Emotional Disturbance and Social Maladjustment

by PammyMcB

The question on many special educators’ minds is whether students with Social Maladjustment (SM) should receive special education services. Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) clearly states that Emotional Disturbance (ED) “does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance” (IDEA 2004 C.F.R 300.8(c)(4)(2)). The controversy surrounding emotional disturbance stems from IDEA not clearly defining social maladjustment. Without a definition, I have found it difficult to form an opinion on the issue. In their paper “Deconstructing a Definition,” Kenneth Merrell and Hill Walker bring up many valid points on the issue, and they tend to equate ED with SM (2004). The theory that ED and SM cannot be differentiated is reverberated in “Emotional Disturbance/Social Maladjustment” (Kehle et al., 2004). However, I do not agree with the argument that students with SM should be included in the ED category set up by IDEA. Students with SM, who do not have an ED, would not benefit from special education services.

First and foremost in my argument is that SM and ED are not the same thing. Students with ED normally engage in internalized behaviors. They tend to shy away from attention and show remorse for disruptive behaviors. Often students with ED who seem to exhibit these behaviors do so due to a compulsion. Their behavior is not a calculated response to gain attention or to avoid a task. It is clear, however, that students with ED are capable of acting in a disruptive manner as an avoidance mechanism. In these cases, teachers can remedy the problematic behavior by implementing a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). Once the desired behavior is successfully gained by positive reinforcement methods set up in the BIP, the student with ED should no longer exhibit disruptive avoidance behaviors.

Unlike the student with ED, the student with SM appears to act out in a calculated manner. Their behavior “may be considered strategic and consciously mediated” (Theodore, Akin-Little, & Little, 2004). If a student with SM engages in disruptive behaviors, a BIP could also be used to circumvent the problem behavior. However, the BIP may not be successful in ending problematic behaviors. Students with SM often belong to a culture outside of societal norms. If their culture dictates that education is not important, then the student would not look at education as an opportunity for future growth and development. Researchers argue that students with SM voluntarily act out, and their behavior is “strategic and deliberate” (Theodore, Akin-Little, & Little, 2004). Even when the behavior of a student with SM affects their educational performance, special education services are not should not be guaranteed. The articles by Merrell and Walker and Kehle et al. suggest that special education should be guaranteed to students with SM whose behavior results in the mitigation of educational achievement (2004). However, any student who refuses to do homework/class-work but is capable of achievement at their expected level should be excluded from special education services.

Including a student with SM in a special education program could be counterproductive for students with ED, a Learning Disability (LD), or students with other disabilities who qualify for special education services. Theodore, Akin-Little, and Little argue that “treatment for children with ED may be counterproductive for children with SM” (2004). Therefore, it would be a disservice to all students in the special education classroom that has combined students with ED and SM. An Individual Education Program (IEP) for a student that does not want to learn is not going to be beneficial for that student, while an IEP for a student that wants to learn but has a disability hindering his/her ability to learn would be beneficial.

Other concerns revolve around the welfare of the other students exposed to students with SM. I find Kehle et al.’s following statement problematic – “Children with ED or SM have few, if any, friends and are generally rejected by their peers and teachers primarily as a result of their dysfunctional behavior” (2004). Though it may be true that any dysfunctional behavior can lead to peer rejection, Kehle and company have equated the behaviors of students with SM with the behaviors of students with ED. I would argue that students with ED are often rejected for different reasons than students with SM. These reasons stem from a lack of understanding the disorder of the student with ED and lack of control the student with ED may have over the behaviors rather than unwanted malicious behaviors the student with SM may engage in. Merrell and Walker use anti-social behavior to argue that students with SM should be included in the ED definition. However, it is important to remember that anti-social behavior is not the same thing as difficulty maintaining peer relationships. Anti-social behavior often includes defiant behaviors and conduct disorders. In equating ED and SM, Merrell and Walker are building on preconceived notions that all students with SM also have ED. There is no evidence that can conclusively support this claim. In fact, students with SM often show little or no remorse when they have acted inappropriately (Theodore, Akin-Little, & Little, 2004). This lack of remorse should concern all people involved with students who receive special education services. All students with disabilities may be easy targets for the inappropriate behavior students with SM may engage in, which can and often does result in bullying.

Not only does targeted behavior concern me, but also the inability for many students who receive services to determine appropriate peer relationships raises concern. These students may look up to the student with SM and may begin to mimic unwanted behaviors. They may be used as patsies in a devious plot or scheme. They also may be easily manipulated into engaging in inappropriate activities. Therefore, they become a victim to the unruly behaviors of a student with SM. I do believe that many of the students with both ED and SM that Merrell and Walker discuss in length are possibly such victims or students exposed to SM behavior. I find it interesting in “Deconstructing a Definition,” Kenneth W. Merrell suggests that students with SM should be included in special education, and SM and ED should not be differentiated, because the Theodore, Akin-Little, and Little article cites him as arguing “The combination of students with a pattern of rule-violating behavior and who demonstrate little remorse for their actions with students who evidence emotional disorders are naïve may result in bullying” (1992), which further supports my argument that SM and ED should be differentiated and warrant different treatments.

According to Theodore, Akin-Little, and Little students with SM require some treatments that cannot be implemented by the school district. Most treatment options for students with SM involve working with the families of students with SM. the only treatment option recommended that may be used in the school setting is the Cognitive Problem-Solving Skills Training. This method utilized self-monitoring as a way to learn problem-solving skills. However, students with SM who do not recognize the need for such skills will not be willing to engage in such treatment activities. A student cannot be forced to change if they see no need to change. Other methods recommended included Parent Management Training, Multisystemic Therapy, and Functional Family Therapy, all of which are based in a family approach. Again, students with SM may come from a culture outside of societal norms. If this is the case, the family of the student may not recognize the behavior of their child as problematic behavior.

Determining whether problematic behavior is due to SM or ED is confounded without a clear definition of SM from IDEA. Although Merrell and Walker support their argument with statistics that show 50% of students with ED have been arrested at least once “within 3 years of leaving school” (2004), it is important to recognize this statistic is twenty years old and may not be true today. The statistic was gathered before the 1997 and 2004 changes in IDEA and is a reflection of a generation before today’s students were born. Clear distinctions can be made between students with SM and students with ED. Such distinctions include remorse, internalized/externalized behaviors, and calculated/compulsive behaviors. The differences in behaviors of students with SM can cause difficulties in the special education classroom and can negatively affect the social, emotional, and educational growth of other students who receive special education services. Most importantly, students with SM often do not want help and no matter what an IEP or a BIP may say, a student with SM will not change their behavior to fit into a culture they do not see themselves as being part of.


Kehle, T. J., Bray, M. A., Theodore, L. A., Zhou, Z., & McCoach, D. B. (2004). Emotional Disturbance/Social Maladjustment: Why Is the Incidence Increasing? Psychology in the Schools, 41(8), 861-865.

Merrell, K. W., & Walker, H. M. (2004). Deconstructing a Definition: Social Maladjustment Versus Emotional Disturbance and Moving the EBD Fiend Forward. Psychology in the Schools, 41(8), 899-909.

Theodore, L. A., Akin-Little, A., & Little, S. G. (2004). Evaluating the Differential Treatment of Emotional Disturbance and Social Maladjustment. Psychology in the Schools, 41(8), 879-886.