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Emotional disability or emotional disturbance is an overhead term used in many educational settings (particularly K-12) to describe emotional conditions of a student that greatly interfere with school performance or ability to learn. The term emotional disability can refer to the child having several diagnosable conditions, like bipolar disorder or depression. It can also mean that a child continues to perform poorly academically, while exhibiting signs of emotional disability, and doesn’t have a mental illness that fits within standard psychological diagnostics.
It is really hard to get an exact definition of what emotional disability is, and how this is differentiated from poor behavior of other cause, especially if a child is deemed socially maladjusted. A socially maladjusted child may not be eligible for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), whereas an emotionally disabled child is. Unfortunately from time to time, though there is no legal socially maladjusted definition, a child with true emotional disability is labeled as such to avoid providing assistance and services for that child.
Some of the things that are analyzed to prove emotional disability include length of the condition. All children may exhibit feelings of emotional disturbance especially if they are experiencing a period of grief, or if things in their home life are temporarily chaotic. Length of time isn’t always defined clearly, but is usually assessed by looking at several years of records to determine that the condition has existed for a while. Of course, a child with recent onset bipolar or schizophrenia may qualify without this, provided that a doctor makes diagnosis.
Aside from length of time, the child that might be emotionally disabled may be withdrawn, have extreme difficulty interacting with peers, may be especially needy, or might exhibit a great deal of anxiety. Other indicators include achievement that is uneven, poor, or significantly out of line with ability on standardized tests, and regressive or disproportionate reactions to things (like homework or a bad grade) that aren’t really in control of the child. Not all of these things occur in each child that has an emotional disability, but a pattern of such things emerging and seeming constant may suggest the condition.
Either the school or the parents can initiate testing to evaluate for emotional disability. If the request comes from the parents, they shouldn’t simply ask verbally. Instead, in order to get quick compliance on the request, parents would need to put the request for testing in writing, identifying what concerns exist. Schools are usually obligated to test based on this request, or to identify reasons why they won’t. School districts are also obligated to pay for such testing, including evaluation by a psychiatrist.
If a child receives a diagnosis of emotional disability, the school and parents plan what resources can be available to help the child best. This may include visits with a school counselor, but doesn’t necessarily include visits with a psychiatrist. The expectations on the student may be modified, or if the condition is severe, the child may attend another school or class for children with emotional disturbance. The goal of these classes is to help the child go back to mainstream education at a later point.
A child in the US who has been diagnosed with an emotional disability qualifies to have all reasonable accommodations made for him or her to learn. If this is not happening, then a parent can file a complaint with the Justice Department, for a civil rights violation, and can have the DOJ come in and evaluate the school.
This is the last thing most schools want to happen, so they usually do everything they can to accommodate children if possible, and to make sure the parents know they are doing their best for the child.