Emotional Disabilities Under the IDEA

Published on September 19, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano


If there is one area of disability which, in my experience, most parents do not realize can fall within the auspices of “special education,” it is mental illness.  I can’t tell you how many times in my Connecticut special education law practice parents have called me because their child’s psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or therapist referred them to me.  Sadly, sometimes they were given my name by the psychiatric hospital where their child is currently placed.   When I ask whether the school district has offered their child an IEP or a 504 Plan, they will say “oh, she’s not special ed, she’s a really smart girl.”

I’ve written before about the unfortunate misperceptions people have about the correlation between special education services and intelligence, and even about the stigma associated with labeling students under the IDEA.  But I’ll say it again until it sinks in.

Whether a student requires special education and related services usually has NOTHING to do with how smart they are!

And yet, society’s misunderstanding about what “special ed” really means has created a situation where many children who require identification under the IDEA due to an “emotional disturbance” are not even referred for services, because their parents (and sadly sometimes even the educators) have no idea that there is such a category under the special education laws.

What is an “emotional disturbance” under the IDEA?  It is defined as

a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics…(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.

It is important to note that a student does not need to exhibit ALL of these characteristics, only one of them, provided it is “over a long period of time and to a marked degree” and “adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”  34 CFR 300.8


When you’re considering the adverse impact of the condition, remember that “education” is not just “academics”!

This is the biggest mistake I see parents make when considering whether their child or teenager’s mental illness falls under the special education laws:  they assume that if the kid is a good student when they’re emotionally available, they do not require services.  They’ll say:  “oh, yes, Billy suffers from depression and so he’s missed a few months of school this year, but he gets A’s on all his tests and quizzes when he goes.”

If a student is only available for learning a fraction of the time due to their emotional disability, the disability is adversely impacting their education.

Another example of what I’ll hear is:  “Jane’s anxiety really interferes with her ability to go to the cafeteria or recess, and she doesn’t go on any of the field trips or have any friends, and most of the time we have to drive her because she won’t go on the bus because she really can’t be around other kids for very long, but she reads two grade levels above her peers.”  When I ask how long this has been going on, the parents will tell me “a few years now, actually,” or “it’s always been like that for her.”

There are many purposes to school, including not just learning to read and do math, but also how to interact with people in society.

Many circumstances which you might not readily associate with the need for specialized instruction easily fall within the description of an emotional disturbance under the IDEA.  Missing out on the signs can mean that your child does not receive necessary interventions to which they are legally entitled at no cost to you.  Just as getting the proper early reading intervention can make or break the education of a child with dyslexia, as an example, so may getting the necessary therapeutic support for a child with an emotional disturbance.  It can be the difference between staying in school or dropping out, between lifetime institutionalization and independence, and even, for some students, between life and death.


My biggest tip for you if your child has been diagnosed with a mental illness is to ask your school district to hold an IEP Team Meeting to assess whether he or she is eligible.  Don’t let your faulty assumptions about “special ed” stand in the way of proper help for your child!

5 Responses to Emotional Disabilities Under the IDEA

  1. Ellen Victor
    September 19th, 2009 | 2:10 pm

    In my experience, it has been the school districts who insist that mental illness is not an educational issue, but a behavioral one which is not their responsibility.
    Thank you for pinpointing the pertinent provision of the IDEA so that parents can use it as another tool in their efforts to get help for their children.

  2. Jennifer Laviano
    September 20th, 2009 | 8:04 am

    Ellen, you are ABSOLUTELY correct about that! My hope in this post was to make sure that parents understood that this falls under special education, but of course, after that step comes the inevitable battle with the school district, which is where I come in. Thank you for your important comment and for reading and spreading the word!

  3. Mom of kid with CAPD
    September 22nd, 2009 | 12:45 am

    Thank you for another excellent post! Our son has serious social issue due to his auditory processing disorder because he went so many years not hearing and still cannot hear well and speaks slowly. The school has told us repeatedly that his social issues are not their responsibility. I will have to re-open that discussion at his November IEP and will point out the law you noted above.

    Always great to read your blog! Thanks!


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