Strategy Sheet:

Emotional Disturbances In Students

General Information

"IDEA '04 uses the term "emotional disturbance" to describe students with emotional or behavioral disorders, which is the special education category under which students whose behavioral or emotional responses are not typical are served" (Smith, 2007, p.236). This is a change that has been made in the terminology originally stated in IDEA which used the term "serious emotional disability." The use of this category as a catch all has not changed however educators and policy makers have wanted to avoid the implications of the word, "serious," as all emotional disabilities should be taken seriously no mater how sever we may perceive they are.

Emotional Disturbance can include:

  • An inability to learn which 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 feelings under normal circumstances;
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.



  • Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Personality Disorders and Eating Disorders.

Manifestation in Schools


  • 15%–28% of adolescents experience depression at least once before reaching adulthood, with rates of recurrent depression comparable to, or even higher than, those of adults.
  • Over the past 30 years, the teenage suicide rate has tripled and currently accounts for more than 5,000 deaths each year—nearly 20% of all deaths among young people.

Manning, M. Lee; Bucher, Katherine T. (2011-04-29). Teaching in the Middle School (4th Edition) (Page 35). Pearson. Kindle Edition.

Eating Disorders

  • Clinical Eating Disorders are believed to occur 3-10 % of the time in women age 15-29.
  • Estimates of 30% of women and young women could have undiagnosed Eating Disorders.

(National Association of School Psychologists)

Anxiety Disorders

  • Affects 13% of Students age 9-17.


Anger Management Disorders

  • Physical Fights in students age 9-17 43%


Effective Practices when Working with an Emotionally Disturbed Student

1. Understand the Signs of an Emotionally Disturbed Student Including:

  • withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed
  • outbursts at a teacher or fellow student
  • retreat from social gatherings
  • lack of interest or lethargy
  • Anxious behaviors such as: lack of eye contact, repetitive tapping or biting, labored breathing, panic attacks
  • sporadic eating, comments about appearance

2. The Key to treatment is Early Detection:

  • take an active role in knowing each of your students
  • if you talk and know about their lives, deviations from what is normal will be much easier to spot

3. Create a Classroom atmosphere where students feel safe and accepted.

  • Enforce a no bullying and no discrimination policy

4.Educate through activities and lessons about disorders like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders and create a learning experience where students may feel safe to bring a problem to your attention.
  • With many emotional diseases the problem is that they go undiagnosed until the behaviors become more pronounced.

5. Many of these Disabilities will need to accommodation for their schedule. Recognizing that a student with anxiety asking to "go to the bathroom" may mean that he/she needs a break from being in a crowded class. This would be an example of understanding the needs, explicit or implicit of your student with an emotional disturbance.

  • Having A and B plans for students who are bipolar
  • Allowing Students with Depression or Anxiety extra test time.
  • Accounting for medication side effects such as blurred vision, or headaches
  • Charting Behavior progress and supplying that information to the student's parents and the school staff.

Online Resources:

1. - This resource from Dr. Leslie Packer, a New York State licensed Psychologist who has been in private practice over 15 years, worked as a professor, and a fellow at NYU Medical Center. Outlines effective strategies for teachers and staff working with exceptional students.

2. - This resource from the National Association of Special Education Teachers provides classifications of emotional disturbances, diagnoses, parent information, links to assistive technology, and much more.

3. - Virginia's Department of Education put together a great webpage devoted to explaining the basics of Emotional Disturbances, as well as giving information on the paperwork needed to submit your disability. Also included are, links to rehabilitation services and guides to IEP creation.

4. - Pacer is a U.S. Department of Education Department funded site which provides information for parents of students with disabilities, like an emotional disturbance. This is a complicated process and PACER helps connect families with the organizations, guidance, and advocacy they need to help get the best education for their child.

5. - This Edutopia article outlines what assistive technology is, how its helping exceptional students, and the legal framework in which it operates.