Guidelines for Identifying and Educating Students with Emotional Disability

Definition and Interpretation

Definition of Emotional Disability

The definition used in Connecticut for students with ED follows the definition contained in the federal IDEA. Connecticut General Statutes (C.G.S.) Section 10-76a defines the condition as follows:

Emotional disability 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 educational performance:

  1. an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors;
  2. an inability 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; or
  5. a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disability.

This definition requires that educators identify as eligible for special education under IDEA only those students with emotionally based disability rather than solely a social maladjustment. Therefore, the section that follows provides guidance to educators in interpreting the definition for identifying or re-determining eligibility for special education under this classification.

Note: The 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA (Public Law 105-17) retains the same definition, continuing to use the term serious emotional disability but abbreviates the term to "emotional disability" after the initial reference. This wording in federal law has no substantive implications for practice in Connecticut.


Emotional Disability: Defining Criteria

In determining eligibility under the IDEA, the PPT must:

  1. Decide if a student has an emotional condition that is manifested by one or more of the five characteristics listed in the definition of emotional disability, specifically:
    • an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors;
    • an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;
    • inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
    • a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or
    • a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
  2. Determine that these characteristics meet the qualifying conditions or limiting criteria of:
    • having an adverse effect on educational performance;
    • occurring over a long period of time (chronicity); and
    • occurring to a marked degree (severity).

One requirement of establishing special education eligibility due to an emotional disability is that one or more of the five characteristics listed in the definition is present. The definition further requires that the characteristics must have an adverse effect on educational performance, be exhibited for a long period of time and to a marked degree (i.e., frequent and intense). Eligibility determination should be based on evidence drawn from different environments and should take into account the student's developmental stage as well as environmental, cultural and linguistic factors.

When considering the defining criteria of ED, the PPT must address the following questions:

Question 1: Has the student been exhibiting, for a long period of time and to a marked degree, any of the five characteristics that define the condition?

Long period of time: The standard for duration is not precisely specified. The literature frequently refers to several months as an appropriate standard. The intention is to avoid identifying a student as eligible for special education who is temporarily reacting to a situational trauma. The characteristics must be evident over time as well as across situations.

Marked degree: The qualifying condition of severity requires that the problems are significant and apparent to school staff members who observe the student in a variety of settings and situations. A comparison is made with the student's appropriate peer group. The behavior and emotions exhibited must be more severe or frequent than typically expected for individuals of the same age, gender and cultural group.

Characteristics that define ED: In determining that one or more of the characteristics is present, it is required that the characteristic is persistent, generalized and extended over time and situations. The defining characteristics of ED are reflected in the descriptions that follow.

  1. The student exhibits an inability to learn, which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors.

    This characteristic requires documentation that a student is not learning despite appropriate instructional strategies, tiered or targeted interventions and/or support services. There are problems inherent in the use of the phrase "inability to learn" as found in both the federal and state regulations. "Inability to learn" is inconsistent with a philosophy that all children can be characterized as learners. Therefore, the characteristic, "inability to learn" is appropriately interpreted as significant difficulty in learning despite targeted, intense intervention as outlined in the SRBI Framework and should be determined only after consideration of cultural, social and linguistic influences on student performance. A comprehensive and differential assessment is performed to establish an "inability to learn." The assessment should provide information that would allow the PPT to rule out any other primary reasons for the suspected disability, such as intellectual disability, speech and language disorder, autism, a learning disability, hearing/vision impairment, multihandicapping conditions, traumatic brain injury, neurological impairment or other medical conditions. If any one of these other conditions is the primary cause, then the student may be deemed eligible for special education under that category of disability. Such a determination does not necessarily rule out emotional disability as a concomitant disability, since emotional and behavioral problems may also be associated with one of the above conditions.

  2. The student exhibits an inability to build or maintain satisfactory relationships with peers and teachers.

    This characteristic requires documentation that the student is unable to initiate or to maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers. Satisfactory relationships include the ability to demonstrate sympathy, warmth and empathy toward others; establish and maintain friendships; be constructively assertive; and work and play independently at developmentally appropriate levels. These abilities should be considered when observing the student's interactions with both peers and teachers. This characteristic does not refer to the student who has conflict with only one teacher or with certain peers. Rather it is a pervasive inability to develop relationships with others across settings and situations. Examples of student characteristics include but are not limited to:

    • physical or verbal aggression when others approach him or her;
    • lack of affect or disorganized/distorted emotions toward others;
    • demands for constant attention from others; and
    • withdrawal from all social interactions.
  3. The student exhibits inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.

