Home » Blogs » Childhood Behavioral Concerns » The Educational Diagnosis of “Emotional Disturbance”

The Educational Diagnosis of “Emotional Disturbance”

Did you know that a child can receive an IEP at school because they’ve been diagnosed with an “emotional disturbance?”

I didn’t either. Keep reading!

As you may know, students who need special accommodations in school often receive something called an Individualized Education Plan, or an IEP. An IEP allows a student to be successful (a term that is measured differently for each child) by changing either their expectations or their resources.

What you may NOT know is just how many reasons a child can have an IEP. Most people assume that a low IQ is what earns a student an Individualized Education Plan, but that’s actually not true. In fact, having a low IQ can actually be the reason a child doesn’t receive special services.

IEP’s are designed to help students make positive progress each year by giving them individualized goals, as well as unique tools to reach those goals. However, an IEP can’t be put in place without either a medical diagnosis, a mental health diagnosis, or an educational diagnosis.

For a child to qualify for an IEP, one of the following diagnoses must be made regarding the child:

Emotional Disturbance
Hearing Impairment
Intellectual Disability
Multiple Disabilities
Orthopedic Impairment
Other Health Impaired
Specific Learning Disability
Speech or Language Impairment
Traumatic Brain Injury
Visual Impairment

Looking through this list, I’m sure you can figure out what most of them mean without doing much research. Autism, for example, is a more widely understood diagnosis and is very commonly seen diagnosis on an IEP form. Other diagnoses on this list, however, might be less familiar to you.

Here are some quick explanations before we get to the one I really want to cover. (Yes, I’m still coming back around to emotional disturbance!)

The term “intellectual disability” is actually the replacement term for what used to be known as “mental retardation.” It requires a below-average IQ, which is about 75 or lower. “Other Health Impaired” is a bit of catch-all category, which covers any diagnosis that isn’t already listed but still requires the teacher to make accommodations. This could include ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome, or even something like a severe food allergy.

The diagnosis of “Specific Learning Disability” can be tricky because it is usually only applied when all of the other categories have been eliminated. It revolves around a child’s inability to perform basic psychological functions, but it can’t be due to one of the other reasons on the list.

The category on this list that really through me for a loop over the past few years, though, was the diagnosis called “Emotional Disturbance.” If you’re not in the academic world and you don’t have a child directly affected by the diagnosis, then you’ve probably never heard of it before.

Let me shed some light.

A child who is considered to be “emotionally disturbed” must exhibit certain characteristics or behaviors, and those characteristics/behaviors must hinder the child’s academic progress over a considerable amount of time. And like some of the other diagnoses, a child can only be given this diagnosis if the others have already been eliminated.

In some way or another, for an “E.D.” diagnosis to be made, there must be an inability to learn. There must also be an inability to either build or maintain relationships, beyond the norm for their age group. There is usually even a general unhappiness in the child (maybe echildhood depression), strange behaviors such as laughing at inappropriate times, and physical symptoms of emotional pain.

Often, these kids have experienced severe trauma or neglect, but sometimes, they’re simply predisposed to mental illness that becomes noticed during these years.

School systems often have a hard time keeping these kids in general education settings for even short periods of time because their behaviors are so unpredictable.

I worked with several of them in a public school, lived with a few of them in a behavioral group home, and now might be raising one through foster care. Some of them are exhausting while others are downright terrifying.

None of them are irredeemable or unlovable, but they definitely come with a lot of work.

One student I worked with who had an E.D. diagnosis didn’t make me nervous to be around, but his behaviors were very intense, long-lasting, and completely unpredictable. He often urinated on the floor when he was frustrated (no, he didn’t have a low IQ or any issues with potty training), and sometimes he stripped down naked. If neither of those things solved his problems, he spit, cursed, kicked, and cried.

When he was in a clear frame of mind, he was a wonderfully sweet boy who made his teachers feel compassion and empathy.

Another E.D. student I worked with didn’t urinate or get naked, but his behaviors were far more unsettling that the first. This student was the type to be found holding scissors behind your head when you turned around. He was quiet, calculated, and unremorseful. One time, he tried to shove a pencil through my thigh, but snapped it in half before it could break skin.

He also gave me a concussion WHILE being restrained by two full-sized adults, and he was only in first grade at the time.

Now that I’m a foster parent, I’ve learned even more about the subtle differences between things like emotional disturbances, trauma, attachment problems, and the simple need for a change of environment. Sometimes, they all look frustratingly similar so it’s important to look at data over a length of time and view it from all different angles.

The educational diagnosis of Emotional Disturbance is on the rise in the United States while our understanding of it is severely lacking. The more we spread awareness about it, as well as about childhood mental health, the more likely we are to help find positive solutions for these students.

The Educational Diagnosis of “Emotional Disturbance”

W. R. Cummings

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). The Educational Diagnosis of “Emotional Disturbance”. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 5 Jun 2019
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.