Symptoms of Emotionally Disturbed Students

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Emotionally disturbed children need help to manage their lives in and outside of the classroom. If your child is in this category or you work with children who are emotionally disturbed, learn what is meant by this term and the symptoms students with this disability display. 

What Does Being Emotionally Disturbed Mean?

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that specifies emotional disturbance as one of the 13 disability categories of eligibility for special education services under 34 CFR 300.8(c)(6). 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. However, many children with emotional disturbances do not have symptoms of other types of organic psychiatric disorders. Emotional disturbance is not diagnosed in children who are primarily socially maladjusted unless an underlying emotional disturbance also exists.

The kinds of disorders that come under this umbrella include anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and conduct disorders.

Why Emotionally Disturbed Students Are at Risk

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, a phenomenon colloquially known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Before they are diagnosed, emotionally disturbed children may be perceived as simply "bad" or "unruly" kids by their teachers, administrators and peers alike. 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 them becoming emotionally disturbed.

They may have been abandoned by their parents or sexually, physically, or emotionally abused by an adult. 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 their professional careers.

Parents and caregivers of such children must advocate for them to see to it that they're not isolated in school or in the community. They may need to partner up with parents of similar children or get guidance from a mental health provider. While emotional disturbance disability is definitely a challenge, this disability can be managed in the right hands.

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