The Emotional Disturbance Category on an IEP is probably the IEP eligibility category that I get the most questions about. In my professional opinion, it is one of the most overused and abused categories.

I find that school staff often look to address Emotional Disturbance Disability with the mindset of “won’t” rather than “can’t.”

Parents and Teachers should assume "can't" instead of "won't" when guiding a teen with Emotional Disturbane.

Or, slap the ’emotionally disturbed’ label on a kid without getting to the real cause of the issue.

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Out of all the IEPs a kid can have, this category is the one with the most negative stereotypes and stigmas attached to it, in my opinion.

For some kids, this category is absolutely warranted as it is their primary disability. However, it gets used and abused, which I’ll get into in a minute.

Emotional Disturbance IEP

As I was doing research for this post, I came across some interesting statistics. My state (PA) lists on our state-run website that out of all of the IEP students in PA, about 9% are in the Emotional Disturbance category for eligibility. (PDE, 2022)

More research took me to Montana’s website, where they list a percentage of just 0.53%.

Perhaps this classification is only overused here in my state, but so far, those two stats support my theory.

The OSEP Fast Facts also supports my PA theory. In fact, students with an IEP for emotional disturbance are more likely to drop out of school than any other category.

emotional disturbance graduation rates

Overidentification of Black Students as Emotionally Disturbed

Much research has been done, and all you have to do is a quick Google search on that headline and you will see many studies supporting this.

During the Intersection of Race and Disability listening sessions, I know this topic came up a few times. That link will take you to the videos.

Anyway, this is something I could rant about for days. But rather than do that, let’s just do a deep dive into the Emotional Disturbance category on an IEP.

I’ll give you the characteristics, qualifying criteria, and even some classroom strategies to suggest to your team.

For the purposes of this post, it is going to assume that once you’ve read it, you agree that your child is appropriately considered eligible for an IEP under the category of Emotional Disturbance.

If you do not agree, please read this post on Eligibility Categories. In that article I get more into what to do if the wrong box is checked.

Over-identification of students in the IEP Emotional Disturbance category is a trend that needs to reverse.

What is Emotional Disturbance?

Emotional Disturbances include, but are not limited to:

  • anxiety disorders
  • bipolar disorder
  • conduct disorders
  • eating disorders
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • psychotic disorders

Here is a PPT worksheet that some teams use to determine eligibility.

It says PPT so I assume that it is from Connecticut. A reader sent it to me.

What is Emotional Disturbance Disorder?

As far as an IEP is concerned, IDEA uses the term Emotional Disturbance. The word “disturbance” is disturbing, no pun intended.

However, many parents, teachers, and others use various terms, including:

  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Emotional Disability
  • ED
  • Emotional Disturbance Disorder
  • Emotional Impairment
  • Emotional Disorder

Some states are moving to less-stigmatized words, like emotional disability. Some states have chosen to use the term Emotional Impairment instead of Emotional Disturbance or Emotional Disorder. I believe Michigan and Mass. use this term, I’m not sure where else.

If you are unclear about the exact term that your IEP team is using, just ask them.

Emotional Disturbance Diagnosis

Some states use EBD-Emotional Behavior Disorder.

Please note that when the DSM V was published (2013? 14?) that changes to ED, DMDD, and a few others occurred.

Again, for the purposes of the post, we are only talking about IEP eligibility, not a medical diagnosis.

Emotional Disturbance Disability

Children with emotional disturbances are often perceived as “bad” or “misbehaving” by teachers, administrators, and classmates. This stigma often continues even after a child has an IEP in this category.

Remember, our society makes it much more socially acceptable to be the “bad kid” instead of the “dumb kid.” I’m not saying that any child with a disability is dumb. But that is the stigma they carry.

Being thought of in this way can damage the self-esteem of emotionally disturbed children and further entrenches the problem.

Characteristics of 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)
  • Poor decision-making (repeatedly)
  • Impulsivity
  • Immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills)
  • Learning difficulties (academically performing below grade level)

Causes of Emotional Disturbance

There is no one cause or just one type of child who will have an emotional disturbance. Some of them are:

  • genetics, family history
  • malformation of the brain, brain disorders
  • diet/poor nutrition/food insecurity
  • trauma
  • family dysfunction
  • bullying

Although various factors have been suggested as possible causes, research has not shown any to be the direct cause of behavior problems.

Many other disorders (autism, dyslexia, etc.) that go unaddressed and unsupported can result in a child who is exhibiting behaviors that are consistent with Emotional Disturbance.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reminds us:

Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.

IDEA Definition of Emotional Disturbance

Sec. 300.8 (c) (4)

Statute/Regs Main Â» Regulations Â» Part B Â» Subpart A Â» Section 300.8 Â» c Â» 4

(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.

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(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.

So take a look at that first one. Particularly where it says “cannot be explained.”

