Social maladjustment and students with behavioral and emotional disorders: Revisiting basic assumptions and assessment issues



While much of the current focus in special education remains on reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1997, disparities in the identification of children with serious emotional disorders continue to plague special educators and school psychologists. Several years after the issue of social maladjustment and its relationship to serious emotional disturbance was discussed and debated, little appears to have changed. Children, adolescents, and families are subjected to widely varying philosophies, assessment procedures, and services based on questionable criteria used to determine whether a student “qualifies” for services under the Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) designation. In this paper, we address how this issue has significantly affected access to services for students with serious emotional disturbances. Faulty assumptions regarding the relationship of social maladjustment to emotional disturbance in children/adolescents are identified and the implications of these assumptions for children are described. The lack of research supporting specific tools developed to assess social maladjustment in the context of a serious emotional disorder and the impact of this current practice on children is addressed from a practical and ethical standpoint. The role of the school psychologist as gatekeeper is contrasted to that of the more positive role as facilitator. © 2004 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Psychol Schs 41: 835–847, 2004.