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Topic of the Day:

What is the difference between
Emotionally Disordered and 
Socially Maladjusted?

First, I am not an attorney and I make no claims to offering legal advice or judgment in this discussion. I am a clinical psychologist who has had to contend with this question for several years. I offer my own, and others, perspective on this topic in the realization that hearings and trials occur over just this question as it relates to special education services under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reauthorization of 1997 (IDEA-97), and Public Law 94-142 as well as other state and federal laws of which I am unaware. I do know one thing, as currently constituted many special education classes have two distinct groups represented in them: prey and predators.

Educators are charged with providing a "Free Appropriate Public Education" (FAPE) to all students. Laws at both the federal and state level mandate the inclusion of handicapped students under FAPE. In Georgia the Department of Education’s Division of Exceptional Students regulations and procedures (1990) use the terms emotionally disturbed and behavior disordered synonymously and emotionally disturbed is defined under Public Law 94-142 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; (each of which is covered by a different area under special education)
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers or teachers;
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems (and)

The term includes children who are schizophrenic. The term does not include children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they are seriously emotionally disturbed (EHA Regulations, 1989, 300.5, (8))."

Many special education programs receive pressure from various sources to serve students who exhibit only social maladjustment. However, the law specifically excludes "socially maladjusted" students from special education services unless the student can also be shown to be emotionally disturbed. Students who are socially maladjusted (or more precisely Oppositional Defiant or Conduct Disordered) typically display a persistent pattern of willful refusal to meet even minimum standards of conduct. Their behavior and values are often in conflict with society’s standards. They exhibit a consistent pattern of antisocial behavior without genuine signs of guilt, remorse, or concern for the feelings of others. These students often engage in simulations of these behaviors but typically display them only when there is an immediate consequence for the absence of such displays. Their antisocial behavior is most frequently seen as resulting from their tendency to place their own needs above those of all other people and the immediate gratification that such behavior brings them. These students are not in chronic distress (one of the criteria for emotional disturbance under the law) although they can exhibit situational anxiety, depression, or distress in response to certain isolated events - particularly facing the consequences of their own actions. These students do not typically respond to the same treatment interventions that benefit emotionally disordered students.

While educators must determine eligibility via a committee approach that is required to have both regular and special education input in addition to parental participation, the differentiation between emotionally disturbed and socially maladjusted students is best determined by a qualified and objective psychologist. The psychological evaluation should include each of the following: Social/ Medical/Education History, intellectual and achievement testing, personality and emotional functioning assessment, direct observation and clinical interview with the student and other stakeholders, and potentially adaptive living and neuropsychological assessments. The psychologist can provide insight based on these and other factors into the students ability to tell right from wrong, reality orientation, adaptive behavior, level and chronicity of affective disturbance, presence/absence of remorse, and responsiveness to prior learning.

Assessments are more precise and reliable when conducted over an extended period of time. Often acute distress over some specific and recent event (such as contact with law enforcement officials) can be perceived as a genuine emotional disturbance in the absence of the perspective that only time and contact with the student can provide. As previously noted, socially maladjusted students do not typically respond to treatment in the same way as do emotionally disturbed students. Most frequently there is a lack of the attachment or relationship development by the socially maladjusted student when placed into a supportive therapeutic environment that one routinely sees in the emotionally disordered student. Extended observations also afford the staff opportunities to assess, within real circumstances, the students ability to: form appropriate (non-exploitative) relationships, display empathy for others, alter their own behavior to conform to the standards in place, accept personal responsibility for (some if not all of) their actions, value anothers point of view, and accept authority.

If it is determined that a student is socially maladjusted and not emotionally disturbed then the student is not eligible for special education services. Research suggests that those programs that provide a high degree of structure, clear limits, precise rules, and immediate, meaningful and impartial implementation of consequences present the greatest potential for long-term change in the socially maladjusted student. Special education programs are not designed to provide this kind of treatment. The presence of the socially maladjusted student in the emotionally disturbed classroom typically impedes the progress of the emotionally disturbed students while failing to benefit the socially maladjusted student. Socially maladjusted students are often seen as predators with typical emotionally disturbed students viewed as prey; placing these students in the same classrooms is a nightmare for both the emotionally disturbed students and the staff.

tips.gif (506 bytes)  For additional information on this, and other education topics, you can visit the Georgia Department of Educations, either of  these U.S. Department of Education websites, The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services or Office for Civil Rights, or our own Education Links page


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