Emotional disturbance is 1 of 12 disability categories
specified under IDEA. It is defined as follows:
"(i) The term means 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 childs 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
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears
associated with personal or school problems.
(ii) The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not
apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an
emotional disturbance" (CFR §300.7 (a) 9).
Children who meet these criteria, as determined by a
multidisciplinary team, may receive services under IDEA. Children under the age of 9 who
exhibit delays in social or emotional development may receive services under the
developmental delay category.
Other Federal agencies use different eligibility criteria
for youth with emotional disturbance. Their definitions cover a broad array of mental
health conditions, some of which may also lead to eligibility under IDEA:
- The Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS)
definition covers children under 18. This definition requires the presence of a
diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder of sufficient duration to meet
diagnostic criteria specified within the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders, 4th ed.), and which results in a functional impairment that
substantially interferes with or limits the childs role or functioning in family,
school, or community activities (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
- The Social Security Administrations (SSA) definition
of eligibility for the childrens Supplemental Security Income program is the
presence of a mental condition that can be medically proven and that results in marked and
severe functional limitations of substantial duration.
Children identified under these two definitions may be
eligible for services under IDEA or under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
However, eligibility is not automatic. A child must meet the requirements of the
Department of Educations regulatory definition of emotional disturbance to receive
services under IDEA (or must meet the requirements of other IDEA eligibility categories).
Therefore, identification of a child as emotionally disturbed under the CMHS or SSA
definitions does not necessarily lead to identification under IDEA.
States also define emotional disturbance and specify the
criteria to be used by local school districts in the identification of children with this
disability. Although they must specify criteria that are not inconsistent with the Federal
definition, States interpret that definition based on their own standards, programs, and
requirements (McInerney, Kane, & Pelavin, 1992). In fact, many States have adopted
their own specific terminology and criteria (Tallmadge, Gund, Munson, & Hanley, 1985;
Swartz, Mosley, & Koenig-Jerz, 1987; Gonzalez, 1991). Local variation may affect the
ability of Federal authorities to monitor the impact of the IDEA Amendments of 1997.
According to a 1992 report, "The resulting differences in definition and eligibility
criteria make it difficult to evaluate the identification rates of children with serious
emotional disturbance" (McInerney et al., 1992, p. 46).
For example, students identified as having conduct disorder
are eligible for services in some States, but not in others. Conduct disorder is a
persistent pattern of anti-social, rulebreaking, or aggressive behavior, including
defiance, fighting, bullying, disruptiveness, exploitiveness, and disturbed relations with
both peers and adults (Cohen, 1994; Forness, 1992; Forness, Kavale, & Lopez, 1993).
Research suggests that conduct disorder frequently co-occurs with attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reading disabilities, anxiety disorders, and depression
(Clarizio, 1992; Hinshaw, Lahey, & Hart, 1993; McConaughy & Skiba, 1993;
Zoccolillo, 1992). The literature also suggests that there are no valid theoretical or
empirical grounds for differentiating between conduct disorders and other behavioral and
emotional disorders and that there are no reliable or socially validated instruments for
making such a distinction (Cohen, 1994; Nelson, 1992; Nelson & Rutherford, 1988; Skiba
& Grizzle, 1992; Stein & Merrell, 1992).
Children with emotional disturbance may also be socially
maladjusted, but to receive services under IDEA, they must satisfy additional
requirements. Since IDEA excludes social maladjustment without emotional
disturbance from the definition of emotional disturbance, some State definitions and
eligibility requirements serve to exclude students with conduct disorder (Gonzalez, 1991).
Alternatively, some research has found that students with conduct disorder constituted the
largest percentage of students with emotional disturbance who were served in day schools
and residential schools (Forness, 1992; Forness, Kavale, King, & Kasari, 1994;
Sinclair & Alexson, 1992). Children with conduct disorder were the largest diagnostic
group in the National Adolescent and Child Treatment Study (Silver et al., 1992). That
study was co-sponsored by the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitative
Research (OSERS/NIDRR) and the National Institute of Mental Health. Its purpose was to
"describe. . . children with [emotional disturbance] and their families"
(Greenbaum et al., 1998, p. 21). Students with conduct disorder were also the largest
group served at the 31 sites of the CMHS Comprehensive Mental Health Services for
Children and Their Families program (Doucette, 1997).
