Emotional Disturbance


Students with emotional disorders are a very heterogeneous group with a wide range of issues that are unique to each individual. However, there are some key characteristics that are used to define this disability category, mostly relating to issues of personal identity and emotional well-being. An emotional disorder may be present if a student responds to a situation with an inappropriate behavior or emotion, and particularly, if this emotion is depression or long term unhappiness. Students with emotional disorders typically have a very difficult time maintaining personal relationships with others, and these personal problems lead to physical symptoms in time. If the student has difficulty learning, but there is no intellectual or sensory cause of this difficulty, then an emotional disorder may be to blame. This disability category does include some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

It should be noted that one or more of the previously mentioned characteristics has to be present for an extended period of time, and must have a negative impact on the student's academic performance before being considered an emotional disorder. Signs of an emotional disorder need to be taken seriously, as they can lead to physical aggression and self-injurious behavior. However, care must also be taken to recognize the difference between emotional disturbance and general teenage angst. There are as many causes of emotional disturbance in children as there are children in this category, but they can generally be divided into either biological causes, environmental causes, or a combination of the two.


The U.S. Department of Education reports 5,971,495 students receiving special education services in the 2003-2004 school year. Of that number, roughly 7.7%, or 461,055 students, received special education services based on a classification of emotional disturbance. However, within this group of 461,055 students, there was a definite disproportionally between gender, race and socioeconomic background. African-American students were far more likely to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed than white students, reflecting possible race bias in this category. Research has pointed to a direct correlation between low income status and emotional disorders, but the exact reasons for this correlation are unknown.


Each student with an emotional disturbance will have characteristics that are unique to that individual. However, these students will all share deficits in three specific areas, namely emotional development, behavioral development, and cognitive development.

These students may have specific emotional characteristics/conditions such as anxiety disorder, mood disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and schizophrenia. Not addressing any one of these disorders with the appropriate support system could have potentially tragic results. Behavioral characteristics of an emotional disorder include externalizing behavior and conversely internalizing behavior. The former can result in problem behavior and physical aggression while the latter results in depression and anxiety. Finally, students with emotional disorders have a number of academic issues as well, and each year half of the students in this category drop out of school entirely.

One intriguing possible contributing factor to emotional disturbance can be found in deficits in communication. An estimated 71% of students with emotional disorders also have expressive and receptive language disorders that impact their ability to understand and communicate with peers and adults.

Impact on Learning

Students with emotional disorders can be found at every level of cognitive functioning, but the majority of these students tend to have low average intelligence. Most achieve below grade level in academic achievement, with the greatest deficits in both math and spelling. Many have a coexisting learning disability of some type. Students that exhibit externalizing behaviors are at the greatest risk for continued deficits in academic functioning. Students with emotional disorders are less likely to attend post-secondary school than students in many other disability categories. An effective educational program for students with emotional disorders will provide emotional and behavioral supports that foster the replacement of problem behaviors with more appropriate behaviors. Positive behavior support systems are one especially effective strategy to achieve this goal, as are the implementation of wraparound services.

Teaching Strategies

Wraparound planning is a collaborative process that has shown great promise in supporting students with emotional disorders, both in research and in more practical application. This planning process brings all of the involved service providers (i.e., adult rehabilitation services, mental health services, guidance counselor) and individuals together to create a natural support system that is founded on the strengths of the individual student and the community in which that student lives. The family is an integral part of this process, and the overall goal is to devise a program that will capitalize on the strengths and interests of the student while utilizing community resources for placement and intervention.

Generally, academic achievement and problem behaviors often go hand-in-hand for students with emotional disorders. To put this another way, the more difficulty they have with a classroom task, the more likely that maladaptive 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 all students. A strategy such as allowing students to choose between classroom tasks, for example, is an effective way to decrease problem behaviors in general. Consistent and specific praise is also a great technique to utilize with all students in the classroom, but can be particularly effective with students with emotional disorders.

