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Why Are We Still Labeling Children as ‘Emotionally Disturbed’?

Laura lived with her aunt and seemed to immediately connect with me. It didn’t even feel like much effort on my part. Laura was a third grader, and a young girl who made me feel like royalty when I entered her classroom. She would proudly announce that I was there to see her, and stop whatever she was engaged in and eagerly exit the room along with me to tell me about her day.

Laura liked to select the activity or game we would play, as though allowing her to make a choice was so meaningful. She preferred to talk while we were drawing or were immersed in a puzzle. She impressed me with her awareness of her surroundings and ability to charm anyone. I quickly learned that she responded well with constant praise and encouragement. Her biggest strength and weakness was hiding her emotions. She had a lot of friends, yet she always seemed lonely because she feared closeness with anyone. Connecting with an adult seemed to make a world of difference to her self-esteem and confidence.

Over the years I have worked closely with several different classified populations. I never once felt that working with ED children was a challenge. For years I wondered if these children in Brooklyn were falsely classified. I now recognize these children did have special needs; needs that were different from the majority of their peers. But to me, these needs represent the child’s added capability, not disability.

In my tenure as an educator, many terms and classifications in special education have changed. The names of special diplomas have even changed. Why has no one else raised the notion that labeling children as ED could potentially cause more harm than benefit? Shame on me for not making this a more important priority in my career.

Today’s society focuses on politically correct terminology, so why are we still using the term “emotionally disturbed”? Let’s break it down: We know that “emotional” means having intense emotions. Most of us probably wouldn’t appreciate being referred to as “emotional” on a regular basis. And now let’s review the definition of “disturbed.” defines as an adjective: “marked by symptoms of mental illness,” and as a noun: “persons who exhibit symptoms of neurosis or psychosis.”

Do I need to say more about this label for children? Are we labeling capable children with special needs to give up before we even try to help them develop more positively and help them learn how to manage themselves more capably? Why aren’t these children being labeled, “emotionally capable”?

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There is no need to review the tragedies that have recently occurred involving weapons and mass shootings. Are these perpetrators emotionally disturbed? I believe it takes a person to be possessed by evil to harm others in this capacity, however some may view these felons as ED. If so, then why are we still labeling children as ED?

The children who crave stability and caring, encouraging, strong figures in their lives to help them overcome difficulties. These children can gain awareness of their emotions, understand the impact, and they can learn to manage them. The power of suggestion is enormous, and these children are notoriously perceptive. Has anyone wondered if the label of ED is causing a self-fulfilling prophecy?

It is my hope that the ED classification will be viewed as having potential detrimental effects. I do not know where Anthony and Laura are in their lives right now, but I am hopeful they have learned to form positive relationships with others. And I am confident that Anthony uses his courage, strength, and self-awareness to help others in need; and that Laura found the stability she deserves, shares her wit and charisma, and is now making a difference in the lives of others. I hope they know how they made me a better counselor.

Why Are We Still Labeling Children as ‘Emotionally Disturbed’?

Kristin Devaney, MS

Kristin Devaney is a professional counselor originally from New York and now lives in the Washington, DC area. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and her Master of Science in School Counseling. Kristin is currently earning a PhD in Counselor Education. Creative writing is her passion, as well as spending time with her two daughters and traveling anywhere that has access to the ocean. "Ocean air will heal a wounded soul, and inspire movement toward a deeper happiness." -KD

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APA Reference
Devaney, K. (2018). Why Are We Still Labeling Children as ‘Emotionally Disturbed’?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Oct 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.