Emotional Disorders

Emotional disorders impact a child’s functioning in all areas of development. The CDC reports that approximately 8.3 million children between the ages of 4 and 17 years have been diagnosed with an emotional disorder. Children with emotional disorders often take medication to address their individual needs. The exact causes of emotional disorders are not fully understood. Research does suggest that many of the disorders are related to the brain’s ability to produce neurotransmitters as well as heredity factors. The following are examples of the types of disorders that are diagnosed in this age group:

  • Mood Disorders (Depression, Bipolar Disorder, etc.)
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Eating Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Psychotic Disorders

The definition of an emotional disorder in children is as follows:

Individual’s with Disabilities Education Act (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34. 300.7 (b) (9))

An Emotional Disturbance is 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 disturbance includes schizophrenia, but it does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

Certain emotional disorders are also known as mental illnesses. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) defines mental illnesses as follows:

“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 (2010).”

Some Characteristics of Emotional Disorders

  • Withdrawal: The child may withdraw from social situations and activities, demonstrates anxiety about social interactions, and appear sullen and distracted.
  • Learning Difficulties: the child may be performing below grade level, but have adequate skills to perform within expected levels. Emotional difficulties impede the child’s ability to demonstrate.
  • Poor coping skills: The child may demonstrate temper tantrums, inappropriate crying, and difficulty coping with stressful situations.
  • Aggression and Self Injurious behaviors- The child may be aggressive toward others or injure themselves.

Strategies for working with children with Emotional Disorders

  • Seek to capitalize on the child strengths
  • Include the child in conflict resolution instruction
  • Teach appropriate social skills using modeling and role-play
  • Develop a buddy system for the child to learn cooperative learning strategies
  • Encourage all peers to appreciate their own strengths and help them learn to provide one another with positive feedback
  • Warn the child of impending transitions by providing a schedule of activities
  • Have realistic expectations
  • Plan for activities for maximum of 15 minutes
  • Have an action plan in place for responding to tantrums and/or aggressive behavior toward self or others
  • Be consistent with the child



National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2010). What is mental illness: Mental illness facts. Site link

U.S. Department of Education. (2007). 27th annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2005 (Vol. 2). Washington, DC: Author.