Definition of Emotional Disturbance
NICHEY Fact Sheet Number 5 (FS5),
National Information Center for
Children and Youth with Disabilities
DEFINITION OF EMOTIONAL
Many terms are used to describe emotional, behavioral or mental disorders. Currently,
students with such disorders are categorized as having a serious emotional disturbance,
which is defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as follows:
"...a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a
long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects educational
(A) An inability to learn
that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;As defined by the IDEA, serious
emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia but does not apply to children who
are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have a serious emotional
disturbance. [Code of Federal Regulation, Title 34, Section 300.7(b)(9)]
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships
with peers and teachers;
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal
or school problems." [Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34, Section 300.7(b)(9)]
It is important to know that the Federal government is currently reviewing the
way in which serious emotional disturbance is defined and that the definition
may be revised.
For the 1998-99 school year, 463,172 children and youth with a serious emotional
disturbance were provided services in the public schools (Twenty-Second Annual
Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Education, 2000).
The causes of emotional disturbance have not been adequately determined. Although
various factors such as heredity, brain disorder, diet, stress, and family functioning
have been suggested as possible causes, research has not shown any of these factors
to be the direct cause of behavior problems. Some of the characteristics and behaviors
seen in children who have emotional disturbances include:
Hyperactivity (short attention
span, impulsiveness); Children with the most serious
emotional disturbances may exhibit distorted thinking, excessive anxiety, bizarre
motor acts, and abnormal mood swings and are sometimes identified as children
who have a severe psychosis or schizophrenia.
behavior (acting out, fighting);
Withdrawal (failure to initiate
interaction with others; retreat from exchanges of social interaction, excessive
fear or anxiety);
crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills); and
Learning difficulties (academically
performing below grade level).
Many children who do not have emotional disturbances may display some of these
same behaviors at various times during their development. However, when children
have serious emotional disturbances, these behaviors continue over long periods
of time. Their behavior thus signals that they are not coping with their environment
The educational programs for students with a serious emotional disturbance need
to include attention to mastering academics, developing social skills, and increasing
self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-control. Career education (both academic
and vocational programs) is also a major part of secondary education and should
be a part of every adolescent's transition plan in his or her Individualized Education
Behavior modification is one of the most widely used approaches to helping children
with a serious emotional disturbance. However, there are many other techniques
that are also successful and may be used in combination with behavior modification.
Life Space Intervention and Conflict Resolution are two such techniques.
Students eligible for special education services under the category of serious
emotional disturbance may have IEPs that include psychological or counseling services
as a related service. This is an important related service which is available
under the law and is to be provided by a qualified social worker, psychologist,
guidance counselor, or other qualified personnel.
There is growing recognition that families, as well as their children, need support,
respite care, intensive case management services, and multi-agency treatment plan.
Many communities are working toward providing these wrap-around services, and
there are a growing number of agencies and organizations actively involved in
establishing support services in the community. Parent support groups are also
important, and organizations such as the Federation of Families for Children's
Mental Health and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) have parent
representatives and groups in every state. Both of these organizations are listed
under the resource section of this fact sheet.
Families of children with emotional disturbances may need help in understanding
their children's condition and in learning how to work effectively with them.
Help is available from psychiatrists, psychologists or other mental health professionals
in public or private mental health settings. Children should be provided services
based on their individual needs, and all persons who are involved with these children
should be aware of the care they are receiving. It is important to coordinate
all services between home, school, and therapeutic community with open communication.
Adamec, C. (1996). How to live with a mentally ill person: A handbook of day-to-day
strategies. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons. (Telephone: 1-800-225-5945.)
Hatfield, A.B. (1991). Coping with mental illness in the family: A family guide
(Rev. ed.) Arlington, VA: National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. [Product # 082.
Telephone: (800) 950-6264.]
Jordan, D. (1996). A guidebook for parents of children with emotional or behavior
disorders. Minneapolis, MN: PACER Center. [Telephone: (612) 827-2966.]
Jordan, D. (1995). Honorable intentions: A parent's guide to educational planning
for children with emotional or behavioral disorders. Minneapolis, MN: PACER
Center. [See telephone number above.]
Koplewicz, H.S. (1996). It's nobody's fault: New hope and help for difficult
children. New York: Random House/Times Books. (Telephone: 1-800-733-3000.)
Wilen, T.E. (1998). Straight talk about psychiatric medications for kids.
New York: Guilford. (Telephone: 1-800-365-7006.)
Updated, January 2001
This fact sheet is made
possible through Cooperative Agreement #H326N980002 between the Academy for
Educational Development and the Office of Special Education Programs. The contents
of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the
Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products
or organizations imply endorsement by the U. S. Government.
This information is in the
public domain unless otherwise indicated. Readers are encouraged to copy and
share it, but please credit the National Information Center for Children and
Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY).
National Information Center
for Children and Youth with Disabilities
P.O. Box 1492
Washington, DC 20013
Web site: http://www.nichcy.org/