Emotional Disturbance


A student with an emotional disturbance has the inability to learn in school which cannot be explained by other factors, as well as the inability to build or maintain good relationships at school. These students display difficulties with behavior or feelings, and may be generally unhappy or sad. They may develop physical symptoms or fears that affect home and school. ED includes schizophrenia. When children have an emotional disturbance, these behaviors continue over long periods of time and cannot be explained by other factors, signaling that they are not coping with their environment or peers. Many children who do not have emotional disturbance may display some of these same behaviors at various times during their development.

Emotional disturbance is one of the categories of disability specified in IDEA. This means that a child with an emotional disturbance may be eligible for special education and related services if it adversely affects their education.

Learning Difficulties
  • Academically performing below grade level.
  • May function two or more years below grade level in reading, math, writing, and spelling.
  • Emotional disabilities may be related to learning difficulties. For example, if student has severe anxiety, they may be unable to attend, listen, and learn while in school.
  • May lack social skills that are necessary for school success.
  • May display language problems in both expressing ideas and in understanding what others are communicating.
  • May not have strategies to be successful in school, such as memorization skills and attention, which may lead to academic difficulties.
  • May struggle with organization and time-management.
  • Are at risk for dropping out of school, affecting their future.
  • May have average, or even above-average academic achievement.
  • May display inability to sustain attention.

Socialization and Behavior
  • Difficulty interacting socially with others due to excessive fear or anxiety
  • May withdraw from others and appear isolated
  • May exhibit symptoms of depression
  • May avoid interactions with peers or adults
  • May not interact appropriately with peers, teachers, siblings, and parents
  • May have few or no friends
  • May affiliate with deviant social groups
  • May blame behavioral or social problems on teachers or other students
  • May be aggressive with peers and adults and cause injury when playing or interacting with others
  • May display covert aggression (e.g. lying, cheating, vandalizing)
  • May display relational aggression (i.e. manipulating, gossiping, excluding someone)
  • May display limited perspective-taking skills
  • May act out in class, and may not appear to respond to discipline from teachers
  • May seem not to care about class and school rules  
  • May be at higher risk for substance abuse
  • May show signs of impulsivity (hyperactivity, defiance, opposition, risky behaviors)
  • Demonstrates immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills)

Affective Characteristics 

May have serious affective disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and psychotic disorder. Medication may be prescribed for the affective disorder.

  • Depression:  Characterized by a depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, and markedly diminished interest or pleasure in nearly all activities most of the day.  Other persistent characteristics might include feelings of guilt or worthlessness, insomnia, and diminished ability to concentrate.
  • Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety that can be excessive and overwhelming, resulting in a fear of everyday situations, such as school.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar disorder (also known as manic disorder) is a condition that causes dramatic mood swings that go back and forth, from very “high” and/or irritable to sad and depressed. There may be periods of normal mood in between.
  • Conduct Disorder Refers a group of behavioral and emotional problems, such as physical aggression, property destruction, lying, stealing, truancy (skipping school), and other serious rule violations.
  • Eating Disorders: Characterized by extremes in eating behavior or extreme feelings of concern about body weight or shape. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by starvation and dramatic weight loss. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by binge eating, followed by vomiting or purging. Binge eating is characterized by eating excessive amounts of food, with feelings about inability to control how much or what is eaten.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Characterized by unwanted and recurrent thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors (e.g. handwashing, counting, checking, cleaning, etc.) are often done with the hope of stopping thoughts or getting rid of them. 
  • Psychotic Disorders: Characterized by abnormal perceptions and thoughts, such as delusions and hallucinations. Delusions refer to false beliefs, such as thinking that you are being plotted against. Hallucinations refer to hearing, seeing, or feeling something that is not there. Schizophrenia is a type of psychotic disorder.
  • Suicidality: Refers to the thoughts and behaviors related to intent to end one’s own life.

Strategies for Emotional Disturbance