May 10, 2018

Designing Classrooms for Students with EMDs

By Christopher L. Daikos MiT, MEd, EdS

One of the greatest social justice challenges facing educators today is how to best serve children with Emotional Behavioral Disabilities (EBD). Many students come to school with entrenched emotional and/or behavioral difficulties that impede their and other students’ ability to access their education. External behaviors typically associated with these students exhibit a range of social, emotional, and behavioral problems, including physical aggression, school refusal, bullying, and defiance towards authority.

The Department of Education’s 36th Annual Report on Individuals with Disabilities Act indicated that students who have been identified as EBD represent 6.2% of the student population, a subset population within Special Education that has consistently increased annually. Nationally students with disabilities have a graduation rate of 63% (Department of Education 2015), yet students with EBD have a national graduation well below 50%. With the current model of training, facilities and services in place we see results in which students with EBD are arrested at a rate of 60% prior to leaving school and 40% are on probation prior to leaving school. The data clearly indicates, nationally, the services we provide students with EBD result in the strongest conduit in the school to prison pipeline. This is a national crisis that few are paying attention to. Those involved in designing and outfitting educational spaces can help right this wrong.

How Did We Get Here?
To qualify for special education services for EBD, schools must first attempt two evidence-based interventions to address behaviors of concern. If the interventions fail, students are assessed based on the following criteria set by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which defines EBD as meeting one or more of the following criteria:
  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  • An ina­bility to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

The challenges presented by students with EBD cuts across disciplinary, instructional, and interpersonal domains, which frequently results in chaotic school and classroom environments. The characteristics of students with EBD can overwhelm the ability and capacity of schools and staff to effectively accommodate their instructional and social-emotional needs. Consequently, more than any other group, students with EBD are placed and educated in restrictive educational settings sequestered from their peers. Such spaces tend to be located in areas that have the least impact on others when students in EBD classes have emotional outbursts. It is not uncommon to find EBD classes in portables or in remote locations within the building. 

Historically such restrictive spaces were used as a dystopian daycare for some of our neediest students. Restrictive educational settings with no standardized approach towards student intervention have been troubling when considering the results of the poor services and outcomes for these students. The need to provide intentionally designed spaces to provide evidenced-based interventions for students with EBD is paramount and could result in the greatest impact on school wide discipline and improve the life outcomes of some our neediest students.

What Can We Do?
Meeting the unique needs of students with EBD and simultaneously maintaining a safe and orderly school environment that is conducive to learning places a tremendous amount of stress on educators. Historically school design has been a one size fits all approach. When designing spaces to serve children with EBD, before the first architectural design is drawn educators and architects need to work together to account for a safe and secure space for counseling and therapy, private meeting space for small group and individual interventions, safety exits for students and staff, restorative space, just to name a few.

Incorporating the above elements I worked with Architect Daniel Gero of Integrus Architecture in Seattle and generated the following design. The space below incorporates two classrooms providing all the elements needed for a successful EBD classroom. With consideration that the typical EBD class has 9 to 11 students with 1 teacher and 2 support staff we decided to remove a wall and replace it with a retractable divider. This means that educators can team 18-22 students with 2 teachers and 4 support staff. 

Larger Design Elements
A school psychologist should have access to a private space within the class or close to it to allow consistent communication among the education staff. The intent on such communication is to make certain interventions are informed with the students needs and that they are done with fidelity. Too often children with EBD receive counseling outside of the school with no control of quality and evidence-based counseling practices. An additional beneficial factor is the opportunity for family members to be onsite when attending family counseling sessions, which are an integral component to cognitive behavior therapy.

Our design provides a space for restorative practices. This space is referred to as the Boring Room, situated between the counseling room and the teachers’ office. The intent of this space is for students to have a quiet area to reflect on inappropriate behaviors through a restorative exercise. 

The above design is our first attempt to support a population who represent some of the neediest students in our schools. In general, current practices in EBD classes continue to result in more negative life outcomes than not. We encourage other educators, manufacturers, designers and architects to take on one the greatest social justice challenges that we face in our communities today. In a society that provides compensatory education we must be aware that all students enter our schools with some unique needs, some more acute than others. It is our responsibility to meet those needs and provide the appropriate space that facilitates all services and interventions needed to support children with EBD.

About the Author:
Christopher Daikos is an Educational/Psychological Consultant at Continua Group in Seattle, WA. He works with school district administration and staff for the design and implementation of special education interventions. Chris holds master’s degrees in special education and educational leadership and policies, and is pursuing a PhD in education psychology from the University of Washington.

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