Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

Oct 06

Emotional Disturbance Fact Sheet

By The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities Add comments
Profile photo of Jess

by Jess

The mental health of our children is a natural and important concern for us all. The fact is, many mental disorders have their beginnings in childhood or adolescence, yet may go undiagnosed and untreated for years. (1)

We refer to mental disorders using different “umbrella” terms such as emotional disturbance, behavioral disorders, or mental illness. Beneath these umbrella terms, there is actually a wide range of specific conditions that differ from one another in their characteristics and treatment. These include (but are not limited to):

  • anxiety disorders;
  • bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic-depression);
  • conduct disorders;
  • eating disorders;
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); and
  • psychotic disorders.

You may be reading this fact sheet with one of these specific disorders in mind, or you may be looking for information about emotional disturbances in general. In either case, keep reading to find out what different emotional distubances have in common, how they are defined in federal law, and where to find more detailed information on specific disorders.

  • Definition
  • Characteristics
  • Causes
  • Frequency
  • Help for School Aged Children

A Look at Specific Emotional Disturbances

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Eating disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Psychotic disorders
  • More About School
  • The importance of support
  • Resources
  • References


We’ve chosen to use the term “emotional disturbance” in this fact sheet because that is the term used in the nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

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:

(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.

(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.” (2)

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. (3)


As is evident in IDEA’s definition, emotional disturbances can affect an individual in areas beyond the emotional. Depending on the specific mental disorder involved, a person’s physical, social, or cognitive skills may also be affected. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) puts this very well:

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. (4)

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.

Many children who do not have emotional disturbance may display some of these same behaviors at various times during their development. However, when children have an emotional disturbance, these behaviors continue over long periods of time. Their behavior signals that they are not coping with their environment or peers.


No one knows the actual cause or causes of emotional disturbance, although several factors—heredity, brain disorder, diet, stress, and family functioning—have been suggested and vigorously researched. A great deal of research goes on every day, but to date, researchers have not found that any of these factors are the direct cause of behavioral or emotional problems.

According to NAMI, mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income. Further:

Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing. Mental illnesses are treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan. (5)


According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), approximately 8.3 million children (14.5%) aged 4–17 years have parents who’ve talked with a health care provider or school staff about the child’s emotional or behavioral difficulties. (6)  Nearly 2.9 million children have been prescribed medication for these difficulties. (7)

Help for School-Aged Children

IDEA requires that special education and related services be made available free of charge to every eligible child with a disability, including preschoolers (ages 3-21). These services are specially designed to address the child’s individual needs associated with the disability—in this case, emotional disturbance, as defined by IDEA (and further specified by states). In the 2003-2004 school year, more than 484,000 children and youth with emotional disturbance received these services to address their individual needs related to emotional disturbance. (8)

Determining a child’s eligibility for special education and related services begins with a full and individual evaluation of the child. Under IDEA, this evaluation is provided free of charge in public schools.

There is a lot to know about the special education process due your research.

A Look at Specific Emotional Disturbances

As we mentioned, emotional disturbance is a commonly used umbrella term for a number of different mental disorders. Let’s take a brief look at some of the most common of these.

 Anxiety Disorders

We all experience anxiety from time to time, but for many people, including children, anxiety can be excessive, persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, and overwhelming. An irrational fear of everyday situations may be involved. This high level of anxiety is a definite warning sign that a person may have an anxiety disorder.

As with the term emotional disturbance, “anxiety disorder” is an umbrella term that actually refers to several distinct disabilities that share the core characteristic of irrational fear: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia), and specific phobias. (9)

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America,  anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults. (10)  They are also highly treatable. Unfortunately, only about 1/3 of those affected receive treatment. (11)

 Bipolar Disorder

Also known as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder is a serious medical condition that causes dramatic mood swings from overly “high” and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. Severe changes in energy and behavior go along with these changes in mood. (12)

For most people with bipolar disorder, these mood swings and related symptoms can be stabilized over time using an approach that combines medication and psychosocial treatment. (13)

 Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder refers to a group of behavioral and emotional problems in youngsters. Children and adolescents with this disorder have great difficulty following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way. (14)  This may include some of the following behaviors:

