Dear ADDitude: What Does ‘Emotional Disturbance’ on an IEP Mean?
“My son was recently granted an IEP. The district’s head of special education has classified his disability as ’emotional disturbance,’ feeling that would get him more help and resources. Is that normal? Should I be worried?”
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Here’s what I would recommend. Talk to the head of special education and request a reclassification as “Other Health Impaired,” since OHI was recommended officially in federal law as the preferred category for students with ADHD, according to the 2004 IDEA revision. Your child will get just as much support and as many resources under OHI as he would under “emotional disturbance”(ED). “Emotional disturbance” is not an appropriate category for the majority of our children, and I find it stigmatizing.
In addition, your child may come in contact with students who do have serious emotional problems and “learn bad behavior from them” or possibly be bullied. School officials may be unaware, or may have forgotten, that Federal law states that ADHD should be classified as OHI.
Posted by Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, M.S.
Former educator, school psychologist, and mental health professional with 40 years of experience.
If this is the only way to get him the additional help he needs, I’d let them classify how they’d like to.
You’ve cleared the first hurdle of getting the school to grant special education and an IEP. As you said, there’s still lots more work to do.
Here’s how to write an effective IEP.
My biggest hurdle at school for my son is getting teachers on board. Both getting them to understand a student can be smart but have learning challenges, and to get them to implement the IEP in the classroom. Here’s what to do if they aren’t following through.
Posted by Penny Williams
ADDconnect Moderator, Author on Parenting ADHD, and Mom to Pre-Teen Boy w/ ADHD and LDs
Under IDEA, the IEP process has two parts. Students become eligible when, under federal law, they call into a ‘category’ of ten specific disabilities and require special education or related services. There is, for example, specific learning disability, emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments for kids who aren’t able to ambulate.
There is a catch all category called ‘Other Health Impaired.’ Students with ADHD and attention problems generally are served under that category.
The categories are like a lock to a door, you open the door through one category or another, and you’re in the room where services are provided. So whether the school, and you as a family, decide together to get services for your child under the Other Health Impaired or emotional disturbance, it’s irrelevant. Once you’re entitled to services under one category, you have services available to you in general, so all of your child’s needs will be met.
To get a 504 plan, a student need only have a disability, not one of a specific list. It can be any sort of physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities and the definition is very broad. Learning is a major life activity. Attention is a major life activity. So both of those would be considered disabilities, qualifying a student for a 504 plan, if you decide to reject the IEP classification.
Posted by Susan Yellin
Director of advocacy and college counseling services at The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education
A Reader Answers
I personally would reject it. There is a definite stigma attached to the diagnosis. Go with “other health impaired.” You can get all the same services based on his individual needs. They tried to classify my son ED and my son’s counselor advised against it. I’m glad we did. I spoke with teacher friends and they agreed. He will be referred to with questions like, “How many ED’s are in this class? It’s just my two cents, but I feel strongly against it. If anything, the school will underestimate your son’s ability to be taught and blame it all on ED.
Posted by Peacfldove
A Reader Answers
The diagnosis is not supposed to impact the services given, but in certain states, it may impact funding. The rule for IDEA is that an IEP should address all barriers to educational services, whether they are learning or behavioral difficulties.
My school’s mental health funding is dependent on certain diagnostic hoops. It does not change our responsibility to our students, but obviously, we prefer to get funding for the services that we offer.
It doesn’t affect the services the student gets, but it may impact the way our paperwork is done.
Most parents don’t care if we code the IEP service as “Individual Counseling,” “Social Work Service,” or “Psychological Service” so long as their children get what they need.
So, what does this mean for you?
I generally do not believe in choosing a designation based on how the system needs to be gamed.
I would ask a lot of questions, and expect good, specific answers. The more vague, or more put off the school is to have to answer them, the more the diagnosis is a red flag.
What other designations did they think your son would qualify for, but decided against?
What was the specific rationale?
What specific services would be accessed or barred? Why?
Posted by Dr. Eric
A Reader Answers
When a school system is looking at qualification criteria for Special Ed Services, it refers to a diagnostic manual (DSM-IV) to determine if the child meets specific (Federally & State mandated) criteria for SPED services.
Public schools cannot diagnose ADHD, ED, and such. That needs to be done by a medical professional. However, schools have become increasingly familiar with these disorders and a child does not have to actually have a doctor’s diagnosis to fit into one of the qualification areas in the DSM-IV in order to be able to legally offer services.
There are rating scales that can be filled out by parents, teachers, and others who are familiar with the child to determine if the child is likely to have certain conditions. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) team determines the appropriate placement for a child in the least restrictive environment possible (try to stay in general education as much as is appropriate, so they are exposed to typically developing peers).
Parents: You are part of this team, they cannot make placement decisions without your input, and you are your child’s best advocate. When determining appropriate placement or making changes to an existing IEP, if the interventions are not working after some time, the parent has the right to request an IEP meeting and the District must hold it within 30 days. Talk to your child’s Case Manager (Psychologist, SPED Teacher, Resource Specialist, of Speech-Language Pathologist). Good luck!
Posted by Phoenix
A Reader Answers
I am a former special ed. teacher, with a Masters degree in special ed. I left teaching and opened up my own company which is entirely devoted to advocacy. I see a lot of confusion out there with the ADHD label and eligibility. When I.D.E.A. was reauthorized in 2004 children with ADHD became entitled to an “Other Health Impaired” (OHI) label. This allows the child to receive special education under an IEP, and have measurable goals, so that you can monitor progress.
Posted by egbar
A Reader Answers
In order to get an IEP, one must be eligible under certain special education criteria. ADHD students tend to fall into the Other Health Impaired (OHI) category unless a specific learning or psychological disability is identified. If your son doesn’t need specific academic or behavioral goals that can only be reached with the help of a special education teacher, a 504 plan that offers accommodations in the general education setting could be sufficient, and generally does not require a specific classification.
Posted by JRTmom
This question was originally asked on the ADDConnect forums. Read the original discussion here.
Updated on May 1, 2021