It is very important to not make assumptions about any family of a child with an emotional disorder. Many emotional disorders have an organic cause, and the parents of the child may well be loving and supportive in every way. However, some of these students have indeed been abused in some fashion in their young lives, 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 is built on empathy, trust, and mutual respect can often be the solution to many problem behaviors, and can have a lasting impact of the emotional development of the child.

Assistive Technology

Some modification in instruction will be necessary to allow a student with an emotional disorder to demonstrate mastery in a number of academic areas, and most especially in the area of writing. Word processing software can be an excellent supplementary aid for these students, allowing them to edit and revise their work as they produce it. These programs can strengthen spelling skills and writing cohesion simply by making the writing process easier overall. Of particular benefit are word processing programs that read the text as it is typed, providing an additional audio cue for the student.


There are a number of excellent organizations that can help support classroom instruction for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. The information presented in this module is intended as just a very brief description of emotional disorder and its impact on learning. Much more in-depth information and instructional strategies can be accessed through the following organizations:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

The AACAP (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) is the leading national professional medical association dedicated to treating and improving the quality of life for children, adolescents, and families affected by these disorders. Composed of over 7,500 child and adolescent psychiatrists and other interested physicians, its members actively research, evaluate, diagnose, and treat psychiatric disorders and pride themselves on giving direction to and responding quickly to new developments in addressing the health care needs of children and their families.

Public Information Office
3615 Wisconsin Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20016-3007

Web: www.aacap.org

Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

The OSEP-funded National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavior and Intervention Supports was established to address the behavioral and discipline systems needed for successful learning and social development of students. The Center provides capacity-building information and technical support about behavioral systems to assist states and districts in the design of effective schools.

5262 University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403-5262

Email: pbis@oregon.uregon.edu
Web: www.pbis.org

Center for Disability and Development

Dept. of Educational Psychology
4225 Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4225

Email: cdd@tamu.edu
Web: cdd.tamu.edu

Council for Exceptional Children

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving educational outcomes for individuals with exceptionalities, students with disabilities, and/or the gifted. CEC advocates for appropriate governmental policies, sets professional standards, provides continual professional development, advocates for newly and historically underserved individuals with exceptionalities, and helps professionals obtain conditions and resources necessary for effective professional practice.

1110 North Glebe Road, Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201-5704

Email: service@cec.sped.org
Web: www.cec.sped.org

Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health

This organization is dedicated exclusively to helping children with mental health needs and their families achieve a better quality of life. They provide leadership to develop and sustain a nationwide network of family-run organizations; focus the passion and cultural diversity of our membership to be a potent force for changing how systems respond to children with mental health needs and their families; help policy-makers, agencies, and providers become more effective in delivering services and supports that foster healthy emotional development for all children.

1101 King Street, Suite 420
Alexandria, VA 22314

Email: ffcmh@ffcmh.org
Web: www.ffcmh.org

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)

NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation's largest grassroots organization for people with mental illness and their families. NAMI is dedicated to the eradication of mental illnesses and to the improvement of the quality of life for persons of all ages who are affected by mental illnesses. NAMI members and friends work to fulfill our mission by providing support, education, and advocacy.

Colonial Place Three
2107 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22203-3754

Web: www.nami.org

Mental Health America

Mental Health America is dedicated to helping ALL people live mentally healthier lives. They work to fulfill this mission by education the public about ways to preserve and strengthen mental health; advocating for access to effective care; fostering innovation in research, practice, services and policy; and providing support to individuals and families.

2001 N. Beauregard Street, 12th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311

Web: www.nmha.org

National Mental Health Information Center

The National Mental Health Information Center was developed for users of mental health services and their families, the general public, policy makers, providers, and the media. They provide free information about mental health via a toll-free number, their website, and more than 600 publications.

P.O. Box 42557
Washington, DC 20015

Web: www.mentalhealth.org


Hunt, N., and Marshall, K. (2006). Exceptional children and youth. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (2004). Fact Sheet 5. Retrieved February 1, 2008 from www.nichcy.org/pubs/factshe/fs5txt.htm.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R. & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007). Exceptional lives. Special education in today's schools. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.




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