Self-contained classrooms for students designated with "emotional disturbances" need to create a structured and safe environment for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities to learn appropriate ways to interact with peers and adults. The final goal of a self-contained program is for students to exit and join the general education population in regular classrooms.
Students with SED's may be included in general education classrooms with support from a special educator. In many cases, when a student's behavior puts him or herself at risk, or threatens typical peers, they may be placed in self-contained settings. Sometimes, when children have come to the attention of law enforcement because of violent or destructive behavior, they may return from some form of confinement to a residential program. Decisions are often made on LRE (Least Restrictive Environment) based on the safety of the student, peers and teachers. Because these special placements are very expensive, many school districts look to self-contained programs to help students with Severe Emotional Disturbances re-enter the general education population.
Critical Elements of a Successful Classroom
Structure, Structure, Structure: Your classroom needs to exude structure. Desks should be in rows, evenly spaced (maybe even measure and mark each spot with tape.) and should be aligned so that students cannot make faces at each other. Trust me, they'll try. Classroom rules and reinforcement charts need to be clearly displayed.
Be sure that all materials or resources are easily available, and that your classroom layout requires as little movement as possible. Students with Emotional Disturbances will use sharpening a pencil as an opportunity to annoy a neighbor.
Routines: I make no bones about the fact that I am a devotee of Harry Wong's excellent book, The First Days of School, which lays out ways to create routines for a classroom to run smoothly. You teach the routines. You practice the routines. You make very sure that everyone (even you) follow the routines and execute them with fidelity.
Routines require a teacher to anticipate the sorts of challenges he or she will meet. It's wise for new teachers or new emotional support teachers to ask a veteran special educator to help them anticipate the kinds of problems that you will meet in an Emotional Disturbance program, so you can build routines that will avoid those pitfalls.
A Token Economy: A lottery system works well in general education classrooms to reward and reinforce appropriate behavior, but students in an Emotional Disturbance classroom need ongoing reinforcement for appropriate, replacement behavior. A token economy can be designed in a way that connects it to individual behavior plans (BIP) or a behavior contract to identify target behaviors.
Reinforcement and Consequences: A self contained classroom needs to be rich in reinforcers. They can be preferred items, preferred activities, and access to the computer or media. Making it clear that these reinforcers can be earned through following rules and appropriate behavior. Consequences also need to be clearly defined and clearly explained, so students know what those consequences are and under what circumstances they are put in place. Obviously, students can't be allowed to suffer "natural consequences," (i.e. if you run in the street you get hit by a car,) but instead should experience "logical consequences." Logical Consequences are a feature of Adlerian psychology, popularized by Jim Fay, co-author of Parenting with Love and Logic. Logical consequences have a logical connection to the behavior: if you tear up your shirt during a rant, you get to wear my ugly, ill-fitting shirt.
Reinforcement needs to be things that your students actually find important enough to work for: although "age appropriate" is the mantra of the day, if behavior is extreme, the most important factor has to be that it works. Create menus of appropriate reinforcers from which students can choose.
Choose or design reinforcers that you can pair with replacement behaviors. For example, a certain number of days with a certain number of points, and the student gets to eat lunch in the lunch room with a partner class. A certain number of day with a certain number of points might also earn a student the opportunity to invite a typical peer to play a game in the ED room.