Like many high school seniors, Nate, 18, is looking forward to attending college in the fall. But the Kensington resident says he wasn't always as interested in the future.

A former chronic truant, he is graduating from the Broschart School, a high school at the Psychiatric Institute treatment facility in Rockville. It is one of a few educational programs in the area that serve emotionally disturbed students.

At Broschart Nate was a National Merit Scholar semifinalist, a writer and editor of the school magazine, and played Romeo in a school production.

Before enrolling at Frostburg State College in Western Maryland this fall, he plans to spend the summer working in a record store, traveling and learning to drive. At Frostburg, he hopes to work at the campus radio station as a disc jockey.

Four years ago, Nate had few plans. As a ninth-grader at Montgomery Village Junior High in Gaithersburg, Nate attended school "off and on" and earned poor grades, he said. For weeks in a row, he would skip classes to spend solitary days sleeping, watching television, reading science fiction or playing the fantasy game, Dungeons and Dragons. Nate said he had been unhappy since the fourth grade.

"I found it really hard to make friends," he said. "I didn't really like most of the people and I resented the popular people. I wore a cowboy hat and boots to prove that I was different than them because I didn't like them."

One morning Nate refused to get out of bed and was in a "catatonic state," his mother said. He had to be taken to a hospital emergency room and revived with smelling salts. She said her son was not taking drugs and was never violent.

Montgomery County school officials recommended that the teen-ager seek psychiatric treatment. After that, during a four-month stay at the private Psychiatric Institute, his attitude toward school began to improve, Nate said. After he moved back home he continued over the next three years to return to the institute for classes as a day student at Broschart.

"I really blossomed there," Nate said. "Everybody was so nice, which made me more trusting."

Of his earlier days, he says: "I was very much a little immature brat."

Although emotionally disturbed students account for the smallest number of all handicapped students, it is the most common handicap for adolescents, according to one Montgomery school official. Emotional problems usually peak in adolescence because children become difficult to control physically and begin experiencing more emotional pressure than they are used to, the official said.

Their families get tired and their coping controls break down, she said.

Special schools such as Broschart "broaden what you normally define as education" for these children in conflict, said Ronald S. LaNeve, principal of another such facility, the Montgomery County-run Mark Twain School for emotionally disturbed students in Rockville.

In addition to a basic academic education, the schools have special education teachers, small classes and daily counseling or psychiatric therapy sessions. All of the schools bring families in for joint counseling.

Recreational activities and trips are organized on weekends and after school to help students in the development of social behavior. Relationships between students and staff members tend to be close, with some teachers helping families in crisis after school and on weekends, officials said. Of his teachers, LaNeve said: "They save lives; they salvage lives."

The discipline code at the special schools is usually tougher than elsewhere. Consequences for hitting or being disrespectful to a teacher at Mark Twain can vary depending on the student's level of achievement: A new student might be given more leeway than a longtime student, LaNeve said.

At Broschart, in contrast with the public schools, students are not allowed to wear T-shirts with slogans referring to rock 'n' roll, drugs or drinking and male students are not allowed to wear earrings. Privileges to walk in certain hallways or eat lunch in the courtyard have to be earned. Random urine checks are made to detect drug use.

The mother of another Broschart student said staff members and students at her son's school confront him when he exhibits any defensive behavior, and, as a result, he has become a "child you can live with. Instead of reaching out and punching a wall, he'll say: 'Hey, that makes me really angry,' " she said.

Her son, now in ninth grade, has an IQ of about 120 but is also learning disabled, the most common secondary diagnosis paired with emotional problems, according to school officials. He enrolled in one of the county's private schools for emotionally disturbed students two years ago after an episode in which he tried to choke his mother.

Emotionally disturbed children come from every economic and social background, school officials said.

"There isn't a typical child," said a student placement officer in Montgomery. Students can exhibit aggressiveness and violence or be passive and withdrawn but nonproductive, officials said.

Some children simply react poorly to a crisis, such as divorce or moving. School truancy, breaking the law, depression, suicide attempts and running away from home are common signs of disturbance. Principal LaNeve said 50 percent of his students have had drug problems, but said he believes most drug use is a symptom of other problems.

School officials say more children are being identified these days as emotionally disturbed than a decade ago. They say this is the result of increased sensitivity to emotional problems, better diagnostic methods and special programs and schools mandated by a 1975 federal law requiring public education for handicapped children.

There are 737 students in public and private schools in Montgomery County whose primary handicap is emotional impairment, up from 583 students in 1980, county school officials said. Prince George's County currently has identified 375 emotionally impaired students, up from 301 students in 1981.

LaNeve says there are other reasons behind the increase in emotional trouble for children: Families tend to move more, children are sometimes left on their own when both parents work, and divorce is more prevalent. And the availability of drugs "puts a tremendous amount of stress on those kids when they are not ready to deal with it and they have to," the principal said.

For purposes of public education, Maryland categorizes emotionally disturbed children in six levels, with "Level 6" being the most severe and requiring residential treatment.

"Level 5" children with emotional troubles attend day-long programs at separate public or private schools in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Montgomery's private facilities include the Frost School, Chestnut Lodge school and Broschart, all in Rockville. The Montgomery school system operates the Mark Twain School and, along with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents (RICA), both in Rockville. Chestnut Lodge, Broschart and RICA also have residential students.

In Prince George's County, there is also a county and state-operated RICA in Cheltenham and the private Edgemeade School in Croom. Baltimore also has a RICA.

The counties pay for any private education they recommend, using some state and federal funding. The average annual cost of a day program is between $11,000 to $25,000, and a residential program, $35,000 to $45,000, officials in both counties said.

Regular schools in both counties serve students with less severe emotional problems with day-long programs or by including counseling sessions in the students' regular school day. All of the Maryland programs care for students up to age 21, as mandated by the state's special education law.

The average stay at the schools is about two years.