    This characteristic requires documentation that the student's inappropriate behavior or feelings differ significantly from expectations for the student's age, gender and culture across different environments. Examples of behavior or feelings that might be inappropriate under normal circumstances include but are not limited to:

    • limited or excessive self-control;
    • low frustration tolerance, emotional overreactions and impulsivity;
    • limited premeditation or planning;
    • limited ability to predict consequences of behavior;
    • rapid changes in behavior or mood;
    • antisocial behaviors;
    • excessive dependence and over-closeness and/or inappropriate rebellion and defiance; and
    • low self-esteem and or/distorted self-concept.
  4. Once it is established that the inappropriate behaviors and emotions are significantly different, it must also be determined that they are due to an emotional condition. The condition is documented by a comprehensive assessment. The PPT must determine whether the student's inappropriate responses that are occurring "under normal circumstances." When considering "normal circumstances," the PPT should take into account whether a student's home or school situation is disrupted by stress, recent changes or unexpected events. Such evidence, however, does not preclude an eligibility determination.

  5. The student exhibits a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

    This characteristic requires documentation that the student's unhappiness or depression is occurring across most, if not all, of the student's life situations. The student must demonstrate a consistent pattern of depression or unhappiness in keeping with the criterion, "long period of time" (i.e., several months). This pattern is not a temporary response to situational factors or to a medical condition. Examples of typical characteristics associated with depression or unhappiness include but are not limited to:

    • depressed or irritable mood most of the time (e.g., feeling sad, appearing tearful);
    • diminished interest or pleasure in daily activities;
    • significant and unexpected changes in weight or appetite;
    • insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day;
    • fatigue or diminished energy nearly every day;
    • feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt;
    • diminished ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness nearly every day; and
    • recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, IV Edition, Text Revision [DSM IV-TR] DSM IV TR 2000).
  6. Characteristics of mood disorders are outlined in the DSM IV- TR and may be used by appropriate personnel within the school setting as a resource but only by qualified licensed professionals (e.g., licensed psychologist or licensed clinical social worker) for the purpose of diagnosis and treatment of people with various mental disorders.

    A DSM IV-TR diagnosis of a mental disorder is not required for special education eligibility under IDEA; therefore, eligibility for special education under ED should not be contingent on meeting such diagnostic criteria. In addition, the characteristics should not be a secondary manifestation attributable to substance abuse, medication or a general medical condition (e.g., hypothyroidism). The characteristics cannot be the effect of normal bereavement.

  7. The student exhibits a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

    This characteristic requires documentation that the student exhibits physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school life. Examples of these characteristics include but are not limited to:

    • headaches;
    • gastrointestinal problems;
    • cardiopulmonary symptoms;
    • incapacitating feelings of anxiety often accompanied by trembling, hyperventilating and/or dizziness
    • panic attacks characterized by physical symptoms, for example, when an object, activity, individual or situation cannot be avoided or is confronted;
    • persistent and irrational fears of particular objects or situations; and
    • intense fears or irrational thoughts related to separation from parents.
  8. Physical symptoms that qualify under the ED characteristic should adhere to the following four conditions:

    1. symptoms suggesting physical disorders are present with no demonstrable medical findings;
    2. positive evidence or strong presumption exists that these symptoms are linked to psychological factors/conflict;
    3. lack of evidence that the person is not conscious of intentionally producing the symptoms; and
    4. the symptoms are not a culturally sanctioned response pattern.
  9. Note: Culturally sanctioned responses are particular symptoms and social responses influenced by cultural factors and often demonstrated within specific cultural settings or environments.


Qualifying Conditions or Limiting Criteria

Question 2: Is the student's educational performance adversely affected?

