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Emotional Disturbance

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Prevalence and Definitions

Individuals classified as having emotional disturbance (or behavioral disorders) represent 8.1% of all students ages 6–21 served under IDEA, or .72% of the school population (U.S. Department of Education, 2002a). However, prevalence studies have suggested that the actual percentage may be much higher. Boys outnumber girls in this category by about 3.5 to 1 (Oswald, Best, Coutinho, & Nagle, 2003).

Emotional disturbance refers to a number of different, but related, social-emotional disabilities. Individuals classified as emotionally disturbed meet several criteria established under IDEA, including the following:

  • An inability to exhibit appropriate behavior under ordinary circumstances
  • An inability to maintain relationships with peers or teachers
  • An inappropriate affect such as depression or anxiety
  • An inappropriate manifestation of physical symptoms or fears in response to school or personal difficulties

These characteristics must be manifested over an extended time period and have a negative effect on school performance (U.S. Department of Education, 2002a).
Individuals classified as emotionally disturbed represent a range of severity, and the disability itself may be temporary or permanent. Specific emotional disturbance areas include childhood schizophrenia; selective mutism (failure to speak in selected circumstances); seriously aggressive or acting-out behavior; conduct disorders; inappropriate affective disorders such as depression, social withdrawal, psychosomatic disorders, anxiety disorders, self-mutilating behaviors; and excessive fears (or phobias) (Kauffman, 2005). Individuals characterized as socially maladjusted (e.g., juvenile delinquency) are not considered emotionally disturbed according to IDEA, unless they also exhibit other evidence of emotional disturbance (U.S. Department of Education, 2002a). Students with Tourette syndrome may receive services under Other Health Impairments.

Causes of Emotional Disturbance

Most behavioral disorders or emotional disturbances have no known cause. However, possible causes include biological, family, school, and cultural factors (e.g., Hallahan & Kauffman, 2003; Kauffman, 2005).

Biological factors are genetic, biochemical, and neurological influences that interact and result in emotional disabilities. Schizophrenia, autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Tourette syndrome—a tic disorder characterized by involuntary muscular movements, vocalizations, and/or inappropriate verbal outbursts—all appear to have biological bases that interact with other factors and may contribute to emotional disturbances. However, Tourette syndrome and ADHD are not necessarily associated with emotional disturbance. Family factors (such as domestic violence) are also considered to be strong contributing factors to emotional disturbance. School factors (such as failure to accommodate for individual needs, inappropriate expectations, or inconsistency) can also contribute to an emotional disability. Finally, certain cultural environmental factors (including peer group, urbanization, and neighborhood factors) interact with the individual, the home, and the school and may also contribute to emotional disabilities (Kauffman, 2005).

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