The terms emotional disturbance and behavioral disorder are often used interchangeably since certain behaviors follow unstable and erratic emotions. Serious emotional conditions can cause a variety of inappropriate behaviors, thus these two conditions must be treated together. In the field of education, this disability is referred to as Emotional/Behavioral Disorders (EBD), an umbrella term for multiple types of disorders (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The medical profession doesn’t use this term, but rather defines each condition separately (Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5th Ed. Fact Sheet).



Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life. National Alliance on Mental Illness

Emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics,
a.) over a long period of time,
b.) to a marked degree
c.) that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:
  1. An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  2. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
  3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  4. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia, but does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted (due to environmental disadvantages).

Source: IDEA, Sec. 300.8(c)(4)

It is not always easy to determine the difference between expected childhood behaviors and behaviors that indicate signs of mental illness. Evaluation is a subjective process of observations and documentation, while ruling out other causes such as physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or results of environmental stress or trauma. Because young children are learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral, begin during elementary school and may include the following:
  • Changes in school performance; straight A student suddenly making poor or failing grades.
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid going to bed or school
  • Hyperactive, restless behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Frequent disobedience, aggression, fighting with others
  • Frequent temper tantrums, yelling, throwing things
  • Injuring self or others
  • Overly emotional about minor, insignificant issues

Middle school and beyond

  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior, or personality (lack of insight)
  • Use of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing aches and pains)
  • Fixation on death or thoughts of suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness,  Knowing the Warning Signs

To learn more about each of the disorders listed below, click on the individual links below.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorder serves as an umbrella term for many disorder subtypes such as eating disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, and social anxiety disorder. It is the most common mental illness in both children and adults and is very treatable, but according to CDC is the least treated.

Depression Disorders

Depression disorders most often seen in children are bipolar disorder and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation disorders. Bipolar disorder is a neurological disorder that causes extreme and unusual mood swings, energy, and activity levels effecting daily functioning and typically manifesting during pre-teen to teenage years. Disruptive Mood Dysregulation disorder has replaced Bipolar diagnosis in young children since they typically do not exhibit manic behavior, but rather irritability and anger.

Disruptive Behavior Disorders

Disruptive Behavior Disorders are the easiest to detect because they involve drastic behaviors that are not appropriate for the child’s age and are persistent and severe. All children misbehave, but these behaviors are out of the norm and disrupt the child’s daily functioning as well as the lives of the entire family.  Disruptive behavior disorders include Oppositional Defiance Disorder (diagnosed in children) and Conduct Disorder (diagnosed in adolescents).

Source: Center for Disease Control (CDC)