Emotional disabilities in children: A silent killer

Trying to find information and statistics about emotional disabilities in children is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It is lost, unseen, and hard to distinguish.

Like most killers, when they strike, emotional disabilities are therefore fast, powerful, and lethal.

One of the challenges of identifying emotional disabilities lies in the name. An emotional disability may be called emotional disorder, emotional distress, emotional disturbance, or mental disorder.

As it turns out, Charlie (who died within a year after his graduation) wasn’t alone in his unique perspective. Even though Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder, or any other kind of learning disability provide a challenge when it comes to school success, there is no bigger foe to achievement than a student’s emotional state.

diary, notebook, emotional disability, depression, anxiety, suicide, school

IDEA – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Many schools and school districts use the term “emotional disability” in order to identify a child for special education services. However, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) uses the phrase “emotional disturbance.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, is a United States federal law that was signed on December 3, 2004 by President George W. Bush.  IDEA “governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities.”

Since it is not called the Individuals with Disturbance Education Act, many parents are confused.

What is an emotional disability or emotional disturbance?

According to IDEA’s Regulations: Part 300 / A / 300.8 / c / 4 / (i), “Emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

(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.”

Emotional disabilities or emotional disturbances are used as an umbrella term for several different mental disorders:

  • Anxiety disorders: According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults. While anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only about 1/3 of those suffering from the disorder actually receive treatment. Anxiety disorder, or more specifically called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), is characterized by a persistent and excessive worry about school, friends, family, money, work, health, or other issues. Symptoms of GAD include restlessness, feeling keyed up or being on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension or sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep).
  • Bipolar disorder: As the word “bi-polar” indicates, individuals having the disorder are experiencing severe mood swings ranging from extreme highs to extreme lows. Bipolar disorders can result in dangerous manic-depressive illness if left unnoticed and untreated .
  • Conduct disorder: Children and adolescents suffering from this disorder struggle with following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way. Some of the symptoms (which might be due to behavioral or emotional problems) can include aggression to people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness, lying, stealing, truancy, or other more serious violation of the law and rules.
  • Eating disorders: According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are characterized by extreme eating behavior—either too much or too little—or feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape. The three major types of eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa (self-starvation/traumatic weight loss), Binge Eating Disorder (excessive eating), and Bulimia Nervosa (binge-eating and then self-induced vomiting or purging).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Symptoms of OCD include recurrent and unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). OCD is considered to be an anxiety disorder.
  • Psychotic disorders: The main symptoms of psychotic disorder include delusions and hallucinations. Schizophrenia is one type of psychotic disorder.

It is extremely important for parents to know that according to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), emotional disturbances are among the categories of disabilities that are eligible for special education services.

IDEA by the numbers

IDEA reports that it presently provides “services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.”

Under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, a child is considered anyone from birth to age 21.

While the number 6.5 million sounds impressive, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the resident population of the United States is about 313,900,019 as of July 8, 2012. Depending on the definition of a child, it is estimated that about 25 percent of the total population in the United States are children. This means there are about 78,475,000 children living in the United States today.

Compared to 78,475,000 children, 6.5 million does not sound like an overwhelming number — but the life of each child counts.

CDC: Shocking statistics about our children and suicide

The latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the rate of suicide has been increasing since 2000. As of 2009, the United States has experienced its highest rate of suicide in fifteen years. The CDC’s chart for 2009 lists suicide as the third major leading cause of death for both age groups 10 to 14 and 15 to 25.

No matter whether they are called emotional disabilities, emotional disorders, emotional disturbances, or emotional distress, – school administrators, counselors, teachers, and especially parents need to be aware of how much emotions contribute to a child’s school success.

The secret to success for children with emotional disabilities

The key to working with students with emotional disabilities lies in three words:

Awareness – Acceptance – Action

As the director of a small private school, I had the utmost (time and place) luxury to meet each one of my potential future students personally. The most crucial moment in evaluating a child (and to find out whether it might fit into our school environment) was BEFORE the parents and child even made it to the door of our school.

Since my office door was right next to a huge bright window, I was able to observe HOW a child and his/her parents approached our school.

Did the family stop to notice or greet our horse and goats? How did the child or parents react to the outside animals? What was the child’s body posture? Did the child walk behind, with, or in front of the parents? Who arrived first at the door?

Body language and social language told me as a private school director more than any words or previous evaluations by former schools could. Being aware of those initial moments of meeting a student never failed me – and I was never wrong in my diagnosis.

Awareness is the key to working with students with emotional disabilities because most often, not even parents or previous teachers were able to detect why a student was not experiencing success in school. Ninety-nine percent of our students that had emotional disabilities were ONLY diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder. No Ritalin or other medication can be effective without being aware of the underlying energy in a child.

Acceptance is the next step to growth for students with emotional disturbances. Imagine the power of a student, a parent, or a teacher to be able to say “it’s ok to feel anxious,” or “it’s ok to be overweight,” or “it’s ok not to understand something.”

Action for students with emotional disabilities lies in learning new behaviors and new choices. Our software program “The Triple A Survival Guide for Emotions” helped my students with emotional challenges to explore new behaviors and to find new choices in dealing with any kind of situation.

Sadly, parents are a different story. Some parents were aware that their child was experiencing emotional issues, but their denial was so predominant that there was no chance to move on to the next step — Acceptance.

One interesting couple of parents who came with their child for an initial interview had completed by themselves the steps of Awareness and Acceptance. However, when it came to Action, the parents failed their child — who was autistic — miserably.

Instead of looking for some kind of action that would enable their 10-year-year-old autistic boy to grow in his own way, the parents were simply looking for a place “to dump” him.

All of my students with emotional disabilities experienced school success.

In the end, sometimes after only months and sometimes after years, that child who I had first observed coming to my office door was strong enough to leave my school and to continue on to bigger adventures.

However, it is crucial for school administrators and teachers to understand that they are not psychologists — and that the benefit of a positive school environment ends where the denial and lack of action by parents begin.

Read also: Oprah Winfrey emotional disabilities: The magic & power of Oprah’s secret comes to ’60 Minutes’

Emotional Disabilities: We highly recommend the following Amazon book

It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success explains emotional disabilities including anxiety, fear, behavior problems, and ADHD. If you struggle with social issues, this is the book for you. Read what our students had to say about the book.
Receive our next article via email:For any questions or comments:

Contact Us