ERIC Identifier: ED295398 Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Zabel, Robert H. Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Emotional Disturbances. ERIC Digest #454.
Emotional and behavioral disturbances represent significant behavioral
excesses or deficits. Many labels are used to denote deviant behavior; these
labels include: emotionally handicapped or disturbed, behaviorally disordered,
socially maladjusted, delinquent, mentally ill, psychotic, and schizophrenic.
Each of these terms refers to patterns of behavior that depart significantly
from the expectations of others. In recent years, "behavioral disorders" has
gained favor over "emotional disturbance" as a more accurate label leading to
more objective decision-making and fewer negative connotations.
Public Law 94-142 defines serious emotional disturbance (SED) as "a condition
exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of
time and to a marked degree, which adversely affects educational performance:
--An inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or
health factors. --An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal
relationships with peers and teachers. --Inappropriate types of behavior or
feelings under normal circumstances. --A general pervasive mood of unhappiness
or depression. --A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated
with personal or school problems." (U.S. FEDERAL REGISTER, 42, August 23, 1977,
The federal definition includes children who are diagnosed as schizophrenic,
but excludes socially maladjusted children "unless it is determined that they
are seriously emotionally disturbed." Although autism was formerly included
under the SED designation, in 1981 it was transferred to the category of "other
In A STUDY OF CHILD VARIANCE, Rhodes and Tracy (1974) identified several
conceptual models for understanding emotional and behavioral disorders.
Biophysical, psychoanalytical, behavioral, sociological, and ecological models
offer different theoretical perspectives on the nature and causes of behavioral
HOW MANY CHILDREN ARE EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED?
Estimates of the number of school-age children and adolescents with emotional
or behavioral disorders depend on the definitions and criteria that are used. At
some point in their lives, most individuals exhibit behavior that others
consider excessive or inappropriate for the circumstances. Thus, frequency,
intensity, duration, and context must be considered in making judgments of
disturbance. Unlike some other educational disabilities, emotional and
behavioral disorders are not necessarily lifelong conditions.
Although teachers typically consider 10%-20% of their students as having
emotional or behavioral problems, a conservative estimate of the number whose
problems are both severe and chronic is 2%-3% of the school-age population.
Currently, less than one-half that number are formally identified and receive
special education services.
WHAT ARE TYPICAL PATTERNS OF DISORDERED BEHAVIOR?
There is considerable agreement about general patterns or types of disordered
behavior. Achenbach (1982) suggests two discrete patterns which he calls
"externalizers" (aggressive, disruptive, acting out) and "internalizers"
(withdrawn, anxious, depressed). Quay (1972) identifies the following four
dimensions: CONDUCT DISORDERS (aggression, disobedience, irritability);
PERSONALITY DISORDERS (withdrawal, anxiety, physical complaints; IMMATURITY
(passivity, poor coping, preference for younger playmates); and SOCIALIZED
DELINQUENCY (involvement in gang subcultures).
In addition to CONDUCT DISORDERS and PERSONALITY PROBLEMS, Rizzo and Zabel
(1988) discuss PERVASIVE DEVELOPMENTAL DISORDERS (including autism and childhood
schizophrenia) and LEARNING DISORDERS (including attention deficit disorders
with hyperactivity). Not all behaviorally disordered students experience
academic difficulties, but the two factors are often associated.
WHAT ARE THE EDUCATIONAL IMPLICATIONS?
Educational interventions should match the established needs of students with
behavioral disorders. Multidisciplinary educational teams, including parents,
must design programs to meet the individual behavioral and academic needs of
identified SED students. Most students can benefit from supportive treatments
provided in regular programs. For others, at least temporary placements in
special classrooms, schools, or institutional programs may be appropriate.
