The Truth About the Emotional Disability Category

Monday, November 19, 2018

Disability categories ebb and flow and change regularly. At one time, we called students as Emotionally Disturbed, or having a Behavior Disorder, and nowadays we refer to this label as Emotional Disability or having an Emotional Behavior Disorder. Some people may refer to this as a student having ED or an EBD. Does it really matter what words we use? Yes, it does. Language matters. There is always a reason why language changes when referring to populations of people, and there is a specific reason why this language changed. There is no longer a defined difference in having an emotional disability or a behavior disorder, it is now considered one in the same. 

How does a student get identified as having an emotional disability?
According to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), a child must exhibit at least one of the following to a marked degree and it must adversely affect their educational performance:
  • struggles with learning and it cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors
  • struggles to build and/or maintain meaningful interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
  • given normal or typical circumstances, the child exhibits unmatched behavior or feelings
  • a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
  • a tendency to develop physical symptoms and/or fears associated with personal or school problems

What about diagnoses like conduct disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, and bipolar disorder?
Special education law covers the 13 disability categories. This is the only eligibility that a school can categorize a student. A school evaluation team makes this decision together around a table alongside the child's guardians (who are technically on the team!). Diagnoses like conduct disorder, ODD, bipolar, depression, etc. are clinical diagnoses and can only be made by specific clinical medical professionals. Just because a child has a clinical diagnoses and comes in with paperwork, this doesn't necessarily mean that the child qualifies for an IEP. The school evaluation team will have to follow their process in order to determine if they are eligible under one of the 13 disability categories, which could potentially be emotional disability. Some students qualify for OHI (Other Health Impairment), a 504 Plan, but only a school eval team can actually made that decision. Here is a great breakdown of the difference between a clinical diagnosis and school identification.

What classrooms are students with emotional disabilities placed in?
Every district is different in what continuum of services they provide in each school building. When a student becomes eligible for special education services, they might stay in their general education classroom and be serviced in a push-in, pull-out, co-taught, resource, or consultative model, while some students will need more intensive services and might receive instruction in a self-contained classroom for some or all of the day, or a therapeutic school. All students, by law, are deserving of access to their Least Restrictive Environment every day. Since each child with an emotional disability is different, their needs are taken into consideration in their IEP to determine what educational model and minute allocation will be best so their needs can effectively be met.

What are some additional resources about this disability category?
There are tons of great professional development books and professional organizations that give valuable and meaningful information about students with emotional disabilities. I love the Council for Children with Behavior Disorders (CCBD) which is a division of Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). If you're looking for statistics and facts, here is a comprehensive article from EdWeek that lays it all out for us. 

Do you service students with emotional disabilities? Comment about your experience below!


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