emotional disturbance

Serious Emotional Disturbance

In U.S. healthcare, SED is an acronym for serious emotional disturbance (or in some areas, severely emotionally disturbed).


Emotional Disturbance is one of thirteen disabilities outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Section 1912(c) of the Public Health Service Act, as amended by Public Law 102-321 defines children with a serious emotional disturbance as those who are from birth to age of majority who have had a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria specified within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). For the individual to be deemed emotionally disturbed, it must be determined that the child's condition results in functional impairment, substantially interfering with one or more major life activities, such as the abilities to eat, bathe, and dress oneself, or the abilities to function effectively in social, familial, and educational contexts.

Students with SED are more likely to present externalizing behaviors (such as destroying property) than internalizing behaviors (such as withdrawal).


The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) has identified the following characteristics and behaviors as typical of children with emotional disturbances:

  • Inappropriate types of behavior under normal circumstances, such as aggression or self-injurious behavior
  • Hyperactivity (short attention span, impulsiveness)
  • Withdrawal or a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression (failure to initiate interaction with others, retreat from exchanges or social interaction, excessive fear or anxiety)
  • Development of physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems
  • Immaturity (inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, poor coping skills)
  • An inability to build and maintain relationships with peers and teachers
  • Learning difficulties that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors (academically performing below grade level)

SED diagnoses

Additional SED Diagnoses


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