Questions Related to Specific Safety Problems
Under what circumstances should an aggressive or disruptive student be evaluated for a possible behavior disorder?
A day hardly passes in many schools without at least a few students becoming involved in a fight or disrupting class. There is little reason to evaluate every student who is charged with such misconduct for a possible behavior disorder. In some cases, however, school authorities may need to consider the possibility that a student's behavior is the result of psychological or medical problems requiring the assistance of specialists. What guidelines should be used in determining when students should undergo a formal assessment?
As a diagnostic category, "behavior disordered" is relatively recent. Coleman (1992, p. 22) explains that the preferred term for years was "emotionally disturbed." In the wake of Public Law 94-142, some states replaced this term with behavior disordered because it sounded less threatening and more compatible with the educational mission of the school. Presumably, teachers could observe and attempt to correct inappropriate behavior. Emotions, on the other hand, seemed to belong more in the domain of clinical psychology.
It should be noted that consensus regarding terminology in this area does not exist. Depending on the state, special education teachers may use behavior disordered or emotionally disturbed. "Conduct disorder" is frequently employed as a diagnostic category by mental health professionals working in residential treatment centers. Conduct disorders are indicated by the presence of multiple antisocial behaviors, such as fighting and physical cruelty, over an extended period of time. Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey (1995, p. 4) note that educators sometimes refer to conduct disorders and antisocial behavior as "social maladjustment." Representatives of law enforcement agencies and the courts may use the term "sociopathic" to describe behavior patterns that pose a danger to others.
Public Law 94-142 specified that "seriously emotionally disturbed" was a condition characterized by one or more of the following aspects (Federal Register, 1981):
- 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
Serious behavior problems requiring clinical intervention may be divided into two general categories: internalizing behaviors and externalizing behaviors (Coleman, 1992, pp. 26–28). Internalizing behaviors, such as social withdrawal and apathy, generally pose no immediate safety problem for others. Externalizing behaviors, on the other hand, may place others at risk. These behaviors include defiance, disobedience, vandalism, aggression toward others, temper tantrums, and swearing. In the most extreme cases, young people lack the ability to distinguish right from wrong. They appear to have no conscience or respect for societal rules. These individuals may be referred to as psychopathic, sociopathic, or "solitary aggressive type" (Coleman, 1992, p. 159).
In determining whether aggressive behavior should be treated as disordered behavior, it is necessary to take into account its frequency and severity. When aggressive behavior has been present for a long period of time, when it results in serious harm to people and property, and when it is coupled with other externalizing behaviors, psychological assessment by trained personnel is justified. Teachers and administrators should be prepared to provide evidence of the frequency of behaviors and their effects on others.
To help resolve some of the confusion surrounding terminology and provide guidance concerning when to assess individuals manifesting problem behavior, the National Mental Health and Special Education Coalition created a working group to develop a new definition of behavioral disorder. The result of their efforts is the following statement (Forness and Knitzer, 1992, p. 13):
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, including academic, social, vocational or personal skills, and which:
- 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
- persists despite individualized interventions within the education program, unless, in the judgment of the team, the child's or youth's history indicates that such interventions would not be effective.
Labeling young people as seriously emotionally disturbed and behavior disordered, of course, can have negative consequences. The potential for misdiagnosis and the "self-fulfilling prophecy" effect is always present. To protect the interests of young people, guidelines have been established for evaluating students for special education services. As specified in Public Law 94-142, evaluations must involve nondiscriminatory testing, parental participation, multiple criteria, team decisions, and test validity. Estimates of U.S. students who meet the criteria for behavior disordered range from less than 1% to more than 10% (Coleman, 1992, pp. 30–31).
© ______ 2002, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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