Mental Health and Special Education: Emotional Disturbance Classification

Rates of childhood behavior problems, anxiety and depression are rising significantly. Many mental health disorders develop in early childhood, yet go undiagnosed and untreated for years. According to the CDC:

7.4% of children aged 3-17 have a diagnosed behavior problem,

7.1% of children aged 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety and

3.2% of children aged 3-17 have diagnosed depression.

Children’s Mental Health (CDC)

Imagine what the percentages are if we included all of the undiagnosed children. As significant as these numbers are, there still seems to be a stigma surrounding mental health and finding the necessary help can still be such a struggle. That is another conversation for another time but what I want you to know is that if your child is suffering from anxiety or depression, you can get accommodations in school under the classification of “Emotional Disturbance”.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an emotional disturbance is a condition where the child exhibits one or more of the following over a long period of time (courts interpret this usually as over several months) and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

1. An inability to learn that can’t be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors. This characteristic requires documentation that a student is not able to learn, despite appropriate instructional strategies and/or support services. A comprehensive and differential assessment must be performed to establish an “inability to learn.” The assessment should rule out any other primary reasons for the suspected disability.

2. An inability to build or maintain appropriate relationships with peers and teachers. This characteristic requires documentation that the student is unable to initiate or to maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers across different settings and situations. Satisfactory interpersonal relationships include the ability to demonstrate sympathy, warmth and empathy toward others; establish and maintain friendships; be constructively assertive; and work and play independently. This characteristic does not refer to the student who has conflict with only one teacher or with certain peers.

3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances. This characteristic requires documentation that the student’s inappropriate behavior or feelings deviate significantly from expectations for the student’s age, gender and culture across different environments. The IEP Committee must determine whether the student’s inappropriate responses are occurring “under normal circumstances.” When considering “normal circumstances,” the IEP Committee should take into account whether a student’s home or school situation is disrupted by stress, recent changes, or unexpected events.

4. A general pervasive depression or unhappiness. This characteristic requires documentation that the student’s unhappiness or depression is occurring across most, if not all, of the student’s life situations. The student must demonstrate a consistent pattern of depression or unhappiness over several months. In other words, this pattern is not a temporary response to situational factors or to a medical condition. The characteristics should not be a secondary manifestation attributable to substance abuse, medication or a general medical condition and they cannot be the effect of normal bereavement.

5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems. These are symptoms that present no demonstrable medical findings and that the child is not conscious of intentionally producing the symptoms associated to their mental health.

An emotional disturbance includes mental health illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) but does not apply to the student who may be socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they also have an emotional disturbance from the list above as well. A social maladjustment is a persistent pattern of violating societal norms, such as multiple acts of truancy, or substance or sex abuse, and is marked by struggle with authority, low frustration threshold, impulsivity, or manipulative behaviors.

Students eligible for special education services under the category of emotional disturbance may have IEPs that include psychological or counseling services. These mental health services are available under IDEA and are to be provided by a qualified social worker, psychologist, guidance counselor, or other qualified personnel.

If you feel your child does in fact have an emotional disturbance, reach out to your school and start a conversation. All it takes is a little collaboration between you and your child’s school to get the ball rolling and get your child the mental health services they need to be their best selves. It is never too late.

Good luck!