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The New Taboo in Special Education

epeck's picture

The education system is designed for the masses, and as our society becomes increasingly aware of diversity, “the masses” has come to literally mean every child. Public schools are required to offer education to those who do not fit into the neat lines of traditional schooling.  In society and the classroom, issues in special education are often discussed, but in most cases, a huge category of children is neglected.  For those with emotional disturbances (EDs), the bounds of a classroom may not work and legally the education system must provide an environment that is suitable to their specific disabilities.  What happens to these students who do not match our ideas of “special education” yet cannot function in a school setting?  Decades ago, any type of learning disability was considered inappropriate to discuss, and today emotional disturbance is the new taboo.  Because it is so out of the ordinary to discuss a child’s psychological issues, families with children who have EDs often suffer in silence.  If the impact of EDs on education was a more acceptable topic of thought, research and discussion, these families could be spared much of the pain that they are instead forced to endure. 

            My interest in ED as a form of special education stems from a family member who was classified and received funding to attend a residential therapeutic school, and the toll the entire process took on the family.  For anonymity’s sake, I will refer to this individual as Casey and the parents as Sue and Nate.  I have also changed the names of the schools Casey attended.  Since ED is rarely discussed, I could not find articles that directly related, and so most of this paper regards Sue and Nate’s experience with the process of obtaining classification and funding for Casey. 

           Unfortunately, for most families, a “breaking point” is often the first instance where residential education and treatment programs are seriously considered.  “When Rich Kids Go Bad” describes this breaking point, and the urgency families feel in getting immediate help for their child (2).  This prototype of problem and immediate need for interference is problematic because the process of receiving educational funding is long and many stages of testing and hearings are needed before the child will start to see differences.

Casey’s issues began at an early age and as Casey became a student and teenager, the unusual behaviors only became more problematic and destructive, despite Sue and Nate’s best efforts.  Eventually in junior year, Casey reached the “breaking point” where it was too harmful for Casey to remain at home. At this point, the police became involved for incidents of theft and the school became aware of Casey’s manipulation of teachers and family.  Casey was operating in two worlds – school and home – and manipulating each world by keeping them separate.  Casey began telling teachers that it would be impossible to come to school on certain days because of serious medical problems that required testing and strict medication schedules– yet no such medical problems existed. Casey was actually failing courses simply because of missing so much school.  At home, Casey described meetings with a school counselor, yet no such meetings existed.  These examples go on and on.  When Sue and Nate realized that their child was barely attending school, they felt that Casey needed serious help, and quickly.  This breaking point also led Casey’s parents to understand that the public school had not been able to, and would never be able to provide Casey with an appropriate education.  Casey’s two worlds needed to combine so that clear communication between all parties would prevent the lies that had been so effective in a public school setting.

            Casey’s psychological problems were clearly interfering with receiving an education, yet for many reasons, most families would not have considered petitioning the school district for financial help.  “Nudging Schools to Help Students with Learning Disabilities” points out that the hearings where individualized education plans (IEPs) are determined can be tough to sit through because they involve the school district laying all of your child’s faults and difficulties on the table (3).  The article advises parents to bring someone supportive because “even in the best cases, these meetings can be extremely emotional” (3).  The article fails to mention other reasons a hearing can be so difficult, especially regarding a child with an ED.  An ED is a painfully personal issue for a child and their family, and in an ED hearing the tables are turned and parents often have to convince the school district of the severity of their child’s psychological problems.  This can be especially charged since psychological problems are still sometimes thought of as a parent’s fault.  To lay one’s child’s psychological problems down and describe just how destructive the child is to their education is daunting especially when the parent knows that the committee who is deciding the child’s educational future may be judging the parent, for the problem at hand.

            After Casey had been enrolled in a summer session and a repeated junior year at Ruthridge Miller (a residential therapeutic school), Casey’s parents decided that they would try to obtain funding for Casey’s senior year.  They felt that at this point they had accepted the reality of the situation and were willing to accept any help possible.  Sue is a lawyer and so she knew that the legislation that would fund Casey’s education “is meant to give all children with learning disabilities an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible” (3).  Therefore Casey would probably not be funded for full time residential treatment, since that environment is extremely restrictive.  Sue imagined that legally, Casey’s school district would want to try less expensive and restrictive approaches before residential treatment.  Sue researched special education law and drafted a letter explaining Casey’s situation and the impact it had on receiving an education.  Sue’s goal was not to show that the public school was “bad” but that it was unable to effectively educate Casey – outside help was clearly needed.