In general, the literature documents varying orientations
to children with different patterns of behavior. While some of these students are
"provided access to therapeutic services, and considered victims of their disorders .
. . students who are considered antisocial or socially maladjusted are usually blamed for
their aversive and maladaptive behavior patterns and exposed to control, containment, or
punishment strategies" (Walker, Stieber, & ONeill, 1990, p. 62).
Students with emotional disturbance who are eligible
for services under IDEA typically exhibit mood disorders, anxiety disorders, ADHD, conduct
disorders, or other psychiatric disorders (Forness et al., 1994; Mattison & Felix,
1997). Comorbidity of emotional and behavioral disorders is common (Caron & Rutter,
1991; Friedman, Kutash, & Duchnowski, 1996). In addition, the co-occurrence of
emotional disturbance and other disabilities may intensify students behavioral
problems and further compromise academic performance. Many students with emotional
disturbance are at great risk for substance abuse disorders (Capaldi & Dishion, 1993;
Leone, 1991; Leone, Greenberg, Trickett, & Spero, 1989) and negative encounters with
the juvenile justice system (Gilliam & Scott, 1987; Leone, 1991). These problems may
exacerbate the impact of emotional disturbance and of any co-occurring disabilities.
In comparison with other students, both with and without
disabilities, children with emotional disturbance are more likely to be male, African
American, and economically disadvantaged. They are also more likely to live with one
parent, in foster care, or in another alternative living arrangement (Cullinan, Epstein,
& Sabornie, 1992; Marder, 1992; Wagner, 1995). Students with emotional disturbance are
particularly vulnerable to environmental changes such as transitions and to a lack of
positive behavioral support during transitions. These students presenting behavior,
as well as its intensity, is episodic, subject to change over time (Strayhorn, Strain,
& Walker, 1993), and may serve to direct attention away from underlying issues such as
depression (McCracken, Cantwell, & Hanna, 1993; Wehby & Symons, 1996; Wehby,
Symons, & Shores, 1995). These variations in behavior often result in students with
emotional disturbance being blamed for disability-related behavior or subject to negative
reactions from their peers and teachers (Forness, Kavale, MacMillan, Asarnow, &
Duncan, 1996; Lewis, Chard, & Scott, 1994).
IDEA requires each State to have in effect a policy
ensuring all children with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education
(FAPE) (20 U.S.C. 1412 (1)). Thus, it is the obligation of State educational agencies
(SEAs) and local educational agencies (LEAs) to evaluate a child who is suspected of
having a disability in order to determine his or her need for special education and
related services (Davila, Williams, & MacDonald, 1991). But research suggests that the
identification process, as implemented, is often reactive, subjective, limited by a local
lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate assessment tools, driven by
institutional needs, and constrained by parental concerns about pejorative labels (U.S.
House of Representatives, 1997) and inappropriate placement, as well as by the inability
of some professionals to collaborate with families or with each other (McInerney et al.,
1992; Osher & Hanley, 1996; Smith, 1997).
Nationally, the identification rate for emotional
disturbance has remained stable at approximately 0.9 percent since OSEP began collecting
these data in 1976 (Oswald & Coutinho, 1995). This rate is significantly less than the
predicted prevalence of emotional disturbance within schools. For example, the U.S.
Department of Educations Second Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation
of P.L. 94-142 estimated a prevalence rate of 2 percent for students with emotional
disturbance (U.S. Department of Education, 1980). Similarly, many experts believe that an
identification rate of 3-6 percent would be more accurate (Eber & Nelson, 1994;
Friedman et al., 1996; Grosenick & Huntze, 1980; Institute of Medicine, 1989;
Kauffman, 1994; Smith, Wood, & Grimes, 1988). In fact, mental health epidemiological
studies suggest even higher rates of diagnosable psychological and psychiatric impairments
in youth (Costello et al., 1988; Friedman et al., 1996; McInerney et al., 1992). There is
also great variation in State and local identification rates. One example is the 33-fold
difference between the lowest and highest State identification rates of school-aged youth
for the 1996-97 school year (see figure
II-10 and table AA13, p. A-40, which presents the actual rates).