As a necessary condition to determining special education eligibility for a student with an emotional disability, the PPT must determine that educational performance is adversely affected as a result of dysfunctional school-related behaviors and/or affective reactions. Evidence must exist that supports a relationship between the student's school-related behaviors and/or affective relations and decreased educational performance. While adverse effect on educational performance may imply a marked difference between the student's academic performance and reasonable (not optimal) expectations of performance, the definition of education performance cannot be limited to academics. This position is clarified by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in a March 8, 2007, Letter to Clark, 48 IDELR 77 where "educational performance" as used in the IDEA and its implementing regulations is defined as not limited to academic performance. Furthermore, based upon the IDEA definitions of a child with a disability in 34 C.F.R. Section 300.8(a)(1) and specifically the definition of a child with an emotional disability, along with the definition of special education found in 34 C.F.R. Section 300.39, it is clear that special education and specialized instruction encompass more than only academic instruction. Adverse effect on educational performance cannot, therefore, be based solely on discrepancies in age or grade level performance in academic subject areas. Rather, when determining if a student's emotional disability has an adverse effect on educational performance, PPTs must consider all aspects of the child's functioning at school, including academic, social/emotional, cognitive, communication, vocational and independent living skills. An adverse effect can be manifested through behavioral difficulties at school; impaired or inappropriate social relations; impaired work skills, such as being disorganized, tardy; having trouble getting to school on time; and difficulty with following the rules.

Indicators of educational performance can include present and past grades, report cards and reports of progress (social emotional and/or academic), achievement test scores and measures of ongoing classroom performance such as curriculum-based assessment (formative and summative assessments), work samples and data relative to responses to tiered and targeted interventions. The appropriateness of the school district's educational goals, as reflected in the curriculum and in the formal grading reports, should also be considered. Various types of standards must be applied when making judgments about student progress to determine what constitutes adverse effect on educational performance. The student's overall performance should demonstrate a marked difference between actual and expected school performance. While determining a student's cognitive abilities and level of academic achievement may be useful, the focus should be placed on the student's overall performance in school and his or her response to interventions as illustrated in the data resulting from progress monitoring activities. Some students attain adequate achievement test scores, but do not demonstrate appropriate academic progress; for example, when a severe and chronic pattern of failing to persevere with tasks and complete classroom assignments leads to repeated failure in subject matter courses. In this case, the student's resulting failure in subject matter courses can be considered an adverse effect. However, it must also be noted, that 34 C.F.R. Section 300.101(c) states that a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), must be available to any child with a disability who needs special education and related services, even if the child has not failed or been retained in a course or grade and is advancing from grade to grade. Therefore, as is the case for any student with a disability, the determination of whether a student's emotional status "adversely affects educational performance" must be made on a case by case basis and is dependent on the unique needs of the particular child (March 8, 2007, Letter to Clark, 48 IDELR 77).

The documentation of adversely affected educational performance must also substantiate that the educational deficiencies persist over time in spite of specific alternative strategies that have been provided within the general education setting. The PPT should have evidence that tiered interventions, such as positive behavioral supports, home/school collaboration, attendance/counseling/academic supports, behavioral and emotional supports, contracts and/or established behavior interventions and approaches, have been implemented with fidelity. (See section 6, Empirically Supported Prevention and Intervention Strategies, for suggested tiered interventions.) Evidence of these efforts and their impact should be considered by the PPT in determining adverse educational performance.


Special Considerations

A Note Regarding Serious Psychiatric Disorders: Schizophrenia

The reference to schizophrenia is included in the federal definition of ED for the purpose of illustrating one example of a psychiatric (medical) diagnosis of a serious emotional disorder. The DSM IV-TR provides diagnostic criteria ordinarily used by a psychiatrist or other mental health professionals. Such a psychiatric disorder is considered supportive having one of the defining characteristics of ED. However, a student diagnosed with schizophrenia or a comparable serious psychiatric disorder is eligible for special education and related services under Connecticut law and IDEA only if the ED definition criteria are met.

When the PPT has a physician's diagnosis of schizophrenia or a comparable serious emotional disorder, the PPT may conduct additional assessments and evaluations and answer the following two questions:

  1. Is the student's educational performance adversely affected?
  2. Has the student been exhibiting the condition for a long period of time and to a marked degree?


A Note Regarding Students with Social Maladjustment

The Connecticut definition of ED specifies that students who are socially maladjusted do not qualify for special education unless they are also emotionally disturbed. Certain characteristics (e.g., "inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers" and "inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances") may be consistent with both social maladjustment and emotional disability. In these cases, the qualifying conditions or limiting criteria for ED (long period of time, marked degree and adverse effect on educational performance) must be rigorously applied to prevent the misidentification of students.

