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Emotional 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 Disturbance as: 

"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 circumstances.
(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, Section 300.7(c)(4)(ii)]

Usual Diagnoses Don't Necessarily Apply

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 psychologist. 

An Emotional Disturbance is an educational classification, tied to special 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.


Educational Performance, 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 behavioral/emotional realm.

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 environment).

References

CECP.Air.org

IDEA.Ed.gov

Nichcy.org


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