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What is Emotional Disturbance?


Emotional Disturbance (ED) is defined as "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 behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances.

  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems (Gargiulo & Bouck, 2018, p. 590).

  • Difficulty understanding other people's point of view

  • Impairment in reciprocal social interactions

  • Withdrawal

  • Hyperactivity 

  • Physical aggression

  • At risk for self-harm

  • Creative

  • Responds well to positive feedback

  • Charismatic

  • Courageous

  • Highest drop-out rate of all disability categories (35%)

  • Responds with anxiety to transitions

  • Often has impaired executive functioning skills

  • Below grade level academic performance

  • May suffer from tics
  • May suffer from disordered eating:
    • Overweight 
    • Underweight 
  • Immaturity

    • inappropriate crying

    •  temper tantrums

    •  poor coping skills 

  • May suffer the following due to mental illness:

    • Anxiety

    • Depression

    • Dissociation​

    • Psychosis

  • 71% experience deficits in the following areas:

    • Expressive language​

    • Receptive language

Levels of Severity
  • People with Emotional Disturbance Disability (ED), can have mild, moderate or severe ED.

  • People with mild ED may suffer mild to moderate anxiety or depression.

  • People with moderate to severe ED may have serious mental illnesses like severe depression, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, poorly managed bipolar disorder resulting in depression and mania with psychotic symptoms, or a life-threatening eating disorder, and usually require additional educational, medical, vocational and self-care considerations.



  • 1 in 5 children have a diagnosable, mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder and represent 8.1% of all students ages 6-21 being served under IDEA (U.S. Department of Education, 2002).

  • An emotional disturbance is more common in boys than in girls. Boys outnumber girls by 3.5 to 1 (Oswald, Best, Coutinho, & Nagle, 2003).  

  • As of 2017, less that 50% of students with ED were fully integrated into general education classrooms.

  •  Social Emotional Learning curriculum and positive behavioral strategies have been shown to be effective educational methods for supporting students with ED.

Student Questions
  • Grades K-4:

    • Do I have to talk in class?

    • What are the rules in class?

    • What should I do if I feel mad?

  • Grades 5-8:

    • Am I going to get in trouble all the time?

    • What do I do if I feel scared?

    • Who can I talk to if I feel sad?

  • Grades 9-12:

    • Who can help me if I feel like I want to hurt myself or someone else?

    •  Is there a place in school where I can go to calm myself?

    • Who can I talk to if I’m feeling anxious?

Parent Questions
  • Who do I talk to about getting an Individualized Education Plan for my child?
  • Are there transitional supports for after high school?
  • How do I support my child at home?
  • What therapies are available in school for my child?
  • Where can my child get help for their mental issues?
  • Who do I go to if i have concerns about my child's interactions with their peers?
Teacher Questions
  • Where do I get additional training for working with students with ED?
  • What assistive technology do I have available to help me differentiate instruction for students with ED?
  • What should I do if I have a student with ED who is violent toward me, themselves or others?
  • What administrative and additional support do I have to help me support my students with ED?
  • How can I model tolerance and inclusion in my classroom?
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