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

Little Girl Having Childhood NightmaresI’m not perfect at my job, but I know my presence makes a world of difference

I proudly landed my first school counseling job at a public school in New York City. I had been warned by fellow counselors we can never be fully prepared to take on the enormity of our role.

I admit to feeling intimidated upon hearing the label given to children of whom I would be working. The term, “emotionally disturbed (ED)” also intrigued me, but painted a picture before I even met a single child on my caseload. Not learning specific special education classifications in graduate school, I read up as much as I could about this identification. The image my mind had created included children appearing older than their natural age, possessing negativity and a toughness about them; similarly, to the many Hollywood movies about inner city kids, and contrary to the children whom I grew up with in suburban schools. And then I arrived to work on my first day, wide-eyed and with a tough exterior of my own that I anticipated I would need.

To my amazement, the school atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and the children were respectful and appeared comfortable and safe in their surroundings. The staff spoke positively of their students, and they all felt the need to share information with me about how best to help them. My expectation was to feel out of place, however I recall immediately feeling appreciated for work that I not only hadn’t started yet, but truthfully had no idea how I would even begin my “counseling” work.

It is almost two decades and several counseling positions later, yet I still wonder what Anthony and Laura are doing with their lives today. Anthony was a young boy with stellar attendance. He showed up to school every day on time and although he wouldn’t make direct eye contact, his round, full cheeks would smile broadly when he sensed my presence. Anthony was a fifth grader and rather well-known by teachers throughout the school. There was a gentleness about him, and a strong self-awareness at his young age. Anthony had many bad days, probably more frequent than not, but his bad days consisted of his need to sit away from his classmates; and he knew enough to ask for me at these times.

Anthony rarely talked to me about his home life or his friends, but his strong subtly showed how much my presence meant to him. His teacher frequently called on me each time he abruptly left the classroom, usually after a remark from a peer was said in class. I would find him standing outside the classroom and the relieved look on his face as he saw me said it all. Taking just a few minutes to sit beside him, sometimes in silence, calmed him tremendously.

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It wasn’t long before the teachers would tell me how much Anthony admired me and praise for my work with him. Although these compliments felt great to hear, I didn’t quite understand what I was actually doing with Anthony, or for him. I could rarely carry out any planned activity for him, knowing that I needed to be flexible based on his disposition or surroundings in the moment.

It wasn’t until so many years later that I did understand. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I instinctively knew that Anthony was so much more capable than most people could see him, due to his “ED” label. The school staff knew. They were a group of intelligent professionals whom I attribute so much of my knowledge and experience as a counselor fresh out of graduate school. They could see his potential, emotionally, socially, and academically. Through my special role as a school counselor, I had the privilege of working regularly and closely with him. I believed in Anthony, and I allowed him to be himself. I treated him with respect and as very capable, and he knew it.

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”?

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 10, 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.