Does the IDEA Protect Students with Anxiety?
Anxiety affects nearly one-third of adolescents. A diagnosis of anxiety disorder does not, by itself, entitle a student to special education services. However, when anxiety affects a student’s attendance, concentration, behavior, or ability to complete assignments, the student may qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Although anxiety does not have it’s own classification under the IDEA, students with anxiety disorders may be classified as “Other Health Impairment” or “Emotional Disturbance.”
Federal regulations define “Other Health Impairment” as:
… having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that
(i) Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and
(ii) Adversely affects a child's educational performance.
34 C.F.R. s. 300.8(c)(9). The term is defined similarly in New York. See 8 N.Y.C.R.R 200.1(zz)(10).
New York and federal regulations define “Emotional Disturbance” 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 child's educational performance:
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems….
34 CFR § 300.8(c)(4)(i)-(ii); 8 NYCRR § 200.1(zz)(4).
The appropriate classification for a student depends highly on the facts of the case, yet it is easy to see that a child with severe anxiety may evidence an “inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors” or a “tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems” under the definition for “Emotional Disturbance.”
Common to each definition is the requirement that the condition adversely affect the child’s educational performance. Grades are relevant, but not conclusive to this issue. Other evidence such as chronic absenteeism or a recent decline of grades due to anxiety are evidence of an adverse effect. Social and emotional problems that do not impact academic performance, however, do not adversely affect the child’s educational performance under the IDEA.
For a long time, anxiety was viewed as a less serious mental health issue. And it’s true that many people experience anxiety to a degree that does not impact their everyday functioning. But we now recognize that anxiety can be every bit as serious as other mental health issues, and special education services may be necessary for children that suffer from anxiety. If you feel that anxiety is impacting your child's performance in school, get an evaluation! Proper services may turn their educational experience around.