Emotional Disturbance

Emotional disturbance

Children covered under the term “emotional disturbance” can have a number of mental disorders. They include anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.


We’ve chosen to use the term “emotional disturbance” in this fact sheet because that is the term used in the nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA defines emotional disturbance as follows:

“…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.” (2)

As defined by IDEA, emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia but does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance. (3)


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

  • Hyperactivity (short attention span, impulsiveness);
  • Aggression or self-injurious behavior (acting out, fighting);
  • Withdrawal (not interacting socially with others, excessive fear or anxiety);
  • Immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills); and
  • Learning difficulties (academically performing below grade level).


  • Establish open, accepting environment.
  • Clearly state class rules and consequences.
  • Emphasize positive behaviors and program for success.
  • Reinforce positive behavior.
  • Supply extra opportunities for success.
  • Be tolerant.
  • Use good judgment.
  • Teach social skills.
  • Teach self-control, self-monitoring, and conflict resolution.
  • Teach academic survival skills.
  • Teach positive attributions.
  • Carefully select partners.
  • Have alternative activities available.
  • Design activity checklists.
  • Use carefully selected peers as assistants.
  • Have groups of “one.”
  • Use behavioral contracts.