Schools Falling Short In Aiding Emotionally Disturbed, Study Says

April 25, 1990 8 min read

By Debra Viadero

The first comprehensive look at the quality of school life being provided the estimated 3 to 5 percent of U.S. children suffering from emotional and behavioral disorders is a portrait far from flattering.

In a book-length study to be published this summer, researchers from the Bank Street College of Education describe a group of schoolchildren floundering academically and dropping out--or being expelled--at disproportionately high rates.

They are students who are alternately ignored, isolated, misdiagnosed, or served in programs that seek to control their behavior, rather than teach them how to manage themselves.

At the Schoolhouse Door: An Examination of Programs and Policies for Children with Behavioral and Emotional Problems deals with a population experts have long called the “most neglected” of any handicapped population.

And though it catalogs serious deficiencies in many classrooms, the report also outlines some promising strategies being tried by a small but growing number of schools, school districts, and states that have targeted these children for better services.

The report recommends a blueprint offering ways policymakers and school administrators can assess and improve their own programs for such children.

“There is a growing recognition that programs are not working for some of these kids, and a feeling of need for some alternatives,” said Jane Knitzer, the primary author of the 160-page study and a former dean of the division of research at the college.

“What I hope this will do is give local communities a way of mobilizing resources around this population--give them a guide on what kinds of strategies might work,” she said.

Ms. Knitzer also wrote the 1982 report Unclaimed Children, which examined the availability of mental-health-care services for emotionally disturbed children. It is widely credited with having spurred mental-health agencies to take a more active role in serving that population.

The new, $222,000 study is the product of three years’ work by Ms. Knitzer and her co-authors, Zina Steinberg and Brahm Fleisch. It was funded with grants from the National Institute on Mental Health, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, and the Ittleson Foundation.

In addition to pulling together existing data on the scope and quality of educational programs and mental-health services for emotionally disturbed children, the researchers conducted two national surveys, visited 26 school sites in 13 states, and talked with staff members from more than 130 programs. They also polled 209 parents of emotionally disturbed children from 28 states.

Experts predicted last week that the study’s findings will help bolster the effort to draw national attention to the needs of children with emotional and behavioral disorders.

In recent years, national advocacy groups have been formed for the first time to lobby on behalf of such children.

And proposals pending in the Congress to reauthorize portions of the federal special-education law include new grant programs to finance studies and projects to improve special education and other services for children with emotional and behavioral disorders. (See Education Week, March 8, 1989.)

“What this new report does is outline very clearly what some of us have suspected for a very long time,” said Chris Koyanagi, the co-founder of one such advocacy group, the National Mental Health-Special Education Coalition, an umbrella group of 21 organizations. “This will be our Bible for the next 5 or 10 years as we deal with special education for these kids.”

Underserved, Mislabeled

According to the study, about 1 percent of all children--400,000 youngsters--are identified by schools as emotionally or behaviorally disordered.

According to the Bank Street researchers, however, that figure falls far short of the actual number of children who are in need of special services. They point to studies indicating that schools may only be identifying between 10 and 30 percent of children in need.

Moreover, they say, many of the children who are identified may not be the “right” ones.

“Data indicate that whether or not a student is identified has as much to do with local tolerances for difficult behavior, attitudes toward special education, and resources as it does with a student’s needs,’' the authors write. In fact, the percentages of children identified in various states have ranged from as low as 0.09 percent in Arizona to 2.48 percent in Utah, according to the report.

As a group, children with emotional and behavioral disorders fare poorly academically. The authors cite studies suggesting that only about a third of them function at or above grade level. Many drop out of school.

And few such children have access to the kinds of mental-health services they need--even though such therapy can be considered a “related service” required by federal special-education law. According to the report, more than half of school districts do not provide such services.

“The reason is that very often schools have been reluctant to assume the fiscal liability for the provision of mental-health services,” Ms. Knitzer said. “And in one study, in five districts where kids did get long-term mental-health services, the parents had really depleted their resources trying to pay for it.”

Other parents were compelled to send their children to residential programs far from home--often because outpatient programs were either unavailable in their communities or because schools or mental-health agencies would not pay for less restrictive care.

Behind the Scenes

To the researchers, however, some of the most disturbing findings emerged from their visits to school programs being touted as exemplary in this field.

Many such programs, they found, were weak on academics and heavy on what the researchers called “a curriculum of control"--behavioral-management strategies focusing almost exclusively on controlling students.

“Unless some effort is made to help kids manage their own behavior, you’re just imposing an external system on them that doesn’t generalize,” Ms. Knitzer said.

In one “exemplary” program visited by the research team, for example, teachers took away children’s recess period as punishment.

At that school, the authors write, the so-called “individualized” curriculum was “as pat as if cut from a cookie cutter,” and students often slept in class. One teacher seemed unable to vary his teaching style to accommodate a student having trouble understanding the lesson, and special facilities, such as a computer room and a bicycle-repair shop, were either unused or reserved only as a reward for students.

In other schools, children would lose “points” for talking with one another or initiating a classroom discussion. The reason for this, the researchers were told, was that children in the program lacked “social skills.”

“This was not a random sampling,” Ms. Knitzer emphasized, “and this, in effect, made some of the disconcerting findings more troubling.’'

The researchers also came across promising programs and strategies, however.

These included the establishment of school or district “pre-referral teams.” The purpose of these multidisciplinary teams was to identify students with behavioral problems early--before they ended up in a potentially stigmatizing special-education class--and to devise strategies to help them succeed in the regular classroom.

One such program reduced the number of children being formally screened for serious emotional disturbances by as much as half.

Other strategies cited in the report include the development of stronger mental-health-care capabilities in the schools, efforts to enhance the entire school climate to better meet the needs of all students, and efforts to link school programs with the families of disturbed children, who are disproportionately poor and from single-parent homes.

The researchers also cite programs that dispense with the traditional practice of “pulling out” children for special help in resource rooms and instead put special-education teachers to work in classrooms alongside general-education teachers. Programs using a case-management system to help secure and coordinate community services for the most seriously disturbed children are also described in the report.

At the state level, the research team found several collaborative efforts between education and mental-health agencies designed to make mental-health services more readily available to students.

The report outlines an agenda for policymakers and school administrators seeking ways to improve services for disturbed children. It recommends that they:

Make an effort to prevent inappropriate identification of students with emotional and behavioral disorders;

Re-examine, at both the state and school-district level, the current mix of mental-health and educational services available to students;

Encourage greater collaboration between schools and mental-health agencies;

Assist the formation of parent and advocacy groups for this population;

Review state fiscal policies to determine if there are hidden incentives for placing affected students in expensive residential settings far from their homes;

Ensure that all such children in the care and custody of state agencies are receiving special-education services; and

Take steps to guarantee an adequate supply of trained personnel to work with troubled children.

“It’s long been known in the field that some of the most lonesome people in town are teachers of emotionally disturbed children,” said Steven Forness, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles and past president of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders.

He was among the experts who last week praised the Bank Street study, but warned that making the kinds of changes it calls for will be costly and difficult.

“These are definitely very tough kids to deal with,” noted William Schipper, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “They’re a group with high problems, high costs, low success rates, a high dropout rate, and a high toll on personnel.”

“But what comes through in this report,” Mr. Schipper said, “is we’re going to have to re-examine our practices--even those of us who thought we were doing things right.”

Copies of the report will be available early this summer for $15 each from either of two locations: Bank Street College of Education, 610 West 112th St., New York, N.Y. 10025; or Children’s Defense Fund, 122 C St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1990 edition of Education Week as Schools Falling Short In Aiding Emotionally Disturbed, Study Says