a productive life after high school. These links must be convincing in the sense that they leave school at the end of the day with the perception that what they did in school enhanced the likelihood of becoming a productive adult. Youth who fail to see this connection often turn to other options, namely the decision to drop out of school.

Opportunities to Control Destiny

The easiest strategy is to help educators learn how to provide youth with EBD opportunities to control their destiny in the classroom, a sort of self-determined learning if you will. Such opportunities range from the freedom to simply choose which problems to do (e.g., let them chose to do even or odd or any 20) to having the freedom to select how to do an assignment (e.g., with peers or not, alternative forms of test taking or demonstrating knowledge). We routinely have high school teachers reporting surprise at how responsive students become when given such opportunities.

Non-Academic Involvement

The most powerful low-cost strategy to keep youth with EBD in school is to get them involved in the non-academic side of schooling including sports, clubs, Reserve Officers Training Cadets (ROTC) or related activities. The power of this recommendation comes from giving youth a chance to participate (and often succeed) at something that, while non-academic, is school related. It also provides youth with an opportunity to work with adults and peers in an environment that generally proves less threatening. Participating in such activities helps youths to develop a sense of belonging and positive relationships, while contributing to their personal development.

Engagement in the Learning Process

The final strategy focuses on helping general educators actively engage youth with EBD. This recommendation is the most difficult to implement. Success in general education is generally the only means to obtain the level of education that allows access to suitable employment (i.e., jobs with benefits, advancement, and adequate wages) or post-secondary training. Yet, these youth consistently fail to access needed content information in their high school academic classes. Aside from the nature of their disability, these youth report that their engagement in learning hinges on access to supportive teachers who provide interesting and relevant opportunities to learn (Kortering, Braziel & Tompkins, 2002). The proper response requires that special educators help teachers move away from the traditional “talk and chalk” and “overhead” approach toward a Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This move, as it relates to UDL by offering an accessible curriculum, enhances a youth’s ability to demonstrate knowledge while accessing content in a more engaged manner that should evolve into usable learning strategies for post-school learning or work environments. With attention to UDL, teachers can reexamine their teaching with a new focus on multiple representations of course information (e.g., visual graphics to display information), means of student engagement (e.g., hands-on learning opportunities for key concepts), and student expression (e.g., allowing students options to demonstrate their learning).


In closing, we have learned that students with EBD who fail to get a basic education have very limited options as they attempt to transition from school to a productive adulthood. As teachers, we need to appreciate their unique challenges while working to do whatever it takes to help them obtain an education, including doing the five fairly simple things described in this article that can help engage them in learning.


  • Bullis, M. (2004). Hard questions and final thoughts regarding the school to community transition of adolescents with emotional or behavior disorders. In D. Cheney (Ed.), Transition of students with emotional or behavior disorders: Current approaches for positive outcome. Arlington, VA: Council for Children with Behavior Disorders and Division on Career Development and Transition.

  • Hight, J. (1998). Young worker participation in post-school education and training. Monthly Labor Review, 122, 14–21.

  • Kortering, L., Braziel, P., & Tompkins, J. (2002). The challenge of school completion among youth with behavior disorders: Another side to the story. Behavioral Disorders, 27, 142–154.

  • Kortering, L., Sitlington, P., & Braziel, P. (2004). The use of vocational assessment and planning as a strategic intervention to help keep youths with emotional or behavioral disorders in school. In D. Cheney (Ed.), Transition of students with emotional or behavior disorders: Current approaches for positive outcomes. Arlington, VA: Council for Children with Behavior Disorders and Division on Career Development and Transition.

  • Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. (2002). To ensure the free appropriate public education of all handicapped children. Twenty-second annual report to Congress. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.