Emotional Disturbance Disability or COVID Stress?

Emotional Disturbance Disability or COVID Stress
Cross Country Education
May 06, 2022 07:30 AM (GMT-04:00)
Educator Resources

Emotional Disturbance Disability or COVID Stress?

Identifying Emotional Disturbances When Many Students Are Struggling with Mental Health Needs

Has the pandemic made identifying students with emotional disturbance more challenging for you as a school psychologist? If so, you’re not alone.

A dual responsibility. School psychologists are charged with helping the many children and teens who are struggling with anxiety, depression and other issues due to the pandemic. They must also identify students who have emotional disturbance disabilities and are entitled to support through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

A river of referrals. However, according to Pew Trusts, millions more kids are showing up with symptoms of depression and anxiety, and school psychologists have faced a “river of referrals” to provide students with mental and emotional health support.

Stressors Due to the Pandemic

Pandemic-related factors impacting the mental health and wellness of all students (both with and without emotional disturbance disabilities) include:

Emotional Disturbance Disability as Defined by IDEA

When trying to sort out pandemic-related stress versus disability, it can be helpful to study the definition of emotional disturbance. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Sec. 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.
(ii) Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.
Resources for Identifying Emotional Disturbance Disability
One resource that can help determine whether a student is struggling with an emotional disability or COVID-related stress is Identifying Emotional Disturbance, presented at the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) conference by Stephen E. Brock, Ph.D., NCSP, LEP. This detailed guide breaks down identifying characteristics of emotional disturbance disability.
Another detailed resource is What’s Trending in Emotional Disturbance Identification by Rebecca Heaton Hall, J.D. and Jessica Dirsmith, D.Ed., NCSP. This presentation delves into the five characteristics of emotional disturbance and provides specific examples and tips.
Please note: Each school psychologist must follow their district, state and federal guidelines for psychological evaluations and identifying emotional disturbance disabilities.
 COVID Stress vs. Emotional Disturbance Disability
In short, differentiators between COVID-related stress and emotional disturbance disability come down to duration, intensity and impact.
Emotional disturbance disabilities tend to:
  • Occur over a long period of time, lasting six months or longer
  • Be pervasive and intense, occuring to a marked degree
  • Adversely impact educational performance
Stress related to COVID may:
  • Be short-lived
  • Feel mild, resolving with intervention and support
  • Not severely impact educational performance 
Distinguishing students who have an emotional disability from those who are experiencing COVID-related stress is no easy task – but it’s a critical one. School psychologists play an essential part in helping promote and rebuild mental health and wellness among this generation. For that, and for continuing to protect our nation’s children, we thank you.

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