In the American K–12 system, few situations are as frustrating as a student who fails to succeed in school despite seeming to have no developmental, medical, or intellectual issues.
When students disrupt their own learning (and that of others) and refuse to comply with staff, schools seek to find a solution. One is not always easily forthcoming, however.
In some cases, these students may be classified as emotionally disturbed (though terminology can prove slippery, as we will soon see). Indeed, researchers have suggested that children and youth with emotional disturbances probably experience less school success than any other subgroup of students — with or without disabilities.
Other facts emerge when we look at statistics from the United States. Children and youth with emotional disturbances live in poverty at comparatively high rates, and have, in general, poorer health and poorer social outcomes than peers from more privileged backgrounds.
According to statistics from the 1999–2000 school year, students with emotional disturbances had the highest dropout rate, even when compared with all students with disabilities. For 51 percent of emotionally disturbed children, the educational experience ended in a decision to drop out of school. Such high dropouts reflect the fact that students with emotional disturbances earn lower grades and fail more courses than any other group served in special education environments. In addition, there appears to be an overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system of children with emotional disturbances.
The History of the Label
Of the 14 categories that qualify students for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — ranging from physical impairments to traumatic brain injuries to deaf-blindness — 11 have clear definitions backed by medical reports, studies from specialists, and verifications from the education community that the given disability adversely affects students’ access to education.
Two categories — “autism” and “other health impairments” — are a little more nuanced and difficult to define, but they still entail relatively clear guidelines and diagnostic criteria.
The final category is “emotional disturbance.” As you might imagine, it’s a tough one for school professionals to identify — and a tough one for students and parents to identify with. The definition of emotional disturbance according to IDEA is
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.
The Classification Process
While there are clear criteria for identifying markers of emotional disturbance, classifying students as such is a multi-layered process. It involves many variables, including consideration of the backgrounds that teachers and administrators have, the interventions they choose, and the resources a school possesses. Though teachers come into classrooms having been trained in behavior management, academic content, and lesson development, very few have received targeted instruction in creating individual behavior plans. What’s more, many lack the time to implement a special program for one student in a large class.
Public schools (or school districts) usually employ specialized professionals – a psychologist or counselor, a nurse, or possibly a program specialist, for instance — to help make the diagnostic process as effective as possible. Schools also assemble child study teams (sometimes called student study teams) whose members provide students with access to supports and accommodations.
This process typically includes meetings and conferences with parents and, at times, the students themselves. The team works to propose and plan different interventions. If the study team’s efforts do not produce positive results after several attempts, its members will often suggest an assessment to determine whether or not the student qualifies for special education.
It’s important to note that if a study team has suggested a special-ed assessment as an option for your child, it doesn’t represent a failure on their part (or worse, that they’ve given up on your family). On the contrary, they are working to help your child succeed. This is often the last remaining option that professionals in a school district can pursue in order to serve students optimally.
Emotional Disturbance vs. Social Maladjustment
It’s important to note that the designation “emotional disturbance” does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless those students are also identified as having an emotional disturbance.
The applicability of the phrase “emotional disturbance” in education is thus limited to a student’s entitlement to special education services. Worth noting, however, is that the juvenile justice system and the psychological and psychiatric communities use the phrase in different ways.
What people outside of the education world often do not understand is that a school assessment team may not label a student as emotionally disturbed on the basis of a report from someone working in one of these other communities (justice, psychological, or medical, psychological). Instead, a school team must conduct a multidisciplinary assessment — one implementing several measures, assessments, and professional evaluations — and the student must meet the criteria for emotional disturbance as laid out above. In addition to all of this, the law stipulates that student study teams must seek and consider input from students’ families.
Researchers have struggled to define and articulate the differences between emotional disturbance and social maladjustment. This is a crucial point, since the text of IDEA explicitly mentions social maladjustment as a disqualifier for classification as emotionally disturbed.
This is not just an issue of semantics. Funding hangs in the balance between these two rather vague labels, as districts are only required to pay for support services if a student is categorized as emotionally disturbed — not if the student is “merely” socially maladjusted.
One research team analyzed case law to see how courts have ruled when this question of labeling was brought before judges. The scholars found that, legally, the following diagnoses, classifications, and behaviors do not qualify a student for categorization as emotionally disturbed: conduct disorder, dysthymia, ADHD, PTSD, major depression, schizoid personality, allergies, diabetes, adjustment disorder, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, narcissistic personality traits, reactive attachment disorder, bipolar disorder, trichotillomania, histrionic, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, substance abuse, suicidality, and truancy.
Many of the cases that elicited these rulings came about because families challenged school districts’ claims that their children were not emotionally disturbed — and thus not eligible for services. Case records indicate that judges, too, struggled with the vagueness of the term “emotionally disturbed.” These court officers have noted the difficulty of determining whether students are in “complete control” of their actions, the fact that teenagers can be “wild and unruly” to begin with, and the challenge that “untangling cause and effect” in instances sometimes involving “drug use, misbehavior, and depression can be difficult.”
To complicate matters further, a federal definition of social maladjustment still doesn’t exist.
Some professionals believe that kids classified as socially maladjusted are not truly disabled but instead make deliberate choices and feel no distress about their violation of rules. Emotionally disturbed students, by contrast, are typically believed to be unable to prevent themselves from making choices that diminish their educational prospects.
In cases in which courts ruled that a student was correctly identified as emotionally disturbed, the evidence almost always hinged on three things: a school district being able to identify the cause of the emotional issues, proof that the school had provided and documented interventions that had not been successful for that student, and assessments that were multidisciplinary and backed by qualified professionals.
Educational Benefits of ED Classification
It might seem like a bittersweet legal victory to earn the classification “emotionally disturbed.” The phrase, after all, may evoke unpleasant images — but successful special education assessment teams find ways to help families wrap their minds around what the stigmatized term means in context, and how special education services can help kids with emotional disturbances be more successful in school.
Among the many potential benefits of such a label are dedicated quiet rooms for test-taking, extended time on assignments, and the receipt of alternative forms of directions.
There are reasons, however, for a given district not to want students to be qualified for special education. As one article notes: “[T]here are systemic incentives for finding a student ineligible for special education, including concerns about adequate funding to support special education services and maintaining administrative freedom to utilize a range of discipline strategies with students outside of special education.” Funding and resources are often at the root of court cases argued over students’ designations as emotionally disturbed (or not).
Economic constraints are problematic for many reasons, not least among which is that these disproportionately affect underserved communities, whose members are already documented as having relatively high rates of emotional disturbance. For this reason especially, it’s crucially important for the education system to take the label seriously. After all, under the law, the school system is the only child-serving institution mandated to provide supports to children with emotional disturbances. The first step? Get classified.
Want to know more about supporting students with special needs? Register for a free account, check out schools near you, and ask Noodle Experts your questions. Also check out some other relevant articles, such as Parenting a Child With Special Needs: Ask the Right Questions and Parenting a Child With Special Needs: Your Education Rights.