What is Concidered Emotional Disturbance Under IDEA?

What is Concidered Emotional Disturbance Under IDEA?

Educators and parents need to understand the criteria for qualifying for an IEP under this category, which includes a wide range of emotional and behavioral issues such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, conduct disorders, eating disorders, and psychotic disorders.

One of the challenges with Emotional Disturbance is that it can be difficult to diagnose and treat. Many students with this condition have experienced trauma, which often exacerbates their emotional and behavioral issues. That coupled with an education system that is unwilling to address or support their needs and we have a recipe for mistrust and failure in our kids. Trust can be a significant issue for these students, and forming a relationship with them that is built on empathy, trust, and mutual respect can often be the solution to many problem behaviors and can have a lasting impact on their emotional development.


Emotional Disturbance is a term used in special education to describe a range of mental health conditions that can impact a student’s ability to learn and interact with others. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a student may be eligible for special education services under the category of emotional disturbance if they exhibit one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree, which adversely affects educational performance:

  • An inability to learn which 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 exhibited in several situations
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

It is important to note that a student does not have to be diagnosed with a specific mental health condition to be eligible for special education services under the category of emotional disturbance. The federal and state special education eligibility criteria for emotional disturbance are the only criteria a student must meet to be eligible for special education services.

One line in the eligibility criteria that is often argued is, what is a “long period of time?” This was addressed by the Office of Special Education (OSEP), which stated it was a range of “two to nine months.”

“Marked degree” is also a sticking point. Yet OSEP states it refers to the frequency, duration, or intensity compared to peers.

Educators and parents need to understand that Emotional Disturbance is not a diagnosis but rather a label for a collection of behaviors and symptoms. Working with mental health professionals to get a comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis for a student with suspected Emotional Disturbance is helpful. A diagnosis can help educators and parents better understand the underlying causes of the student’s emotional and behavioral issues and develop appropriate strategies and accommodations to support them.

If you believe your child may be eligible for special education services under the category of emotional disturbance, request a full comprehensive educational evaluation. Make sure to state your concerns and examples of the behavior you are seeing.


Taking a “whole child” approach is vital, and considering counseling services and individualized accommodations that meet the student’s unique needs is critical. This may include a private journal for the student to reflect on their day’s events rather than a public behavior chart, which can be embarrassing and counterproductive for students with Emotional Disturbance. Classroom rules should be developed with buy-in from the student. They should be focused on establishing expectations and structure rather than punishment.

Accommodations for students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) are crucial to help them succeed in the classroom. Therefore, it is important to collect data on what accommodations are suitable for each student, as it is often trial and error to determine the most effective strategies for each student. Here are some accommodations that have proven to be effective for students with EBD:

Encourage positive behaviors: Provide students with a positive and structured environment by discouraging negative behavior while rewarding appropriate behavior. This can be achieved by setting clear rules and expectations, providing positive reinforcement when students display good behavior, and using a token economy system to reward positive behaviors.

Participating in class: Encourage students with EBD to participate by urging them to answer questions, offer their opinions, work with their peers, and complete assignments. Easy accommodations and modifications that can be made include: providing clear instructions, breaking down tasks into smaller steps, offering choices when able, and giving students extra time to complete assignments .

Provide proper assignments: Give students with EBD assignments that are within their abilities and that match their educational level. Accommodations that may be helpful for these students include allowing them to take breaks as needed, giving them more time to complete tasks, and helping them prepare for tests and assignments.

Parents should work with teachers, counselors, or psychologists: If you are having difficulty managing a student with EBD, or you believe a teacher is struggling with your child, don’t hesitate to ask for help from your school administration. There are many resources available to help educators support students with EBD. If a student’s emotional or behavioral problems are causing intense difficulty in the classroom, it may be necessary to seek help from a counselor or school psychologist.

Ensure accountability: It’s important for students with EBD to be held accountable for their behavior and actions. Accommodations that may be helpful for these students include frequent check-ins with the teacher, preferential seating arrangements, and alternative seating such as wiggle cushions or exercise ball seating.

By understanding the condition and implementing appropriate accommodations, it is possible to create a learning environment that meets the student’s needs .

Possible areas of concern and need (Goals)

I don’t generally write goals for schools. Instead, I read goals, improve them, and ensure they are appropriate for the student. Here are some areas of concern you might want to ask the team to write goals around.

Externalizing Problems
Threatens or harms others
Fights/physically aggressive
Lies, cheats, steals
Destroys others property
Lack of remorse or guilt for behavior

Internalizing Problems
Overly Emotional/Sensitive
Feels worthless
Too fearful and/or anxious
Withdrawn, keeps to self Depressed, does not enjoy activities
Unhappy, sad, agitated Keeps things to self

Thought Problems
Can’t get mind off certain thoughts
Strange, repetitive, compulsive behavior
Strange thought process; hears things

Attention problems

Social Problems
Chooses companions poorly
Engages in drug use/abuse
Feels that others mistreat them
Jealous or envious of others
Feels isolated or lonely
Not well liked by others
Involved with Juvenile Justice System


Services are the face time your child will get with an adult at the school. When thinking about services ensure that the BIP or FBA findings are linked to the IEP through accommodations, goals, and services. The team should be taking data to evaluate the outcomes of their plans to support your child’s needs.

Some services you could include in the IEP are:
ABA, Social Worker or counseling, cognitive behavior therapy, training for teachers on language to use with your child, a scientifically proven program to support students with social and emotional struggles. School counselors or psychologists can provide interventions, therapy, and guidance to help students deal with their emotions and behavior.


In conclusion, emotional disturbance can significantly impact a student’s ability to succeed in school. Educators and parents need to understand the characteristics of this condition and the legal requirements and protections in place to support students with emotional disturbance.

Accommodations such as providing a positive and structured environment, encouraging class participation, providing proper assignments, working with IEP team members, counselors, or psychologists, and ensuring accountability can help support students with emotional disturbance. However, it is paramount to remember that each student is unique and may require different accommodations to support their individual needs.

By working together with mental health professionals, educators and parents can create a safe and supportive learning environment that promotes academic success and emotional well-being for all students, including those with emotional disturbance. With the appropriate support and accommodations, students with emotional disturbance can thrive in the classroom and beyond.

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