Symptoms of Emotionally Disturbed Students

Eye roll child
dlewis33/Getty Images

Children with an emotional disturbance disability need help to manage their lives in and outside of the classroom. If your child is in this category or you work with children with emotional disturbances, it's important to know what this term means and the symptoms students with this disability display. Here is what you need to know.

Emotional Disturbance

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that specifies emotional disturbance as one of the 13 categories of eligibility for special education services. Emotional disturbance is also known as serious emotional disturbance (SED) or emotional behavioral disability (EBD). By the IDEA definition, an emotional disturbance is a condition in which a child exhibits 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.

  • Emotionally disturbed children have an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  • They may be unable to develop and keep appropriate, satisfactory social relationships with family, peers, and adults in the school system.
  • They may have a tendency to display inappropriate behavior or feelings in response to normal situations.
  • They may have a pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  • They may be inclined to develop negative physical symptoms or fears related to personal or school problems.


The category of emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. Children with emotional disturbance may also be diagnosed with behavioral disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, emotional disturbance is not diagnosed in children who are primarily socially maladjusted unless an underlying emotional disturbance also exists.

Other disorders that fall under this umbrella include anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and conduct disorders.

Risks for Students With Emotional Disturbances

Students with emotional disturbances are at risk for school failure and often require both specially designed instruction and psychotherapy or counseling services. If they don't receive a diagnosis of emotional disturbance, however, they're likely to be pushed out of school by punitive discipline policies such as suspension or expulsion.

Children who face such policies have a high risk of dropping out of school and entering the criminal justice system. This phenomenon is colloquially known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Before they are diagnosed, children with emotional disturbances may be perceived as simply "bad" or "unruly" by teachers, administrators, and peers. Being thought of in this way can damage the self-esteem of emotionally disturbed children. These children not only feel shunned but also must work through the circumstances that led to the emotional disturbance.

They may have been abandoned by their parents or sexually, physically, or emotionally abused. They may have been diagnosed with a mental health condition such as a personality disorder that will follow them throughout life, making it difficult for them to maintain friendships, romantic relationships, or professional careers.

A Word From Verywell

Parents and caregivers of children with an emotional disturbance disability must advocate for them to see to it that they're not isolated in school or in the community. They may need to partner with parents of children having a similar experience, and/or get guidance from a mental health provider. While emotional disturbance disability is definitely a challenge, it can be managed to help children live a fulfilling life.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Sec. 300.8 Child with a disability.

  2. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Sec. 300.8 (c) (4).

  3. Mizel ML, Miles JNV, Pedersen ER, Tucker JS, Ewing BA, D'Amico EJ. To educate or to incarcerate: Factors in disproportionality in school discipline. Child Youth Serv Rev. 2016;70:102-111. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.09.009

  4. DeRosier ME, Lloyd SW. The impact of children's social adjustment on academic outcome. Read Writ Q. 2011;27(1):25-47. doi:10.1080/10573569.2011.532710

  5. Guilé JM, Boissel L, Alaux-Cantin S, Garny de la Rivière SG. Borderline personality disorder in adolescents: Prevalence, diagnosis, and treatment strategies. Adolesc Health Med Ther. 2018;9:199-210. doi:10.2147/AHMT.S156565

  6. Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Advice for parents of children with behavioral and psychiatric disorders.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.