There appears to be a lot of misunderstanding about services and programs for children with emotional disabilities. Emotional disturbance is one of the disability categories that children can qualify for special education services under, according to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The following is the definition as it is written into the IDEA Regulations.
“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: 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 and/or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.”
There is also a myth that children with emotional disabilities who are gifted or even have passing grades cannot qualify for special education, this is not true. I have worked with many very smart and gifted children with emotional disabilities over the span of my career. If a child’s educational performance is being adversely affected by their emotional disturbance, the issues the child is experiencing are not based on an isolated incident (such as a death in the family or a recent divorce) and they meet at least one of the above guidelines they may qualify for an IEP.
Children with diagnosed mental illnesses who are stabilized through medication and/or outside therapy and are relatively successful in school will most likely not qualify for special education. However, if there are needs for accommodations to support their participation and continued success in school, they may qualify for a Section 504 plan since diagnosed mental illnesses are considered a medical diagnosis if the diagnosis has been given by a psychiatrist or another MD. If this is the case talk with your child’s school counselor.
Children who do qualify for special education under the category of emotional disturbance may be educated in a variety of settings depending on their level of impairment and what is considered the least restrictive environment for each child. Some children are able to remain in the general education classroom with inclusion support, behavior support and/or counseling support. Other children may need to spend some amount of time in a resource setting to work on academics, social skills, feelings management and/or related services. Other children may need to be educated in a self-contained classroom within the regular public schools where they can be integrated into general education as is appropriate. These programs are generally based on positive behavioral supports with individualized academics taught in small groups. Other children may have significant behavioral and emotional needs that may require them to be educated in an “out-of-district” school or facility that specializes in educating children with significant emotional disabilities.
In my opinion, quality programs for children with emotional disabilities in any of the above-mentioned settings should include the following components, in no particular order:
- Clear and consistent rules and procedures
- Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) focused on positive behavioral supports
- Psycho-educational counseling by the school counselor, school social worker or school psychologist
- Compassionate staff who are able to appropriately handle intense emotional and/or behavioral outbursts with professional detachment
- Completion of a survey of reinforcers to determine tangible and intangible positive reinforcement items and activities
- Social Skills training through groups or through a curriculum
- A daily home/school communication system
- High expectations for behavior management and academic progress
- Regular communication between all school staff regarding progress, issues and celebrations
- Creative accommodations to maximize success in both the special education and general education environments
- Collaboration between the school, the parents and outside mental health professionals
- Staff that understand the importance for consistency and know that there are times where flexibility is needed
- Staff who encourage and facilitate self monitoring for children when they are ready
Programs that have these components are much more likely to help children with emotional disabilities become successful students and members of society. As with most disabilities, the earlier intervention occurs in a child’s life the better. Many parents of children with emotional disabilities know or at least sense that there is something different about their child from an early age. I encourage you to trust this instinct and follow up on it with your pediatrician, a therapist and/or a psychiatrist. I also encourage you to share your concerns about your child’s emotional, behavioral and social deficits with your child’s school. There are many interventions and supports(in both general education and special education settings) that can be put into place beginning in pre-school that increase your child’s likelihood of success in school and in life.
It can be very overwhelming, isolating and difficult to raise a child with an emotional disability. For this reason, I encourage you to seek assistance and guidance through whatever modality works for you: on-line support groups, physical support groups, individual and/or family therapy, reading and learning about your child’s disorder and/or attending parenting classes focused on raising children with emotional issues. I also encourage you to work with your child’s teachers and school. It has been my experience that the parents who have been willing to collaborate with me and be involved in their child’s education have children whom become more successful in school and in life after school. Sometimes is really does take a village to raise a child.
Jennifer Fuller James has worked with children with special needs for over 23 years. She has been a strong advocate for children with special needs through being a school social worker, a behavior specialist and a special education teacher. She has also helped many parents to advocate for their children to be the best that they can be and to experience success in life. Jennifer received her Master’s in Social Work from The University of Washington in 1992 and her Master’s in Special Education from The University of Northern Colorado in 2005. To sign up for Jennifer’s free parent newsletter, to learn more about navigating the often confusing IEP process, advocating for your child with special needs and parenting children with special needs, please visit Jennifer’s blog at http://www.whatisiep.com.