There is much debate over the existence of discrete categories for social maladjustment and emotional disability and research continues to support great overlap in the characteristics associated with both. Therefore, strategies that incorporate best practice regarding the assessment of students' social and emotional functioning will be crucial in defining those categories as distinguished in IDEA, when making appropriate eligibility decisions. The literature provides some guidance in defining characteristics of social maladjustment versus emotional disability as presented within the IDEA. The preponderance of the research though fails to provide empirical or technical evidence differentiating the two as distinct categories and contributes to the need for thoughtful reflection when determining eligibility. A child who demonstrates social maladjustment characteristics solely, should not be identified as ED. However, a child with social maladjustment characteristics should not be precluded from being identified as ED if that child meets the ED criteria as well.

Best practice suggests that PPTs focus on criteria provided in IDEA when assessing for the characteristics of ED. If the child exhibits one or more of the five characteristics outlined in the definition of ED, plus all three qualifying conditions, then the student can be considered to have an emotional disability (assuming other possible explanations have been considered). "Once ED criteria are met any evidence of social maladjustment is irrelevant for purposes of determining eligibility for special education" (McConaughy and Ritter, 2008). However, information and data related to the child's behavioral characteristics and any indication of social maladjustment needs to inform the development of an appropriate IEP.


A Note Regarding the Identification of Students with a Prior Hospitalization

In December 1984, the CSDE issued a policy directive indicating that the local board of education remains responsible for a student's education when he or she is placed in a hospital due to emergency medical and/or psychiatric reasons. One unintended outcome of this policy has been that many students admitted to psychiatric hospitals have been automatically classified by the PPT as students with ED and eligible for special education by virtue of their hospitalization. Some students who have received a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) diagnosis, in fact, may not meet eligibility criteria for special education.

Frequently, students enter a psychiatric hospital without previously having been identified as eligible for special education and related services. A referral subsequent to such a placement is made to the school district by the student's parents or by hospital personnel. The district is then obligated to consider whether an evaluation is warranted under the circumstances to determine whether the child is eligible for special education. The rights and procedures for evaluating the educational needs of a hospitalized student suspected of being eligible for special education are the same as for a student referred for evaluation within the school setting. When provided, results of evaluations conducted by a psychiatric hospital must be considered and may be accepted by the PPT; however, the PPT assumes the responsibility of ensuring that the evaluation meets the standards for identifying any student suspected of having a disability. The standards to be adhered to are (1) multiple sources of information and (2) valid measures addressing all areas related to the suspected disability. Given the requirement to consider all areas of the definition, an evaluation to determine a condition of ED will require the same type of data concerning the student's emotional/behavioral status, intellectual/developmental functioning and educational progress.

Often these students return to the school district following a short-term hospital stay (frequently less than three weeks) with a physician's recommendation for special education services. The school system's PPT should regard this as a referral for an eligibility determination and a decision must be made by the PPT to conduct an evaluation or to try alternative strategies within the general education setting. Before implementing a comprehensive assessment, it is important to consider whether the student's previous general education program can adequately address the student's current social and emotional needs. One option as part of a comprehensive assessment is to use a trial special education placement for diagnostic purposes. A diagnostic special education placement is a structured program of, not more than eight weeks duration, that can be used to assess the needs of the student for whom an IEP may be needed (see Connecticut Regulations Concerning Children Requiring Special Education, Section 10-76d-14[b], for a description of trial placement for diagnostic purposes and the procedural requirements that must be followed). This option is typically selected when the evaluation study is inconclusive or the data insufficient to determine the student's eligibility and needs. It should be noted, however, that if there is a dispute regarding the student's eligibility, program or placement at the conclusion of the diagnostic placement and due process is initiated, the diagnostic placement is not considered the "stay put" placement for the student pending due process unless the PPT and the parents so agree.

A student with a prior hospitalization is protected under the provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to determine what might be done with regard to special accommodations or related services for the student to participate in the school program. Under the provisions of Section 504, the district must assess the student's needs for such services. Protection under Section 504 also includes a FAPE and reasonable accommodations along with a plan for the delivery of services.


