Children with emotional disturbances that interfere with their ability to make adequate progress in the general curriculum are eligible for special education. It is important to understand what an emotional disturbance is, how it is identified and what types of services are available to help students with this disability because not every student with emotional difficulties has a disability, as that term is defined by special education law.
The Definition of an Emotional Disturbance
The federal regulations define an emotional disturbance as follows:(4)
(i) Emotional disturbance means 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.
(ii) Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance under paragraph (c)(4)(i) of this section. It is important to note that an emotional disturbance, for purposes of special education, is not meant to be a student's reaction to a sudden trauma. For example, a child who is grieving the loss of a parent or other close relative may be experiencing emotions that are adversely affecting the child's educational performance to a marked degree. However, unless the student is experiencing one of the five characteristics described above for a long period of time, that child does not qualify for special education. That said, the child should receive support in the school setting and the teachers and administrators should provide the necessary general education services to prevent the child from falling behind academically. Assessment of a Suspected Emotional Disturbance
A student who is referred for a special education evaluation because of a possible emotional disturbance must go through the same special education evaluation that other students are required to go through before being found eligible for special education.
At a minimum, the assessment should include an evaluation by a certified school psychologist, teacher reports, teacher observations, academic assessments and any psychological or medical information that the parent wishes to share with the IEP evaluation team.
Services for Students with Emotional Disturbances
All special education students have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and students with emotional disturbances are no exception. That means that an IEP Team must convene and develop a plan for special education services that will benefit that individual student and allow the student to make progress in the general curriculum. For some students, that might mean regular visits with the school psychologist or social worker and a positive behavior intervention plan. For other students, that might mean a self contained classroom or an approved private school where therapeutic services are woven into the school day.
An emotional disturbance is a very real and often lifelong disability for many people. Like all students with disabilities, students with emotional disturbances need early intervention services in order to have the greatest chance of success in school and in their post-graduate lives.