Emotional Disturbance: Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Understanding difficulties students may have is the first step in being able to support them academically. This lesson reviews the definition and symptoms of emotional disturbances, as well some of the common disorders that fall under this umbrella term.

Emotional Disturbance

In the medical realm, disorders tend to be categorized under large classification labels called umbrellas. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the umbrella term, emotional disturbance, refers to long-term conditions that have a serious negative impact on a child's educational performance and experience. These conditions can include academic difficulties that have no mental explanations, social concerns, an inability to control feelings or behaviors, unstable moods, and/or anxiety directly related to school or personal issues. While the actual cause of emotional disturbance has not been definitively determined, research focuses on biological origins (such as heredity or brain disorders), social origins (such as family circumstances and stress), and diet.

Identifying students with emotional disturbance is key because many of these students can be misconstrued as simply 'bad apples' in school. Their poor behavior, academic performance, and social skills can be seen as a phase or as naughty. Misunderstanding the symptoms can be especially common when a child is high functioning on the spectrum of symptoms.

Symptoms of Emotional Disturbance

Emotional disturbance, like any mental illness, is an invisible condition that impacts a person's mental functioning. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), feelings, thought processes, moods, and a person's ability to conduct interpersonal relationships can be affected by mental illness, including those that fall under the umbrella of emotional disturbance. It makes sense that symptoms of emotional disturbance can be categorized into these same areas of impact. Remember that one factor of emotional disturbance requires ongoing, long-term existence of symptoms.

As you read through these categorized symptoms, keep in mind that all children can express some of these from time to time. It is the child that expresses many of these in excessive ways for long periods of time that you will want to consider more thoroughly.

External Behavioral Symptoms

A child who expresses severe or prolonged aggression is exhibiting symptoms of possible emotional disturbance. Remember that there is a spectrum of severity, and the key is the length of time a child exhibits an aggressive overreaction to typical events. Noncompliance and self-injury incidents are also symptoms that fall under the outward displays of inappropriate behaviors category for symptoms of emotional disturbance.

Internalized Behavioral Symptoms

Sometimes the negative behaviors involved with emotional disturbance aren't overt, but internalized. In these cases, you may find children who have long periods of depression (not caused by any other biological or social factor), anxiety issues, or even excessive daydreaming used as a coping mechanism. Children exhibiting these internalized symptoms are still expressing behavioral symptoms of emotional disturbance, but it can be harder to identify than the overtly aggressive symptoms seen in the previous section.

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