Identification rates are lower for girls and young women
among students identified with emotional disturbance (U.S. Department of Education, 1994).
In the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS), more than three-fourths (76.4
percent) of secondary students with emotional disturbance were male, the highest
proportion of males to females in any of the disability categories (Marder & Cox,
1991). Lower identification rates among females have been attributed to an assessment and
identification process that is subjective (Walker & Fabre, 1988; Wehby, Symons, &
Hollo, 1997), and largely driven by how schools operationalize behavioral norms and
standards (Gerber & Semmel, 1984; Talbott, 1997; Walker & Severson, 1990). Some
researchers and theorists have proposed that the apparent underidentification of girls and
young women may also be due to the different ways in which emotional disturbance is
manifested in females (Zahn-Waxler, 1993). Girls and young women are more likely to
exhibit internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression that do not usually
interfere with classroom management, while males are more likely to demonstrate the
externalizing behaviors that do disrupt the classroom. Other possible explanations include
the gender-specific expectations of teachers and evaluators (Caseau, Luckasson, &
Kroth, 1994; Talbott & Lloyd, 1997) and a lack of gender-appropriate diagnostic
criteria (Zoccolillo, 1993). Although some screening and assessment tools are available to
aid in the identification of withdrawn, isolated students and others who internalize their
problems, those tools are used infrequently. Teachers, the primary gatekeepers in the
identification process, are more likely to identify students who exhibit externalizing
behaviors (Boggiano & Barrett, 1992; Caseau et al., 1994; Gresham, MacMillan, &
Bocian, 1996; Kazdin, 1990; Walker & Severson, 1990). Interestingly, a new assessment
tool (Epstein & Cullinan, 1998), incorporating national norms derived from students
with emotional disturbance and from their nondisabled peers, explicitly addresses the
specific, multiple characteristics of emotional disturbance in the IDEA definition. The
instrument also incorporates a subscale on social maladjustment, providing for
distinctions between emotional disturbance with or without social maladjustment, and vice
While females appear to be
underrepresented among students identified with emotional disturbance, African Americans
appear to be overrepresented. Research suggests that the high identification rates for
African Americans may be due both to teacher expectations regarding normative behavior
(Horowitz, Bility, Plichta, Leaf, & Haynes, 1998; McLaughlin & Talbert, 1992;
Metz, 1994) and to a paucity of culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate
assessment instruments (Harry, 1994). Culturally competent approaches are needed to work
effectively with racially and ethnically diverse students and families (Cross, Bazron,
Dennis, & Isaacs, 1989; Comer, 1996; Isaacs-Shockley, Cross, Bazron, Dennis, &
Benjamin, 1996). Culturally relevant and responsive techniques can increase the efficacy
of both primary prevention efforts (Comer, 1996) and targeted prereferral strategies
(Zins, Coyne, & Ponti, 1988).
Although many children with emotional disturbance exhibit
problems at an early age (Knitzer, 1996; Marder, 1992), students with this disability are
usually identified later than those with other disabilities, despite the availability of
valid and reliable screening tools. Research suggests that behavioral and emotional
problems identified during adolescence can often be linked to early childhood behavioral
patterns (Hinshaw et al., 1993; Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995; Walker, Shinn,
ONeil, & Ramsey, 1987; Walker et al., 1990). Early intervention appears to be
both possible and cost effective (Forness et al., 1996; Hinshaw, Han, Erhardt, &
Huber, 1992; Knitzer, 1996; Walker, 1995; Zigler, Taussig, & Black 1992).
Table II-7 shows the percentage of students with
disabilities who were identified as having emotional disturbance in 1995-96 by age.
Percentage of Students with Disabilities Identified as
Having Emotional Disturbance (1995-96)
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special
Education Programs, Data Analysis System (DANS).