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IDEA defines emotional disturbance as follows:

…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.

As defined by 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.

Some of the characteristics and behaviors seen in children who have an emotional disturbance include:

  • Hyperactivity (short attention span, impulsiveness);

  • Aggression or self-injurious behavior (acting out, fighting);

  • Withdrawal (not interacting socially with others, excessive fear or anxiety);

  • Immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills); and

  • Learning difficulties (academically performing below grade level).

Children with the most serious emotional disturbances may exhibit distorted thinking, excessive anxiety, bizarre motor acts, and abnormal mood swings. Typically, educational programs for children with an emotional disturbance need to include attention to providing emotional and behavioral support as well as helping them to master academics, develop social skills, and increase self-awareness, self-control, and self-esteem.  A large body of research exists regarding methods of providing students with positive behavioral support (PBS) in the school environment, so that problem behaviors are minimized and positive, appropriate behaviors are fostered. (See the resource section at the end of this fact sheet for more information on PBS.) –

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Children and youth with emotional disturbance frequently require and receive services from a variety of agencies that apply different eligibility criteria. These young people are also quite diverse in terms of their needs and strengths. The students present with a complex range of disabilities, from conduct disorder to schizophrenia. Within this statistically and diagnostically diverse population, females appear to be underrepresented, and African Americans appear to be over-represented. The following paragraphs elaborate on eligibility for special education.

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