Special programs usually attempt to provide a "therapeutic milieu," a
structured environment where students experience a high degree of success; rules
and routines are predictable; and students are consistently rewarded for
appropriate behavior. Behavior management techniques, such as positive
reinforcement, token economies, contracting, and time-out, which rely on direct
measurement and monitoring of behavioral change, are commonly used in SED
programs. The assessment and systematic teaching of social skills through
modeling, discussion, and rehearsal are frequently used to help students
increase control over their behavior and improve their relations with others. In
addition, supportive therapies involving music, art, exercise, and relaxation
techniques, as well as affective education, individual, and group counseling are
sometimes employed to improve self-understanding, self-esteem, and self-control.
Available resources include the following:
American Orthopsychiatric Association 19 W. 44th St. New York, NY 10036
American Psychiatric Association 1700 16th St., NW Washington, DC 20009
American Psychological Association 1200 17th St., NW Washington, DC 20036
Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders The Council for Exceptional
Children 1920 Association Dr. Reston, VA 22091
National Institute of Mental Health 5600 Fishers Lane Rockville, MD 20857
National Society for Autistic Children 1234 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Suite
1017 Washington, DC 20005
Available through membership in CEC/Council for Children with Behavioral
Quarterly journal BEHAVIORAL DISORDERS, newsletter, and two monograph series,
SEVERE BEHAVIORAL DISORDERS OF CHILDREN AND YOUTH, and PROGRAMMING FOR
ADOLESCENTS WITH BEHAVIORAL DISORDERS.
CEC Publications include:
ALTERNATIVE PROGRAMS FOR DISRUPTIVE YOUTH, No. 239, 1982.
Gadow, Kenneth D. CHILDREN ON MEDICATION, VOL. II: EPILEPSY, EMOTIONAL
DISTURBANCE, AND ADOLESCENT DISORDERS, No. 310, 1986.
Wood, F. H., and K. C. Lakin. DISTURBING, DISORDERED, OR DISTURBED?
PERSPECTIVES ON THE DEFINITION OF PROBLEM BEHAVIOR IN EDUCATIONAL SETTINGS, No.
Jordan, J. B., D. A. Sabatino, and R. Sarri (eds.). DISRUPTIVE YOUTH IN
SCHOOL, No. 202, 1980.
Morse, W. C., and J. M. Smith. UNDERSTANDING CHILD VARIANCE. No. 200, 1980.
Computer Search Reprints--annotated bibliographies drawn from ERIC and ECER
databases on topics such as EDUCATING EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED CHILDREN AND YOUTH
(No. 564, 4/88) and custom computer searches of the ERIC/ECER databases on your
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Achenbach, T. M. DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOPATHOLOGY. New York: John Wiley and
Coleman, M. C. BEHAVIOR DISORDERS: THEORY AND PRACTICE. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Gordon, T. PARENT EFFECTIVENESS TRAINING. New York: Wyden, 1970.
Kauffman, J. M. CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDREN'S BEHAVIOR DISORDERS, 3rd ed.
Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill, 1985.
Kelker, K. A. TAKING CHARGE: A HANDBOOK FOR PARENTS WHOSE CHILDREN HAVE
EMOTIONAL HANDICAPS. Portland, OR: Regional Research Institute for Human
Services, Portland State University, 1987. (503) 464-1751.
Patterson, G. R. LIVING WITH CHILDREN: NEW METHODS FOR PARENTS AND TEACHERS
(rev. ed.). Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Quay, H. C. "Patterns of aggression, withdrawal, and immaturity." In H. C.
Quay and J. S. Werry (Eds.), PSYCHOPATHOLOGICAL DISORDERS OF CHILDHOOD. New
York: John Wiley and Sons, 1972.
Rhodes, W. C., and M. L. Tracy. A STUDY OF CHILD VARIANCE (3 vols.). Ann
Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1974.
Rizzo, J. R., and R. H. Zabel. EDUCATING CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS WITH
BEHAVIORAL DISORDERS: AN INTEGRATIVE APPROACH. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1988.
Wang, M. C., M. C. Reynolds, and H. J. Walberg. THE HANDBOOK OF SPECIAL
EDUCATION: RESEARCH AND PRACTICE, (Vol.2). Oxford, England: Pergamon Press,
1988. (Includes chapters synthesizing research on emotional-behavioral
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