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A Word to Parents

Children with mental health, emotional, or behavioral disorders are just like all children in their need to be understood and appreciated for their strengths and talents. They are also just like other children in their need to belong — to their families, school staff, friends, and their communities.

Special services and supports may be needed in order for a child with mental health, emotional or behavioral disorders to succeed in school environments, including the general education classroom. They may need the help of a guidance counselor, teacher, special education teacher, or psychologist to help them adapt to school expectations. They may need changes in the school curriculum (accommodations and modifications) so that they can experience success with school work. They may need employment training to prepare them for the world of work. They may need a friendship or social skills group to help them find a friend. These kinds of services may be provided for any child experiencing a problem.

If children have emotional, behavioral, or mental health problems that affect their progress in school, they may be eligible for special education services. Finding the right school program is one of the most frequent challenges encountered by parents of children with mental health, emotional, or behavioral needs. How children perform in school affects other areas of their life, including their relationships with parents and siblings. Sometimes school performance even affects whether children can live at home. It is important for parents to be familiar with how school services work and their own role in planning their child’s education. It is also important to know what to do when problems arise.

Many parents quickly learn that developing a positive relationship with school professionals is key to a child’s success in school. While this can be difficult when there are different points of view, keeping a focus on the strengths of children, families, and schools makes planning easier and problems simpler to solve. In the end, a child’s success benefits everyone.

"Navigating the Education System" is about what you as parents need to know to make special education work for your child.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) is a federal law, which means that it applies to all states. IDEA outlines a process for educating children who are eligible for special education. Each state will also have rules for how to carry out special education law. It is a good idea for parents to have both the federal law and the special education rules for their state in their files when questions arise about the special education process.

Special Education

Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

The landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that children with disabilities have a right to a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) designed to meet the child’s unique educational needs at no cost to parents in the least restrictive environment.

  • Free: at no cost to parents
  • Appropriate: the program is tailored and planned to meet the child’s needs
  • Public: public schools are responsible for designing and implementing the Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Education: specially designed instruction described in an IEP

Children who have emotional or behavioral disorders may be identified for special education services under the federal category called emotional disturbance (ED). Some states may use another name for this disability, such as emotional or behavioral disorder (EBD), emotional impairment (EI), or behavior disorder (BD).

The term used in this book is emotional or behavioral disorder (EBD). A child is eligible for services when he or she meets the definition from IDEA 2004, or a broader definition provided by an individual state. This is the current federal definition from IDEA:

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:

  • 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.
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

It is possible for a child with emotional disturbance or a mental health disorder to need special education services, even if that child earns good grades in school. This is especially true if he or she does not know how to behave with others. It can be helpful for parents to think about what skills their child should be learning in school that teaches them how to be successful once they are out of school. Education includes skills that relate to daily life, including social and emotional development, job training, and postsecondary skills.

Some children will need specially designed instruction to help them with their behavior or to solve problems. That may include working on developing positive relationships, work skills, academic skills, or community living skills. Some students will also need to develop self-advocacy skills.

Special education teachers are trained to teach children and youth with EBD and mental health disorders. They provide instruction, may serve as the program manager, and often provide emotional or behavioral support to a child. Teachers of children with EBD also must work effectively with general education teachers to develop services that support children with EBD in the regular classroom.

All teachers, both general and special education, need to know how to work well with children who have emotional or behavioral disorders. They need to know how to teach to the child’s strengths and skills as well as how to meet the student’s needs. Teachers must also know how to develop modifications and accommodations that can help youth succeed in the general education classroom and curriculum.

In addition to services provided by teachers, some children may receive mental health support as part of their school program. A school counselor, social worker, or psychologist may provide emotional or behavioral support. A school nurse may help some children with managing medicines. A vocational rehabilitation specialist may help older youth develop job skills. These kinds of services may be provided wherever a child goes to school.

Related services under IDEA are “transportation and any developmental, corrective, or other services that are needed to help a child benefit from special education.” These services include:

  • Early identification and assessment
  • Counseling services
  • Orientation and mobility services
  • Psychological services
  • Physical and occupational therapy
  • Medical services to diagnose or evaluate for a disability
  • Parent counseling and training
  • Recreation
  • School health services
  • Social work services in schools
  • Speech-language pathology and audiology services

Not every child who receives special education needs related services. The services are provided if they are needed to reach a special education goal. Several important related services for children with EBD include medical services, psychological services, and counseling services.

Medical Services

“Medical services,” as a related service, means services provided by a licensed physician to determine a child’s medically related disability that results in the child’s need for special education and related services. Some examples would be an evaluation by a child psychiatrist for a mental health disorder, such as depression, an eating disorder, Tourette’s, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), etc. Medical services in this context are limited to the evaluation and diagnosis of a disability.

Psychological Services

These include:

  • Consulting with staff
  • Giving tests and assessments
  • Helping to develop positive behavioral interventions
  • Interpreting assessment results
  • Planning and maintaining psychological services, including counseling for children and parents

Using information about a child’s behavior and learning to develop a plan

Counseling Services

Social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, or others provide counseling to students who need this help. Counseling may be provided by schools or by individuals or agencies that work with schools.


School staff and parents must decide whether a child with a mental health, emotional, or behavioral disorder needs special education and related services. To do this, they will need to share information about the child’s performance at home, in school, and in the community. If the team does not have enough information to make a decision about the child’s needs, they will decide whether additional assessments are needed.

Assessments are ways of determining specific areas of strengths and needs. An evaluation includes different kinds of assessment information, such as observations, testing, and discussions. An evaluation may include assessments of:

  • Academic and behavioral performance
  • Medical or psychiatric issues
  • Psychological development
  • Physical or mental health status
  • Social skills
  • Vocational skills

Interviews, tests, and observations are different kinds of evaluation. So is information about a child’s strengths or talents, and information from parents about how a child functions at home or in the community. Parents are part of the group that reviews evaluation results to determine whether their child needs special education services.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal civil rights law. This law states that it is not legal to discriminate against people with disabilities in any program receiving federal funds. Section 504 can help support youth who have mental health, emotional, or behavioral disorders and are not eligible for special education. While this booklet is about special education, many of the questions and parent concerns are also appropriate to consider when a child receives accommodations under Section 504.

A qualified person with a disability under Section 504 means any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Schools must determine whether the child’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity, whether the child has a record of such an impairment, or whether the child is regarded as having such an impairment. These determinations become an issue if discrimination or negative action has occurred because of the record or history, or if the child is regarded as having an impairment. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, sleeping, standing, lifting, learning, reading, writing, concentrating, thinking, communicating, performing math calculations, working, eating, bending, operation of bodily function, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks.

School professionals and parents must decide what accommodations are needed for a child. An appropriate education is one that is equal to the education provided to children who do not have disabilities. Some children will need accommodations to have access to an appropriate education.

Accommodations are such things as adjusting curriculum, giving extra time to complete work, or using a headset to help screen out noise. Accommodations are usually written into a Section 504 plan. When accommodations are in writing, it is easier for teachers and parents to be clear about what supports will be provided. Section 504 accommodations help children to succeed in the activities that are available to all students. If a child has a disability, such as a mental health disorder, but does not qualify for special education, it would be wise for parents to meet with the school’s Section 504 coordinator, who will also have written information about parents’ rights under Section 504.

Next Section: The IEP