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Supposedly, the SED definition is outdated due to advances in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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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