  • aggression to people and animals;
  • destruction of property;
  • deceitfulness, lying, or stealing; or
  • truancy or other serious violations of rules. (15)

Although conduct disorder is one of the most difficult behavior disorders to treat, young people often benefit from a range of services that include:

  • training for parents on how to handle child or adolescent behavior;
  • family therapy;
  • training in problem solving skills for children or adolescents; and
  • community-based services that focus on the young person within the context of family and community influences. (16)

 Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are characterized by extremes in eating behavior—either too much or too little—or feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape. Females are much more likely than males to  develop an eating disorder. (17)

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the two most common types of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by self-starvation and dramatic loss of weight. Bulimia nervosa involves a cycle of binge eating, then self-induced vomiting or purging. Both of these disorders are potentially life-threatening. (18)

Binge eating is also considered an eating disorder. It’s characterized by eating excessive amounts of food, while feeling unable to control how much or what is eaten. Unlike with bulimia, people who binge eat usually do not purge afterward by vomiting or using laxatives. (19)

According to the National Eating Disorders Association:

The most effective and long-lasting treatment for an eating disorder is some form of psychotherapy or counseling, coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional  needs. Some medications have been shown to be helpful. Ideally, whatever treatment is offered should be tailored to the individual, and this will vary according to both the severity of the disorder and the patient’s individual problems, needs, and strengths. (20)

 Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Often referred to as OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder is actually considered an anxiety disorder (which was discussed earlier in this fact sheet). OCD is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors (handwashing, counting, checking, or cleaning) are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away.  Performing these so-called “rituals,” however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety. (21)

A large body of scientific evidence suggests that OCD results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. (22) Treatment for most people with OCD should include one or more of the following:

  • therapist trained in behavior therapy;
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT);
  • medication (usually an antidepressant). (23)

 Psychotic Disorders

“Psychotic disorders” is another umbrella term used to refer to severe mental disorders that cause abnormal thinking and perceptions. Two of the main symptoms are delusions and hallucinations. Delusions are false beliefs, such as thinking that someone is plotting against you. Hallucinations are false perceptions, such as hearing, seeing, or feeling something that is not there. Schizophrenia is one type of psychotic disorder. (24) There are others as well.

Treatment for psychotic disorders will differ from person to person, depending on the specific disorder involved. Most are treated with a combination of medications and psychotherapy (a type of counseling). (25)

More about School

As mentioned, 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 in public school. These services can be of tremendous help to students who have an emotional disturbance.

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.) It is also important to know that, within the school setting:

For a child whose behavior impedes learning (including the learning of others), the team developing the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) needs to consider, if appropriate, strategies to address that behavior, including positive behavioral interventions, strategies, and supports.

Students eligible for special education services under the category of emotional disturbance may have IEPs that include psychological or counseling services. These are important related available under IDEA and are to be provided by a qualified social worker, psychologist, guidance counselor, or other qualified personnel.

For Science Teachers and Their Students in Grades 6-8:
The Science of Mental Illness

This  inquiry-based curriculum from the National Institutes of Health is designed to help students in grades 6-8 gain a better understanding of the biological basis of mental illnesses and what mental illnesses are—and what they are not.


Other Considerations

Children and adolescents with an emotional disturbance should receive services based on their individual needs, and everyone involved in their education or care needs to be well-informed about the care that they are receiving. It’s important to coordinate services between home, school, and community, keeping the communication channels open between all parties involved.

The Importance of Support

Families often need help in understanding their child’s disability and how to address the needs that arise from the disability. Help is available from psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals that work in the public or private sector. There is also a network of mental health support operating in every state as well as locally.

To locate systems of support in your community or state, visit the organizations we’ve listed below. They can connect you with local resources, including support groups that provide connection and understanding, information, referral, and advocacy for those living with emotional disturbance.

Mental Health America | 1.800.969.6642

NAMI | National Alliance on Mental Illness | 1.800.950.NAMI

National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse
1.800.553.4539 | http://www.cdsdirectory.org/

There are also support groups available from organizations that address specific mental disorders under the umbrella term of emotional disturbance. See the resources at the end of this fact sheet to identify some of these groups.

