Emotional Disturbance


Emotional Disturbance


These include but are not limited to:


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 malajusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance under paragraph (c)(4)(i) of this section."

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


According to the CDC, approximately 8.3 million children (14.5%) aged 4-17 years have parents who've talked with a health care provider or school staff about the child's emotional or behavioral difficulties. Nearly 2.9 million children have been prescribed medication for these difficulties. (NICHCY, 2010)


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. (NICHCY, 2010)


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.


Some of the characteristics and behaviors seen in children who have emotional disturbances include:

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. (NICHCY, 2010)

Additional Information

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.


Towards the bottom of this fact sheet, the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) describes the characteristics of some of the disorders in this category. Also, some general education implications are discussed.


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.


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
615 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.

Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health 

1101 King Street, Suite 420 
Alexandria, VA 22314 

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) 

Colonial Place Three
2107 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22203-3754 
703.524.7600; 703.516.7227 (TTY); 800.950.6264

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.


Web sites