It has been my experience, that students, particularly students who exhibit undesirable behaviors and are Black/Brown, that these students get slapped with the ED label without looking for further explanation.

I have already written about autistic students who are shoved into the Emotional Disturbance category instead of the autism eligibility category.

Yes, autistic students may exhibit “inappropriate behavior under normal circumstances.”

They may have an “inability to build relationships” but that likely is due to autism, not an emotional disturbance. If you disagree with the school’s determination, go with your gut and keep advocating!

Unaddressed learning disabilities, unaddressed bullying, trauma, and a lack of social skills are just some of the things that manifest themselves in behaviors that look like an emotionally disturbed student. Make sure that you can positively rule out any other underlying causes.

This is the reason I keep bringing this up.

What IEP category a child is in greatly affects their potential outcomes.

I’m passionate about our kids being treated with the support they need, not punishments and suspensions. And it’s not just about the school suspension, it’s a much bigger picture.

ED Teaching Strategies and Accommodations

Honestly, when I look around at what is online for teaching strategies and accommodations for Emotional Disturbance, I see a lot of garbage.

Much of it is old-school “law and order” type thinking, which actually we know doesn’t work.

Students with Emotional Disturbance may have a heightened sensitivity or unusual perception of right/wrong, and fairness. If the ED student believes they are being treated unfairly, they will not trust that school person.

A “whole child” approach is recommended. Counseling Services should be added to the IEP if appropriate and available. Parents should look into the home/private services as well. Fostering open communication and giving a child a “safe space” to voice their thoughts and concerns is necessary.

Strategies and accommodations to meet the child’s individual needs (list below) should be put in place. Please don’t cookie cutter this one–no copying and pasting generic accommodations from other kids’ IEPs that no one ever follows.

Not that it’s acceptable to cookie cutter any IEP, but kids with Emotional Disturbance as their eligibility category are the ones most likely to be suspended and on the school-to-prison pipeline.

Emotional Disturbance in the Classroom

Good, bad, or otherwise, many teachers are ill-equipped and not supported in their endeavors to help a child with an emotional disturbance IEP. Much of what you see in classrooms today is ABC-Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. When the child doesn’t do that, it’s the thinking of “won’t” rather than “can’t.”

Much like children who have experienced trauma, emotionally disturbed students are at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. They are seeking comfort, safety, love, and reassurance. They simply cannot make good choices or learn until they have a solid foundation.

It is important to not make assumptions about any family of a child with an Emotional Disorder. Most Emotional Disturbances have no known cause. The parents of the child may be loving, supportive, and trying to help.

However, some of these students have been victims or witnesses to trauma, and this too can be a cause of emotional or behavioral issues.

Trust can be a very large issue for these children. Forming a relationship with these students that are built on empathy, trust, and mutual respect can often be the solution to many problem behaviors and can have a lasting impact on the emotional development of the child.

Classroom Rules for Emotionally Disturbed Students

Many teachers and school staff go in with the naive and hopeful thought that a solid set of classroom rules will be sufficient for students with an IEP for emotional disturbance.

That often isn’t the case, for many reasons. One is that we’re all human, and none of us enforces 100% of the rules, 100% of the time. This leads to real or perceived “slights” or “unfairness” by a student with Emotional Disturbance, which in turn destroys trust and progress.

Now, that doesn’t mean that your classroom should not have rules. They should. But it should be developed with buy-in from the students, input from counselors, IEP teams, and so on.

Structure is necessary. Establishing expectations is necessary. But teachers must make sure that they examine their own personal biases in how they are treating all students who exhibit negative behaviors.

It’s also best to keep them simple. And, no public behavior charts. A journal to reflect on the day’s events that is private is a much better option.

The good news is that students usually have the capacity to increase their resilience. Create an environment that feels safe and connected by helping students understand how negative emotions and behaviors can derail their learning. Together, create class guidelines and procedures so each student knows the class expectations and routines.

You’re more likely to be successful if the Emotional Disturbed student is a part of the process, rather than having a process directed at them.

Emotional Disturbance Classroom Strategies

Academic achievement and problem behaviors often go hand-in-hand for students with Emotional Disturbance. In other words, the more difficult a task is in relation to their skill set, the more likely that negative behavior will result.

Supporting the academic performance of these students will thus have the added benefit of decreasing externalizing and internalizing behaviors.

Best practices for students with emotional disorders are often best practices for students with anxiety, SLD, or other disorders. Accommodation such as allowing a student to choose between classroom tasks, for example, is an effective way to decrease problem behaviors in general.

Consistent, specific, and genuine praise is also a great technique to utilize with all students in the classroom but can be particularly effective with students with emotional disorders.

Emotional Disturbance Accommodations

As always, these should be specific to the child’s needs and abilities. But here are just a few ideas of what to put into place for an emotionally disturbed student.

You can find the complete list of 500+ IEP Strategies and Accommodations here.

If, after you read this, you do not agree, go to this post for instructions:

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