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New Definition of 'Emotionally Disturbed' Sought

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BALTIMORE--Seventeen national organizations in the mental-health and special-education fields are proposing, for the first time in nearly 17 years, that the federal definition of "emotionally disturbed'' children be changed.

The groups are advocating a new definition in an effort to better target special-education services for such children, often considered among the most underserved of all disabled students.

Sometimes perceived simply as "bad kids,'' experts say, many emotionally disturbed children fall through the cracks because they do not meet the criteria of the current federal special-education definition. At the same time, they say, the existing definition may also be causing large groups of children to be mislabeled as emotionally disturbed when their problems may be less severe in nature or have more to do with cultural differences or their home environments.

"Nobody liked the old definition,'' said Chris Koyanagi, a co-chairman of the National Mental Health-Special Education Coalition, the umbrella group that drew up the new definition. "We want to adjust the criteria to make it more relevant to the disorders.''

The coalition's proposed definition was presented here this month during a national conference of the Council for Exceptional Children.

But the organizations have already begun lobbying federal lawmakers to change the terminology for the disorder in federal special-education law. And they are asking the U.S. Education Department to incorporate the full, proposed definition into federal special-education regulations.

What is not clear is whether the proposed change would increase the number of children who qualify for special-education services.

Nationally, about 1 percent of all school-age children are classified as emotionally disturbed in school special-education programs. But experts estimate that as many as 3 percent to 5 percent of all students may be in need of such services.

Researchers and advocates say they do not know whether the new definition would lead to the identification of more emotionally disturbed children or whether it would simply change the mix of children receiving services.

"We're just not sure,'' said Steven R. Forness, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles. "If anything, it could increase the number of kids in that category, but that should've increased anyway because they're seriously under-identified.''

Replacing Terms

The new definition is the product of five years' work by the coalition, which includes 30 organizations in the mental-health and special-education fields.

The 17 organizations that endorsed the new definition, most of them also members of the coalition, include the C.E.C., the National Mental Health Association, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, the Child Welfare League of America, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists.

The group is asking the Congress, as part of the scheduled reauthorization this year of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, to change current federal terminology from "serious emotional disturbance'' to "emotional or behavioral disorder.''

"There's no other category in special education that says you have to be 'serious' in order to get help,'' Ms. Koyanagi said.

The use of the term "behavioral'' is meant to signal that children who have conduct disorders--a condition characterized by a consistent pattern of rule-breaking and social aggression toward peers--would also be included.

"A lot of time schools see these kids as discipline problems who would behave if they only had a good, consistent home or school environment,'' Mr. Forness said, "but that's not always the case.''

A major problem with the current definition, researchers and advocates say, is its exclusion of children who are "socially maladjusted.''

Experts say schools have tended to define those terms too narrowly, often excluding children who need help.

More Elaboration

The current definition also restricts services to children whose condition "adversely affects school performance,'' which has been interpreted to mean only academic, as opposed to behavioral or social, performance.

Researchers and advocates say they also believe the current definition has led to an overidentification of young, black males in that category. While black children account for 30 percent of the school population, they make up 35 percent of children identified as emotionally disturbed.

The new definition attempts to address such flaws by specifying that "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,'' which it defines as including "academic, social, vocational, or personal skills.''

It also maintains that the condition is "more than a temporary response to stressful events''; is consistently exhibited in two different settings, including a school-related one; and does not change with direct intervention in the general classroom.

In the Congress, aides have said they anticipate no problems in gaining legislative approval of the new term.

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