Emotional Impairments (EI)

What is emotional impairment?

An Emotional Impairment (EI) entails manifestation of behavioral problems primarily in the affective domain, over an extended period of time, which adversely affect the student’s education to the extent that he/she cannot profit from regular learning experiences without special education support.


The term “emotional impairment” may also include persons who, in addition to the above characteristics, exhibit maladaptive behaviors related to schizophrenia or other similar disorders. However, the term does not include persons who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that such persons also have an emotional impairment.


Explanation of Terms


. . . manifestation of behavioral problems primarily in the affective domain . . .


The affective domain includes areas such as emotional stability and control, interaction and response to others, problem solving, ability to work with others, and self-control (anxiety, depression, low self-esteem).


. . . over an extended period of time . . .


This phrase means the student has a history of symptoms or characteristics reflecting an emotional impairment that have been exhibited for at least ninety days.


. . . which adversely affect the student’s educational performance . . .


This phrase refers to those EI characteristics which interfere primarily with academic performance and/or social functioning in the school setting to a significant degree. This criteria refers to the frequency, duration or intensity of a student’s behavior in comparison to peers–that is, the impairment must be pervasive (continuing over time) and intense (overt, acute, observable). The adverse effect may be indicated by either reduced work production in the classroom or by lowered academic achievement.


Note: Private evaluations/DSM-V diagnoses do not by themselves qualify a student for an educational emotional impairment.

What does socially maladjusted mean?

Social maladjustment is conceptualized as a conduct problem. A federal district court accepted a definition of social maladjustment as “a persistent pattern of violating societal norms . . . a perpetual struggle with authority, easily frustrated, impulsive and manipulative” (Doe v. Sequoia Union High School District, N.D. Cal. 1987). Although these students are capable of behaving appropriately, they intentionally choose to break rules and violate norms of acceptable behavior. Socially maladjusted students view rule breaking as normal and acceptable. They do not take responsibility for their actions and often blame others for their problems.


A key distinguishing feature between emotional impairment and social maladjustment is the degree of conscious self-control. Students with an emotional impairment (EI) are viewed as lacking the ability to control themselves. Their underlying problem is typically viewed as internalizing, such as affective disorders, elective mutism or separation anxiety disorder, which may indicate emotional impairment. By contrast, the behavior of a socially maladjusted student is viewed as intentional and is typically viewed as externalizing, such as conduct disorders or oppositional disorder which may indicate social maladjustment.

What are the characteristics of an emotional impairment?

Inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships within the school environment.

This criterion means the student does not relate to others in an appropriate manner. Interpersonal relationships refer to a student’s actions and reactions to peers and adults within the school environment.

The student may exhibit behavior(s) similar to the following:

– Acts verbally or physically aggressive toward other students and/or adults

– Withdraws and isolates self physically and/or verbally from others

– Demonstrates fear of peers, teachers and/or adults

– Has no friends in the home, school and/or community setting

– Does not maintain socially-appropriate interactive behavior with others

– Acts emotionally unresponsive to people

– Exhibits inappropriate sexual behaviors

– Alienates others by seeking excessive approval

– Persistently demonstrates regressive behaviors when stressed

Students who exhibit these behavioral characteristics are typically very anxious in interpersonal situations and often react with avoidance, fear and/or withdrawal. Some students might unknowingly alienate others through their strong need for and seeking of attention stemming from poor self-esteem, or through various atypical ideas or behaviors stemming from poor reality testing.

Inappropriate types of behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances.

This criterion means the behaviors must be highly atypical for the situations in which they occur, with no observable reasons to explain their emergence. Such behaviors reflect intrapersonal issues, as opposed to understandable reactions to external circumstances. They may be potentially or actually harmful. Mere misconduct does not qualify a student in this category; nor would a student who is simply choosing not to comply meet this criteria.

The student may exhibit behavior(s) similar to the following:

– Over-reacts to everyday occurrences (i.e., rage, excessive laughter, hysterics)

– Exhibits catastrophic or panic reactions to everyday occurrences

– Demonstrates flat, distorted or excessive affect

– Exhibits self-abusive behaviors

– Exhibits delusions and/or hallucinations (auditory or visual), or thought disorders (i.e., obsessive thoughts, illogical thinking, dissociative thinking, or paranoia)

– Demonstrates extreme mood swings

– Exhibits inappropriate sexually-related behaviors

– Exhibits compulsive behaviors; or persistent, recurrent and intrusive behaviors

General pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

This criterion means a student must exhibit symptoms of depression, which typically involves changes in four major areas: 1) affective, 2) motivation, 3) physical/motor functioning, and 4) cognition. A pervasive mood is one that affects all aspects of a person’s functioning.