Resources of More Information

AACAP | American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry | AACAP offers Facts for Families, a series in English and Spanish that includes many briefs on specific mental disorders, including the ones mentioned in this publication.

AACAP also operates different Resource Centers, which offer consumer-friendly definitions, answers to frequently asked questions, clinical resources, expert videos, Facts for Families, and much more. Visit the Resource Center home page if you are concerned with one of the following:

  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Autism
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Depression
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Resource Center home page

American Psychological Association | The APA is also a fountain of information and support on specific emotional disturbances.

NIMH | National Institute of Mental Health | NIMH is clearly a source of authoritative information on specific mental disorders.  Phone: 1.866.615.6464. TTY: 1.866.415.8051

NAMI | National Alliance on Mental Illness | NAMI is an excellent source of information and connection on mental illness, including the individual disorders mentioned in this fact sheet. NAMI’s website and toll-free helpline are available in English and Spanish.

SAMHSA’s National Mental Health Information Center | The Center provides information and referrals on mental health services to the public through its toll-free number and website.

Detailed information on specific emotional disturbances, or related issues such as positive behavior supports, is also available from these sources:

Back to top


1 | National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (2010). Child and adolescent mental health. Available online at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/child-and-adolescent-mental-health/index.shtml

2 | Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34, §300.8(c)(4)(i)

3 | Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34, §300.8(c)(4)(ii)

4 | National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2010). What is mental illness: Mental illness facts. Available online at: http://tinyurl.com/3ew3d

5 | Ibid.

6 | Simpson, G.A., Cohen, R.A., Pastor, P.N., & Reuben, C.A. (2008, September). Use of mental health services in the past 12 months by children aged 4–17 years: United States, 2005–2006. NCHS Data Brief, No. 8, 1-8. Available online at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db08.pdf

7 | Ibid.

8 | U.S. Department of Education. (2007). 27th annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2005 (Vol. 2). Washington, DC: Author.

9 | NIMH. (2010, March). Anxiety disorders. Available online at:www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/complete-index.shtml

10 | Anxiety Disorders Association of America. (2010). Undestanding anxiety. Available online at:http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety

11 | Ibid.

12 | NIMH. (2010, May). Bipolar disorder. Available online at:http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml

13 | Ibid.

14 | American Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry. (2004, July). Conduct disorder: Facts for families. Available online at: http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/conduct_disorder

15 | Ibid.

16 | National Mental Health Information Center. (2003). Children’s mental health facts: Children and adolescents with conduct disorder. Available online at:http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/publications/allpubs/ca-0010/default.asp

17 | NIMH. (2009). Eating disorders. Available online at:http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/complete-index.shtml

18 | National Eating Disorders Association. (2010). Terms and definitions. Available online at:http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/information-resources/general-information.php

19 | Weight-control Information Network. (2008, June). Binge eating disorder. Available online at:http://www.win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/binge.htm

20 | National Eating Disorders Association. (2010). Treatment of eating disorders. Available online at:http://tinyurl.com/25f6v76

21 | NIMH. (2010, May). Obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD. Available online at:http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml

22 | National Alliance for Mental Illness. (2003). Mental illnesses: Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Available online at: http://tinyurl.com/2h2xne

23 | International OCD Foundation. (n.d.). Treatment of OCD. Available online at:www.ocfoundation.org/treatment.aspx

24 | Medline Plus. (2010, April). Psychotic disorders. Available online at:http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/psychoticdisorders.html

25 | MedicineNet.com. (n.d.). Psychotic disorders (cont.). Available online at:http://www.medicinenet.com/psychotic_disorders/page2.htm


VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
Be Sociable, Share!
Create Your FREE Profile

One Response to “Emotional Disturbance Fact Sheet”

  1. This website is has a wealth of information and links that I plan on using. I am a special educator in a Level 5 school. We specialize in working with students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. The fact sheets you provide offer quick explanations of disorders many of my students have. I plan on sharing this with teachers at my school since we are always looking for ways to meet the needs of our challenging population.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)