Emotional Disability

IDEA 2004 Definition of Emotional Disability/Emotional Disturbance

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:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

Emotional disability includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

General Characteristics of Emotional Disturbance vs. Social Maladjustment

A student who receives special education services under the category of Emotional Disability has emotional problems of some kind that are adversely affecting his/her educational performance. Usually schools look at grades, discipline records, and performance on achievement tests to quantify educational impact. In determining eligibility for Emotional Disability, several evaluations are typically completed. A school will conduct psychological testing by a school psychologist, which will include cognitive testing and social/emotional measures (rating scales, interviews, observations). Educational testing is typically completed to determine current levels of achievement in reading, writing, math, and other educational areas. Additionally, a Sociocultural evaluation or interview by a school social worker is typically completed with a parent to rule out environmental factors and obtain a developmental history. (See SPED testing for more information)

Often, the most difficult part of determining eligibility for special education services in this category is determining if the student has an emotional disability or social maladjustment. The following is adapted from a chart that was shown at a training I attended by Bruce Bracken. He adapted it from Social Maladjustment: A Guide to Differential Diagnosis and Educational Options (Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency – Michigan, 2004).

Behavior Area Emotional Disturbance Socially Maladjusted
School Behavior
Unable to comply with teacher requests; needy or has difficulty asking for help
Unwilling to comply with teacher requests; truancy; rejects help
Attitude Toward School
School is a source of confusion or angst; does much better with structure
Dislikes school, except as a social outlet; rebels against rules and structure
School Attendance
Misses school due to emotional or psychosomatic issues
Misses school due to choice
Educational Performance
Uneven achievement; impaired by anxiety, depression, or emotions
Achievement influenced by truancy, negative attitude toward school, avoidance
Peer Relations and Friendships
Difficulty making friends; ignored or rejected
Accepted by a same delinquent or socio-cultural subgroup
Perceptions of Peers
Perceived as bizarre or odd; often ridiculed
Perceived as cool, tough, charismatic
Social Skills
Poorly developed; immature; difficulty reading social cues; difficulty entering groups
Well developed; well attuned to social cues
Interpersonal Relations
Inability to establish or maintain relationships; withdrawn; social anxiety
Many relations within select peer group; manipulative; lack of honesty in relationships
Interpersonal Dynamics
Poor self-concept; overly dependent; anxious; fearful; mood swings; distorts reality
Inflated self concept; independent; underdeveloped conscience; blames others; excessive bravado
Locus of Disorder
Affective disorder; internalizing
Conduct disorder, externalizing
Hurts self and others as an end
Hurts others as a means to an end
Tense; fearful
Appears relaxed; cool
Affective Reactions
Disproportionate reactions, but not under student’s control
Intentional with features of anger and rage; explosive
Remorseful; self critical; overly serious
Little remorse; blaming; non-empathetic
Sense of Reality
Fantasy; naïve; gullible; thought disorders
Street-wise; manipulates facts and rules for own benefit
Developmental Appropriateness
Immature; regressive
Age appropriate or above
Risk Taking
Avoids risks; resists making choices
Risk taker; daredevil
Substance Abuse
Less likely; may use individually
More likely; peer involvement

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