What is an Emotional Disability?

“Emotional Disturbance” is a term used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that ensures students with a disability are provided with a free, appropriate public education that is tailored to their needs. Because the term “emotionally disturbed” is so stigmatizing, in 2010 a group of advocates spearheaded by MCF pushed for legislation that changed the term in Maryland Code from Emotional Disturbance to Emotional Disability. Some conditions that might be present in students found to have an Emotional Disability are anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.

An emotional disability is defined 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:

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”

Many children exhibit one or more of these characteristics “over a long period of time and to a marked degree.” In order to be found eligible under IDEA, however, there are important qualifications:

  • “The student, by reason of their disability, must require special education and related services.”
  • “The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted.”

Because of these exclusions the number of children identified remains relatively small – in 2019 just 6.37% of students were coded with an Emotional Disability in Maryland.

If you suspect that your child might qualify for special education services as a student with an Emotional Disability, write a letter addressed to the principal of your child’s school requesting that your child be evaluated for special education services. If you need assistance, you can get connected to an MCF Family Peer Support Specialist by calling 410-730-8267 or emailing [email protected].

For a more detailed explanation of the identification of students with Emotional Disabilities, see the MSDE document, “The Role of the School Psychologist in the Identification of Emotional Disability.”