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U.S. Department of Education: Promoting Educational Excellence for all Americans

Emotional disturbance (Sec. 300.8(c)(4))

Comment: Numerous commenters requested defining or eliminating the term "socially maladjusted" in the definition of emotional disturbance stating that there is no accepted definition of the term, and no valid or reliable instruments or methods to identify children who are, or are not, "socially maladjusted." Some commenters stated that children who need special education and related services have been denied these services, or have been inappropriately identified under other disability categories and received inappropriate services because the definition of emotional disturbance excludes children who are socially maladjusted. One commenter stated that using the term "socially maladjusted" contributes to the negative image of children with mental illness and does a disservice to children with mental illness and those who seek to understand mental illness.

One commenter stated that emotional disturbance is one of the most misused and misunderstood disability categories and is often improperly used to protect dangerous and aggressive children who violate the rights of others. The commenter stated that the definition of emotional disturbance is vague and offers few objective criteria to differentiate an emotional disability from ordinary development, and requires the exclusion of conditions in which the child has the ability to control his or her behavior, but chooses to violate social norms.

One commenter recommended adding autism to the list of factors in Sec. 300.8(c)(4)(i)(A) that must be ruled out before making an eligibility determination based on emotional disturbance. The commenter stated that many children with autism are inappropriately placed in alternative educational programs designed for children with serious emotional and behavioral problems.

Discussion: Historically, it has been very difficult for the field to come to consensus on the definition of emotional disturbance, which has remained unchanged since 1977. On February 10, 1993, the Department published a "Notice of Inquiry" in the Federal Register (58 FR 7938) soliciting comments on the existing definition of serious emotional disturbance. The comments received in response to the notice of inquiry expressed a wide range of opinions and no consensus on the definition was reached. Given the lack of consensus and the fact that Congress did not make any changes that required changing the definition, the Department recommended that the definition of emotional disturbance remain unchanged. We reviewed the Act and the comments received in response to the NPRM and have come to the same conclusion. Therefore, we decline to make any changes to the definition of emotional disturbance.

Changes: None.

Comment: One commenter suggested that the regulations include a process to identify children who are at risk for having an emotional disturbance.

Discussion: We decline to include a process to identify children who are at risk for having an emotional disturbance. A child who is at risk for having any disability under the Act is not considered a child with a disability under Sec. 300.8 and section 602(3) of the Act and, therefore, is not eligible for services under the Act.

Changes: None.