Academic Accommodations For Students With Psychiatric Disabilities

This page discusses the article “Academic Accommodations for Students with Psychiatric Disabilties” by Souma, Rickerson and Burgstahler (published 2002). The article can be viewed online using this link:

As teachers, we have a duty to not only concern ourselves with the academic progress of our students, but also with their mental and emotional well-being. This article by Souma, Rickerson and Burgstahler provides information on how to academically accommodate for those students suffering from psychiatric disabilities and mental illness.

Students with a psychiatric disability are those who have a “diagnosable mental illness causing severe disturbances in thinking, feeling, relating and / or functional behaviors that results in a substantially diminished capacity to cope with daily live demands” (3). In Special Education terminology, we typically refer to these students as ED, or emotionally disturbed. Some symptoms of students with psychiatric disabilities include heightened anxiety, dramatic personality changes, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, extreme mood swings, strong resistance to offers of help, and suicidal thoughts or talks of suicide.
Students with psychiatric disabilities typically fall into one of the categories outlined on the “Emotional and Behavioral Disorders” page, including: depression, bipolar affective disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and post traumatic stress disorder.

Ways that Psychiatric Disabilities Affect Student Performance in the Classroom

In the classroom, we must recognize the many ways that students’ psychiatric disabilities may affect their performance in the classroom. The authors have created a list of some of the major areas in which these students may struggle and may need accommodations:

  • Difficulty with medication side effects
  • Inability to screen environmental stimuli
  • Difficulty sustaining concentration
  • Difficulty maintaining stamina and energy throughout the day
  • Difficulty managing multiple tasks and time pressures
  • Difficulty interacting with others or working in groups
  • Fear of authority figures, such as teachers or other adults
  • Difficulty understanding or responding to negative feedback or criticism
  • Difficulty responding to changes in assignments, course structure or expectations
  • Test Anxiety

What We Can Do

After outlining the areas in which students with psychiatric disabilities experience difficulty, the authors offer a variety of suggestions for instructional strategies and accommodations. Above all, teachers must recognize that high-quality and engaging instruction must be in place for students to benefit fully. We must work to incorporate a variety or learning styles and experiential learning activities and projects. In addition, we must create a classroom environment in which diversity – of all types – is valued and where behavioral expectations are set high.
With these core components in place, teachers can then address the individual needs of each student by using a variety of appropriate accommodations. Teachers must, however, keep in mind that accommodations should not drastically alter the content of the course or the objects taught to the students. Accommodations typically focus on using alternate means of conveying information or assessing students.

Classroom Accommodations:

  • Preferred seating
  • A partner or assistant to help student
  • Breaks or beverages/snacks allowed
  • Tape recorder use
  • Notetaker or the chance to copy other students’ notes
  • Private feedback
  • Use of assistive technologies and other computer software

Examination Accommodations:

  • Alternate format for assessments (such as oral presentation, portfolio, essay, etc)
  • Alternate location for exam (to minimize distractions)
  • Individual testing
  • Breaking long tests into smaller pieces
  • Extended time

Assignment Accommodations:

  • Substitute assignments
  • Early notice of assignments and projects
  • Alternate timeline for longer projects (or more frequent check-ins with teacher)
  • Extended time for completion
  • Alternate format on assignments

Souma, Rickerson, and Burgstahler (2002). “Academic Accommodations for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities” pp. 3-5. Available online at:

This page was created by Terra White