– Isolates self from peers, adults or family when not appropriate

– Expresses feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, ineffectiveness or excessive guilt

– Displays extreme anger or frustration in spite of efforts to control anger

– Demonstrates hyperactivity (more generally with young children)

– Expresses feelings of extreme sadness and/or suicidal ideation


– Demonstrates loss of interest in new/familiar activities

– Shows a decline in academic performance

– Assumes failure will occur or simply refuses to attempt tasks

Physical/motor functioning (for no apparent medical reason):

– Demonstrates loss of appetite over a long term and significant weight loss,or increased appetite and corresponding weight gain

– Experiences insomnia or hypersomnia

– Shows deterioration of appearance

– Reports or exhibits on-going unsubstantiated medical problems

– Demonstrates psychomotor agitation or lethargy


– Experiences difficulty attending, thinking and concentrating

– Demonstrates overly-perfectionistic tendencies

Short-term or situational depression would not fit this criterion. Nor would a clinical diagnosis (DSM-V) of depression guarantee eligibility for an educational emotional impairment. The key is that a student’s education must be adversely affected to the point where he/she cannot profit from regular learning experiences without special education support.

Tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

This criterion should be based on psychological or emotional factors that could be causing the symptoms interfering with school performance. Very few students with emotional impairment establish eligibility under this criterion. The most likely example would be a student experiencing school phobia. School phobia refers to a persistent refusal to go to school based on a significant underlying anxiety.

The student may exhibit physical symptoms such as the following:

– Facial tics, twitching, rocking head banging

– Somatic complaints (i.e. headaches, stomach aches, racing heart, diarrhea)

Or the student may exhibit fears involving the following:

– Persistent and irrational avoidance of a specific person, object or situation

– Intense, disabling anxiety often reaching panic proportions when a person, object or situation is approached

Under this criterion, physical symptoms are not under voluntary control. There must be positive evidence or a strong presumption that they are linked to psychological/emotional factors or conflict.

What are the characteristics of social maladjustment?

The behavior of a socially maladjusted student is motivated by self-gain and strong survival skills. They often engage in “purposive acts designed to garner attention, to intimidate others for material gain, to control turf, or to avoid responsible behavior” (Clarizio, 1992). Most demonstrate a lack of age-appropriate concern for their behavior and its effects on others, and they typically lack empathy. Anxiety is generally not related to the misbehavior of a socially maladjusted student, unless it is due to the fear of consequences. There is little remorse demonstrated for the actual misbehavior.


In addition, a socially maladjusted youth often displays behavior which may be highly valued within a small subgroup, but which may not be within the range of culturally-permissible behavior. Socialized or under-socialized forms of aggression may be a feature of social maladjustment.

How is an emotional impairment determined?

A determination of emotional impairment (EI) eligibility is based on data provided by a multidisciplinary evaluation team, which includes a comprehensive evaluation by a psychologist or psychiatrist and a school social worker. Other participants and sources of information include the student, a parent, general education teacher, and sometimes a special education teacher.


When evaluating a student suspected of having an emotional impairment, the evaluation team must document of all of the following:

– Current ability and achievement levels

– The student’s performance and social-emotional functioning in the school setting, as well as his/her adaptive behavior within the broader community

– A systematic observation of the behaviors of primary concern which interfere with educational and social needs

– Any intervention strategies used to improve the behaviors, and the length of time they were utilized

– Relevant medical information, if any


After collecting the required information/data, the evaluation team must consider the following diagnostic assurance statements before making a recommendation regarding the student’s eligibility:

1.  Over an extended period, the student has manifested problems primarily in the affective domain to the extent that he/she cannot benefit from learning experiences without special education support.

2.  The problems are characterized by one or more of the following behaviors:

– An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships within the school environment

– Inappropriate types of behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances

– A general, pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression

– A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears in association with personal or school problems

– In addition to the above behaviors, this student exhibits maladaptive behaviors related to schizophrenia or similar disorders

3.  The behaviors are not primarily the result of intellectual, sensory, health factors or social maladjustment.

4.  The suspected disability is not due to limited English proficiency, or lack of instruction in math or the essential components of reading.

5.  This student requires special education programs/services.