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Definitions

I have always been uncomfortable with what I consider to be our inability to define well what we do and who we do it to. I think it was Voltaire who said "When you speak to me, define your terms."

The Department of Education is currently soliciting comments from concerned educators, psychologists and others, to help them decide whether to replace the current definition of SED (Seriously Emotionally Disturbed) with something with an acronym of EBD standing for Emotionally Behaviorally Disturbed.

Supposedly, the SED definition is outdated due to advances in mental health research and treatment and unfairly stigmatizes students. Moreover, it is felt that some of the terms used in the current definition such as "social maladjustment" are so vague that teachers and mental health professionals have difficulty in determining which students are eligible for services.

According to advocates, students with social or behavioral problems that affect educational performance and social interaction should be eligible for special education services. Under the new definition juvenile delinquency, substance abuse or other behavioral problems will not automatically exclude children from receiving special education services.

What does EBD stand for? I propose that if accepted the new definition will stand for Every Body is Disabled.

In 1990 I conducted a survey in New Hampshire to investigate how children were being identified as being eligible for services under the classification of SED (Seriously emotionally disturbed). At that time, based upon that survey, I proposed that no student be identified as SED in New Hampshire (Paper presented at the NHASP conference 1990). It was my belief then as now that students should not be coded, but that they should be provided appropriate services without a code. That belief was founded on the premise that we as psychologist were not uniform in our diagnosis and that the state and federal laws offered us little if any guidelines upon which to make such determinations. The government has already given us two new classification label (autism and ADD). Now we are offered a new, revised version of the old SED definition.

With the old definition of SED we only had to determine a few things (none of which we did very well):

1. Did the child have a 'condition' of emotional disturbance? What is a condition? Need it be defined by the DSM-III-R or DSM-IV or some other criteria? If not by DSM-III-R or DSM-IV then by what criteria? Did any differentiating condition need be described?

2. Once a condition was determined to be present we were to decide if it was "to a marked degree"? What describes a "marked degree?" Did we need standardized measures for this determination or just our clinical judgment?

3. If the condition existed was it "for a long period of time"? Once again, what did this mean?

4. Finally, we were asked to determine if the condition had "Adversely" affected the education of the child.

Now we are presented with a new definition. Is this one any more defining than the previous. Who won't not be found eligible under the new terms?

In the proposed new definition, "emotional or behavioral disorder" is defined as follows:

The term emotional or behavioral disorder means a disability characterized by behavioral or emotional responses in school programs so different from appropriate age, cultural, or ethnic norms that they adversely affect educational performance. Educational performance includes academic, social vocational or personal skills. Such a disability --
is more than a temporary, expected response to stressful events in the environment;

is consistently exhibited in two different settings, at least one of which is school-related; and

is unresponsive to direct intervention applied in general education, or the child's condition is such that general education interventions would be insufficient.

Emotional or behavioral disorders can co-exist with other disabilities.

This category may include children or youth with schizophrenic disorders, affective disorders, anxiety disorders or other sustained disorders of conduct or adjustment when they adversely affect educational performance in accordance with section "B.I."

Under the new definition juvenile delinquency, substance abuse or other behavioral problems will not automatically exclude children from receiving special education services.

Eligibility for special education services is and should be based on the effect of the disability on a student's educational performance. However, the new definition could allow many students with various mental health or simply behavioral problems to qualify for special education services. Will the result be to diminish the resources schools have available for serving students most in need of special services without providing EBD students with the services and treatment most appropriate for their needs? Maybe the federal government could help these students most effectively by increasing the funding for community mental health programs. Is it appropriate to make schools the government entity most responsible for dealing with students' mental health problems that do not affect their academic performance?

Because the new definition does not exclude students who are "socially maladjusted" and includes students who are "conduct disordered," will schools find it more difficult to discipline students effectively? Some of the students who would qualify for services under the new definition can act very aggressively or be chronic rule-breakers. Will this new definition tie the hands of school administrators.

The new definition requires that cultural or ethnic norms be considered in classifying students. How would school staff determine what such "appropriate" norms are? Who would make such a determination?

If we don't identify these children, what are we to do? I would like to make a radical proposal to education. It will greatly increase the identification of children eligible for special education services, but in the long run will be more honest and appropriate for all students.

I propose that we identify all students passing through the public school doors as eligible for "special education" services. All students! No exceptions! Why all students? Because everyone deserves to be granted appropriate education services. I often sit in team meetings listening to the "special education" recommendations being made and added to an IEP. I sometimes protest that the modifications being made are not "special" and in fact are simply "good teaching" techniques. How often are these modifications "special." Not often! So, again, I propose we identify them all. Let's turn the special ed. process on its ear. Let's only test those who want to be considered 'normal.'