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Emotional or Behavioral Disorders Defined

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

Emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD) are difficult to define. In fact, some think that people are identified as having this disability when adults in authority say so (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2006). In other words, in many cases the application of the definition is subjective. Definitions of this disability, including the one used in IDEA '04, are based on the one developed by Eli Bower (1960, 1982). Let's first look at the federal definition. IDEA '04 uses the term emotional disturbance to describe students with emotional or behavioral disorders, which is the special education category under which students whose behavioral or emotional responses are not typical are served.

Old versions of IDEA used the term serious emotional disturbance to describe this disability area, but serious was dropped in 1999 when the U.S. Department of Education created the regulations for the 1997 version of IDEA. The government did not, however, change the substance of the definition when it changed the term. Here's what it said about the deletion: "[It] is intended to have no substantive or legal significance. It is intended strictly to eliminate the pejorative connotation of the term 'serious'" (U.S. Department of Education, 1999, p. 12542). In addition, some implied parts of the federal definition are important to understand. For example, although only one characteristic listed in the IDEA '04 definition need be present for the student to qualify for special education, whatever the characteristics, me child's educational performance must be adversely affected. Because nearly all of us experience some mild maladjustment for short periods of our lives, the definition also requires that the child exhibit the characteristic for a long time and to a marked degree, or significant level of intensity.

The IDEA '04 term and definition have been criticized by many professionals (Kauffman, 2005). To them, using only the word emotional excludes students whose disability is only behavioral. The exclusion of students who are "socially maladjusted" contributes to this misunderstanding because the term is not actually defined in IDEA '04. Many educators interpret the term social maladjustment as referring to students with conduct disorders or those youth who have been adjudicated for rule violations (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). And the reference to "educational performance" has been narrowly interpreted to mean only academic performance and not behavioral or social performance, life skills, or vocational skills.

Responding to these criticisms, a coalition of 17 organizations, which calls itself the National Mental Health and Special Education Coalition, drafted another definition and continues to lobby federal and state governments to adopt it (Forness & Knitzer, 1992). It is unlikely, however, that this definition will gain universal acceptance, because some people are concerned that it would be a more inclusive definition; it might identify too many children (Kauffman, 2002 July 14, personal communication). Regardless, it is useful to see this disability from another perspective.

Emotional or behavioral disorders can be divided into three groups that are characterized by:

  1. Externalizing behaviors
  2. Internalizing behaviors
  3. Low incidence disorders

Some emotional or behavioral disorders manifest themselves outwardly. Externalizing behaviors constitute an acting-out style that could be described as aggressive, impulsive, coercive, and noncompliant. Other disorders are more accurately described as "inward." Internalizing behaviors are typical of an inhibited style that could be described as withdrawn, lonely, depressed, and anxious (Gresham et al., 1999). Students who exhibit externalizing and internalizing behaviors, respectively, are the two main groups of students with emotional or behavioral disorders, but they do not account for all of the conditions that result in placement in this special education category. The 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2000) also describes disorders usually first diagnosed in children, but not all of these are considered disabilities by the federal government (tic disorders, mood disorder, and conduct disorders). Table 7.2 defines and explains some of the common externalizing and internalizing behaviors seen in special education students. Remember that conditions disturbing to other people are identified more often and earlier. Teachers must be alert to internalizing behaviors, which are equally serious but are not always identified, leaving children without appropriate special education services. It may be that teachers are less likely to notice internalizing behaviors because they are less likely than externalizing behaviors to interfere with instruction (Lane, 2003). Also, of course, emotional or behavioral disorders can coexist with other disabilities. Let's look at each of these types in turn.

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