Emotional Disturbance


Our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines emotional disturbance 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 behavior or feeling 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.
Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance."

[Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34, §300.8(c)(4)]


Emotional disturbances can affect an individual in areas beyond the emotional. Depending on the specific mental disorder involved, a person’s physical, social, or cognitive skills may also be affected. Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.

(Center for Parent Information and Resources, CPIR, 2017)


Types include but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic-depression)
  • Conduct disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Psychotic disorder


Of the 74.5 million children in the United States, an estimated 17.1 million have or have had a psychiatric disorder. Half of all psychiatric illness occurs before the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 24. The most common psychiatric disorders in childhood are anxiety disorders, AD/HD and disruptive behavior, depression and bipolar disorders, and eating disorders.

(CPIR, 2017)


Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing.
No one knows the actual cause of emotional disturbance, although several factors - heredity, brain disorder, diet, stress, and family functioning - have been suggested and vigorously researched. A great deal of research goes on every day, but to date, researchers have not found that any of these factors are the direct cause of behavioral or emotional problems.

(CPIR, 2017)


While prevention of emotional disturbance cannot be pinpointed because of a lack of understanding of the cause, there are early intervention procedures that can help a child with emotional disturbance in their daily life.


Each mental illness has its own set of symptoms, but common signs of mental illness/emotional disturbances in children, adolescents, and adults can include:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Hyperactivity (short attention span, impulsiveness)
  • Aggression/self-injurious behavior (acting out, fighting)
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Withdrawal (failure to initiate interaction with others; retreat from exchanges of social interaction, excessive fear or anxiety)
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills)
  • Learning difficulties (academically performing below grade level)

Children with the most serious emotional disturbances may exhibit distorted thinking, excessive anxiety, bizarre motor acts, and abnormal mood swings. Many children who do not have emotional disturbances may display some of these same behaviors at various times during their development. However, when children have an emotional disturbance, these behaviors continue over long periods of time. Their behavior signals that they are not coping with their environment or peers.

(CPIR, 2017)


Due to the nature of this disability category, including multiple diagnoses, we recommend that you seek information on the specific disorder of interest, rather than this category as a whole. Below you will find links to websites specializing in childhood mental illness that provide information specific to each disorder, including characteristics, prognosis, treatment, and education implications.

Center for Parent Information and Resources

Formerly funded as the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY), the Center for Parent Information and Resources hosts a wealth of helpful features for parental figures of children with disabilities. The link above will direct to a central page about emotional disturbance in general as well as more specific information about various types of disorders that may fall into this category.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a zip file full of documents "Facts for Families" available in multiple languages. Included are documents with information about specific disorders as well as information to help children cope with other stressful events, such as a death in the family.

National Institutes of Mental Health

The National Institutes of Mental Health has an extensive website with information on each disorder. Search for disorders under topics. Information is also available specifically addressing children and adolescents.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 
Public Information Office
3615 Wisconsin Ave., NW 
Washington, DC 20016-3007 

This site is designed to serve both AACAP Members, and Parents and Families. Information is provided as a public service to aid in the understanding and treatment of the developmental, behavioral, and mental disorders which affect an estimated 7 to 12 million children and adolescents at any given time in the United States. You will find information on child and adolescent psychiatry, fact sheets for parents and caregivers, AACAP membership, current research, practice guidelines, managed care information, awards and fellowship descriptions, meeting information, and much more.

Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
5262 University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403-5262

The Center has been established by the Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education to give schools capacity-building information and technical assistance for identifying, adapting, and sustaining effective school-wide disciplinary practices.

Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders (CCBD)

This group of international educators is dedicated to supporting the professional development and enhancing the expertise of those who work on behalf of children with challenging behavior and their families. This site contains many valuable resources for teachers looking to better serve the community of youth with behavioral disorders.

National Association of School Psychologists
4340 East West Highway, Suite 402
Bethesda, MD 20814
Phone: 301.657.0270
Toll Free: 866.331.NASP
Fax: 301.657.0275

The National Association of School Psychologists released the second edition of Behavioral Interventions: Creating a Safe Environment in Schools and has posted it on the web for download. The publication, created by NASP's National Mental Health and Education Center, offers tips and insight into how to handle the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's new discipline provisions

National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health (NFFCMH)
15800 Crabbs Branch Way, Suite 300
Rockville, MD 20855

The National family-run organization dedicated exclusively to helping children with mental health needs and their families achieve a better quality of life. We: provide leadership to develop and sustain a nationwide network of family-run organizations, focus the passion and cultural diversity of our membership to be a potent force for changing how systems respond to children with mental health needs and their families, and help policy-makers, agencies, and providers become more effective in delivering services and supports that foster healthy emotional development for all children.

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) 
3803 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 100
Arlington, VA 22203

NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of persons living with serious mental illness and their families. Founded in 1979, NAMI has become the nation’s voice on mental illness, a national organization including NAMI organizations in every state and in over 1100 local communities across the country who join together to meet the NAMI mission through advocacy, research, support, and education.

Last updated December 2019.