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Emotional Disabilities: 504 and IDEA Eligibility Determination

By Mariann Crincoli, Esq.


Do you have a child with emotional issues who struggles or refuses to go to school, or who is unable to complete homework despite having the cognitive ability to do so? If the answer is yes, your child may have an emotional disability that may entitle her to either accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or an Individualized Educational Plan(IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

504 Plans

To be eligible for a 504 Plan, a person must have a physical or mental impairment (ie. anxiety, depression, etc.) that substantially impacts one or more major life activities (ie. concentrating, learning, focusing, attending school, completing homework). If these criteria are met, a student is entitled to accommodations and modifications of her school program to help her function as do her neurotypical peers. Accommodations and modifications can include a wide variety of supports such as:

  • Extended time to complete assignments and tests
  • Frequent breaks
  • Change in the school schedule, ability to start late and finish early
  • Modified workload, modified format for all schoolwork, tests, and quizzes
  • Counseling

504 Plans are legal documents and are enforceable and maybe just what the doctor ordered to get your child back on track. However, when 504 supports are not sufficient to meet your child’s needs, a referral to the child study team for evaluation may be in order.

Emotional Regulation Impairment

Just because your child’s potential disability is not a learning disability, she may still be entitled to special education and related services under the classification category of Emotional Regulation Impairment. This is defined as 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 student’s educational performance due to:

  • 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 behaviors 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 must be shown that the disability adversely impacts educational performance AND that the student requires special education and related services. The requirement of adverse impact does not necessarily mean that a child’s grades have to suffer. In fact, for a student with an emotional disability, the opposite is often the case. The emotionally disturbed student is typically bright and achieves academically but suffers socially and emotionally as the definition explains. The student may be withdrawn, isolated, socially awkward, a poor communicator, unable to attend school, unable to remain in school for a full day, depressed, unhappy, moody. They may have difficulty self-regulating, experience negative thoughts, or suffer from somatic symptoms that are not medically based – these symptoms are not easily seen and are often overlooked. However, they can be even more impactful than a decline in academic functioning.

The kind of instruction that a child with emotional disturbance may require is specialized in that it focuses on the emotional and social skills that the child needs in order to function like her neurotypical peers.

If your child study team refuses to find your child eligible for individualized special education on the basis of any of the required criteria, you do have legal recourse, and Sussan, Greenwald, and Wesler can help to ensure that your child’s needs are met. We have helped countless families of children with emotional disabilities obtain the supports and services necessary for them to access their appropriate education and make meaningful educational progress.