A Note on Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or "504" is a civil rights law that provides protections to individuals with disabilities from discrimination. The purpose of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is "to empower individuals with disabilities to maximize employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence and inclusion and integration into society'" (29 United States Code [U.S.C.] Chapter 16 Section 701 [b] [1]). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act entitles a child to a FAPE. A FAPE is defined as "the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that 'are designed to meet individual educational needs of persons with disabilities as adequately as the needs of persons without disabilities are met'" (34 C.F.R. Section 104.33[b] [1]). Provision of FAPE may require that a student with a disability receive specialized instruction and related services under the protection of the IDEA, which provides an IEP and additional procedural safeguards, while also protecting that student from discrimination. For a child to meet eligibility for special education and related services under the IDEA, the child's disability must adversely affect educational performance. If this qualifying condition is not met, the child will not be eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA but may be eligible for protections under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Eligibility under 504 requires that a child have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity, which includes walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, writing, performing math calculations, working, caring for oneself and performing manual tasks. The defining criterion is that the student has an "impairment' that substantially limits 'one or more' major life activities."

A student found eligible under 504 may receive accommodations and modifications to the general education setting or program that are not otherwise available to children who are not disabled. The school district may develop a 504 Plan that describes the appropriate accommodations and/or modification, which are necessary to provide the student with a disability a FAPE. Best practice indicates that school districts document necessary accommodations and modifications in a written 504 Plan. Parents are encouraged to request a written 504 Plan that outlines the appropriate accommodations and modifications.

Qualification for protection under Section 504 allows a student with a documented disability to obtain necessary accommodations and/or services in a postsecondary education, employment or adult service setting and can facilitate a smooth transition. ED is an educational disability category defined in the IDEA and is not a medical or mental health diagnosis. A student eligible for special education under the IDEA due to an ED does not qualify under 504, based solely on this special education eligibility determination, in a post high school setting. Eligibility under 504 requires documentation of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In discussing the transition needs of a student with an emotional/psychological disability, the PPT may wish to pursue documentation of a substantial impairment, on a case-by-case basis, by obtaining an appropriate medical/mental health diagnosis in order to identify the accommodations and services a student might need under Section 504 while in a post-high school setting. In many postsecondary settings, 504 accommodations for students with an emotional/psychological disability are determined and implemented following a complete diagnostic evaluation by a licensed medical or mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, neurologist and psychologist. The diagnostic report should include a complete diagnosis and should identify the learning areas impaired by the disability.


A Note on Cultural Considerations in the Identification of Students with Emotional Disability

The disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education has been a concern for over three decades (Artiles, Trent, and Palmer, 2004; Donovan and Cross, 2002; Dunn, 1968; National Education Association, 2007). These inequities can be found at every level of service delivery as evidenced by academic achievement gaps, disparities in suspension and expulsion, as well as disproportionate identification in special education. The impact of racial and economic inequity is of particular concern with regard to the misidentification of students with ED and the programs/services offered to these students.

Disproportionality in special education has been described as "the extent to which membership in a given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific special education disability category" (Oswald and Coutinho, 2001). Disproportionality may manifest as both overrepresentation and underrepresentation of certain groups within a specific category. In Connecticut, a relative index or risk ratio is used to represent possible overrepresentation of students. The risk ratio has been defined by Gamm (2010) as, "How many more times one racial/ethnic group is more/less likely to be found eligible for services than others." A risk ratio of 1 represents perfect proportionality. Generally, a risk ratio that is between 0.50 and 1.5 is considered to be proportionate. Those that are less than 0.25 or higher than 2 are problematic (Gamm, 2010).

IDEA legislation requires states to collect and examine data on significant disproportionality for purposes of the identification of students in specific disability categories, as well as the education placement decisions made on their behalf based on race and ethnicity, at the state and district level. Additionally, both the states and local school districts must address the disproportionate representation of racial/ethnic groups in special education (IDEA 2004). Excerpts from findings in the IDEA 2004's statute note that greater efforts are needed to prevent the problems connected with misidentifying "minority" children and limited English proficient children as having a disability.

