Disturbance - The Federal Definition of an Emotional Disturbance
IDEA and Emotional Disturbance: Long
ago school staff figured out that some students had the
intellectual ability to do well in school, and yet did not.
These students sometimes had difficulty building connections with
others, demonstrated challenging behaviors, were fearful of things
other students were not, and/or were clearly unhappy.
Sometimes, in fact, it was nearly impossible to figure out what
the problem was. Well, in some cases these students were
suffering from what IDEA
eventually defined as an emotional disturbance.
Maybe your school district calls it a Serious Emotional
Disturbance. Perhaps on their IEP
paperwork it says Emotional Disability. Regardless, according to
the U.S. Department of Education, IDEA defines an Emotional
"a condition exhibiting one or more of the following
characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree
that adversely affects a child's educational performance:
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by
intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal
relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated
with personal or school problems.
In addition, Nichy.org
reminds as that, "As defined by the IDEA, emotional disturbance
includes schizophrenia but does not apply to children who are
socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an
emotional disturbance." [Code of Federal Regulation, Title 34,
Usual Diagnoses Don't Necessarily
Oftentimes DSM-IV related diagnoses such as clinical depression,
which might be tied to characteristic C of the emotional
disturbance guidelines- a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or
depression- accompany an educational emotional disturbance
classification. Same thing could be said for a DSM-IV
anxiety disorder of some sort impacting or being correlated with
characteristic E- a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears
associated with personal or school problems. That said, the
term Emotional Disturbance as it relates to IDEA is not the same
thing as a DSM-IV diagnosis often made by a psychiatrist or
An Emotional Disturbance is an educational classification, tied to
education services. In that sense it is separate from
other diagnoses made by a psychiatrist, etc., even if the two can
sometimes go hand in hand. IDEA does not necessarily mandate
a DSM-IV diagnosis for a student to qualify for an Emotional
Disturbance under any of the characteristics. Still, there
should be evidence, of course, of an emotional disturbance.
You need data that supports the confirmation of one of the ED
characteristics in order to determine that a student does/does not
qualify for such an educational classification.
Speaking of qualifying, applying the criteria of the presenting
behavioral/emotional issue being present for a long time, to a
marked degree, and with an adverse effect on educational
performance is key. Even if there is a psychiatric
diagnosis, if the emotional problem does not have an adverse
effect on educational performance then the student does not
qualify for special education services.
Which leads us to the regular education interventions piece of all
of this. For some states this means RTI.
Emotional Disturbance, and a Changing Mindset
School teams have an obligation to make recommendations based on a
student's least restrictive environment. Loosely, this
translates to keeping them in programs that their non-disabled
peers engage in to the greatest extent possible. Thus,
schools often attempt to intervene with regular education means
prior to a referral for all disabilities, Emotional Disturbance
included. The idea is that a student doesn't require special
education services if a change in instruction at the regular
education level can get them to progress educationally in the way
that they should.
A March 2000 offering from the Center For Effective Collaboration
and Practice American Institutes for Research entitled Educational
Strategies for Children with Emotional and Behavioral Problems
referenced that research was being funded at the time by the U.S.
Department of Education, Office of Special Education
programs. This research was focused on a three-tiered
prevention model for addressing the behavior of all students and
suggested that schools implement it. That model sounded a
lot like the new trend in education for addressing student
needs within their regular education environment.
You may have heard of it. It's called Response to
Intervention or RTI. RTI is one way of getting to scientific
research based interventions (SRBI), which are gaining steam,
particularly in regard to qualifying for special education
services via a learning
disability. However, some schools across the country are now
applying similar techniques and ideology in the
Basically, RTI involves a three tiered approach to interventions
for students in need. It is heavily reliant on using
research based practices, starting in the classroom at tier 1 and
moving to more focused, small group interventions when these may
not work in tier 2. RTI is progressive in that even more
time intensive, supported, and targeted interventions are
attempted at tier 3 if tier 2 strategies are unsuccessful.
Regular progress monitoring is key toward determining if these
interventions, often of a regular education nature, are working.
With the advent of RTI procedures beginning to take hold in
districts everywhere, there may be a changing mindset regarding
what an adverse affect on educational performance is, as it
relates to an Emotional Disturbance classification. Teams
have always attempted regular education strategies before making
referrals, but the formulization of this may work toward lessening
such referrals for an Emotional Disturbance, in that more students
may begin to make good progress via regular education
interventions and therefore not qualify for special education
interventions (it may be deemed that their emotional issues do not
have a strong enough effect on their educational performance to
qualify, based on their progress in a less restrictive