“Emotional disturbance” is a wide-ranging disability category that is often associated with mental health and severe behavioral issues in children. It is estimated that almost 17 million children in the United States manifest some kind of psychotic disorder; half of these disorders manifest themselves by the time a child is fourteen-years-old, and, by age twenty-four, 75% of them. Unfortunately, while many mental disorders begin in childhood or adolescence, they can go undiagnosed and untreated for years.
The term “emotional disturbance” covers many conditions, including bipolar disorder, conduct disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also includes schizophrenia, but it does not apply to students who are socially maladjusted, unless a doctor specifically diagnoses that child as emotionally disturbed.
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, emotional disturbance is a condition that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to such a marked degree that it adversely affects a child’s educational performance: 1) inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors; 2) inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers; 3) inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; 4) general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or 5) tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
Emotional disturbance may also affect cognitive, physical, or social skills. Children who have been diagnosed as emotionally disturbed may display characteristics of hyperactivity, immaturity, learning difficulties, withdrawal, aggression, or self-injurious behavior. Children affected by the most serious forms of emotional disturbance may also exhibit behaviors such as excessive anxiety, abnormal mood swings, bizarre motor acts, and distorted thinking.
Although there is no known cause of emotional disturbance, multiple health factors have been suggested, studied, and appear correlated to emotional disturbance, including brain disorders, diet, family functioning, stress, and heredity.
Emotionally disturbed children face many challenges, particularly in educational settings. Students who are emotionally disturbed often require counseling services or psychotherapy and specially-designed classroom instruction and are at risk for school failure.
It is estimated that over 70% of students who are emotionally disturbed also suffer from receptive language and expressive disorders that make it difficult for them to understand and communicate with peers and adults.
The symptoms of and treatments for emotional disturbance can be misunderstood by an emotionally disturbed child’s peers and sometimes his or her educators. If you think your child may be suffering from emotional disturbance, work with medical professionals to get your child the healthcare he or she needs, and communicate with your child’s teachers and school administrators to see if any accommodations to the learning environment can be made.