Nationally, the overrepresentation of African American students receiving special education has been a consistent concern for nearly four decades (Gamm, 2010). African American students are at a particular risk for disproportionate representation in the ED category and are identified as having mental retardation and ED at rates greater than their white counterparts (Gamm, 2010). Nationwide, African American and Native American children are 1.92 and 2 times (respectively) more likely to be labeled ED than white children (National Research Council, 2002).The U.S. Department of Education (2000) reports that, although African American children account for 14.8 percent of the school age population, they account for 26 percent of all the students classified as ED. In addition, more students of color continue to receive services in special education than would be expected based on the percentage of students of color in the general school population. Studies have found that schools with predominantly white students and teachers have disproportionately identified high numbers of students of color in need of special education services. The implication of overrepresentation of students of color in the ED category is directly related to the overrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos in the judicial system at both the juvenile and adult correctional levels. African American adolescents with a mental health concern are referred to the juvenile justice system more than white adolescents (Cauce, 2002). Of particular concern is that race seems to play a role in the determination of whether an individual is referred for intervention versus disciplinary action for exhibiting similar difficult behaviors.

Similar levels of risk have been found in Connecticut. According to 2009-10 state level data, African American children have a relative risk index of 1.8 for serious ED (SED)(CTSD, 2010). Interestingly, there is some variability at the district level with a few districts reporting overrepresentation of white students for this category. However, there is some suggestion that overidentification for white students may not have the same negative impact as it does for students of color (Cauce, 2002). An additional concern is the underrepresentation of some groups. According to CSDE's 2009-10 data on disproportionality, Asian students are four times (relative risk index, -4.00) less likely to be identified as a student with an emotional disability. There is a tendency to focus on externalizing behaviors rather than internalizing behavior, which may influence the over-representation of African American students and males as well as the underrepresentation of Asian Americans and females in this category. Given both the overrepresentation of some student groups identified as ED and the disparity in the outcomes for students, eligibility due to ED should be used with caution. The identification of students with ED is particularly problematic and lends itself to racial and other biases given both the ambiguity of the federal definition and the subjectivity of the assessment process. Critical features of identification may be further influenced by the impact of the teacher-student relationship, for example, who is referred and what behavior is considered most problematic. In her ethnographic study-examining role of race, class and family, Lareau (2003) documents the potential chasm between the cultural and behavioral expectations of American teachers and their students of color. Cultural incongruence between teachers and their students may result in inappropriate referrals and should be carefully examined.


A Note on Linguistic Considerations in the Identification of Students with Emotional Disability

Data supports the fact that linguistically diverse students (i.e., ELLs) are often overrepresented in special education programs. For certain subgroups of culturally and linguistically diverse populations, overrepresentation is present at higher rates in specific categories such as intellectually disabled or emotionally disturbed (NEA, 2008).

The IDEA requires that in conducting any evaluation (initial or reevaluation), the local education agency (LEA) must ensure that evaluation materials are selected and administered to not be discriminatory or racially or culturally biased. Evaluations must be administered in the student's native language or other mode of communication in a form most likely to yield accurate information related to what the child knows and can do academically, developmentally and functionally (34 C.F.R. Section 300.304 [c] [i] [ii]). Additionally it is necessary that those administering assessments are trained and knowledgeable (34 C.F.R. Section 300.34 [c] [iv]). The IDEA also states that upon completion of evaluation, a child must not be determined to have a disability, if, among other qualifiers, the determinant factor is limited English proficiency (34 C.F.R. Section 300.306 [b] [ii]). It is essential therefore that when the PPT determines that a linguistically diverse student is at risk for an emotional disability and is considering eligibility for special education, that assessments are conducted in the student's dominant spoken language or alternative communication system. Information yielded from assessments must be considered in the context of the student's social/cultural background as well as the setting in which he or she is functioning. It is important to recognize and minimize bias when interpreters are used and to be cognizant that translated test items can change the difficulty level of the item.

When determining eligibility for special education under the category of ED, it is also critical that the PPT consider linguistic differences and cultural influences in the analysis and interpretation of student behavior. This is especially true in the case of young ELLs who may demonstrate school behaviors such as playing in isolation, not speaking in either language, having trouble with following directions, expressing ideas and feelings, responding to questions consistently and experiencing crying and tantrum behaviors. Such behaviors may be misinterpreted or mislabeled as emotional or behavioral problems when in fact such behaviors are common to the typical developmental stages related to acquiring a new language. It is therefore critical that PPT members and decision makers have an understanding of the acquisition of a new language and that the information considered by the team is gathered from a variety of sources. This ensures accurate information about the linguistically diverse student's cultural and family background, knowledge and developmental, functional and academic levels. Such an understanding of the individual student will enable teams to distinguish between behaviors associated with second language acquisition and those that might be indicative of an emotional or behavioral disability (Santos. R.M. and Ostrosky, M.M.).