            In her research, Sue discovered that the IDEA act, which states that school districts must provide or fund appropriate education to children with disabilities, only had one category (out of 13) that would fit Casey’s situation – the ED category.  There are many other categories, such as physical handicaps (including blindness and mental retardation among others) and specific learning disabilities, but any type of psychological problem has to fit under the umbrella of “emotional disturbance.”  Sue describes the label of ED as a tricky one to meet – especially because so many teenagers have problems that could be considered emotional and many of these are simply related to being a teenager.  In order to qualify, Sue had to convey that Casey’s problem was not simply that of a disobedient teenager, but one that lay much deeper and had preceded the teenage years.

            Sue started the certification process in August and certification was granted in January to be applied for Casey’s senior year.  Sue believes that in Casey’s case, the process might have been unusually quick since Casey’s certification was granted on the first hearing (whereas typically, decisions are complicated with additional appeals).  Sue also believes Casey was certified so quickly because after the committee heard about Casey’s issues, they might have been liable if Casey stole additional school or student property.  Sue was also told that the letter she had written had changed the committee’s mind, and that prior to reading it they were not planning on granting funding, but after hearing the emotional story they truly understood why it was needed.  Another factor may have been that Casey only required funding for one to two years, so it would not be an incredible expense to the district.

            As soon as Casey was certified, Sue faced another challenge – the school district had little experience with ED cases, and had no idea what to do with Casey.  Sue was basically handed a binder of treatment programs and told to research them and select the right place.  In terms of an IEP, this is extremely unusual, since decisions are usually made by the committee granting certification and funding (3).  Going through this process was draining for Sue, since many of these schools were scary to imagine enrolling her child in – one school would not allow the students to have mirrors or framed images for fear of broken glass and self-harm or violence.  It also became clear by this point that Ruthridge Miller was not a good fit for Casey, so finally an appropriate residential program was chosen and Casey enrolled the following year.

Getting certified and funded for residential therapeutic education finally allowed Sue and Nate some peace of mind that their child was being educated as best as possible in a safe environment.  After funding years of therapy and tuition for Ruthridge Miller, Sue and Nate finally received complete financial assistance from the school district.  This is no small feat; parents feel that in order to “save” their child, they personally should spend whatever amount of money is needed.  Even by asking for assistance, parents are, in effect, admitting that they need outside help controlling their child and end up postponing their child’s treatment for another several months or even a year. A leader in the arena of therapeutic education points out that “if you’ve got a child with problems, this is your most precious asset…(no) parent would ever cut corners if they thought there was a way to help their child through the problem they’re experiencing” (4).  Because of the stigmas associated with mental illness, combined with the parents’ internalization of these stigmas and how parents are perceived to influence their children’s mental health, gaining the courage to bring a child’s ED into the open through a hearing can be overwhelming and presently unlikely.  


Because people never seem to talk about ED as a form of special education, it was extremely difficult to find articles that would be informative, despite the increasing numbers of students and their families who are facing these types of problems – the number of teenagers entering therapeutic programs has quadrupled in the past fifteen years (4).  I found a few articles on the classification and funding process for IEPs, and a few on the growing market of schools for “troubled teens,” but none of these articles addressed the problem.  Emotional disturbance is such a little-discussed condition and there is still disparate vocabulary used and little published.  Even in writing this paper, I struggled with how much detail to include, and how anonymous I should make Casey.  If I were writing about a child with more socially acceptable learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, I probably would not have thought twice about using real names and details.  This probably results from the more personal nature of psychological impairments and this form of education. 

 Society has acknowledged and progressed in many areas within special education, but ED is still taboo. We are still uncomfortable discussing this issue despite the dire need for dialogue. With no open arena to discuss these issues, the repercussions of neglecting ED cases as a form of special education worsen.  Although the benefits outweighed the difficulties Sue faced in petitioning the district, the process could have been much easier.  By examining Sue and Nate’s struggle, it is clear that changes need to be made in the way people think about EDs.  Teachers need to receive more education about the signs of ED so that these issues can be addressed early on, instead of waiting for a monumental event to gain the attention of the school district and family.  Society needs to accept EDs as a diverse category of learning impairment, and not necessarily as the fault of the parents.  If parents felt less judged for their children’s psychological problems, and did not feel a huge responsibility to take care of their children by themselves, the percentage of children with EDs who actually received funding would greatly increase and the burden on families would decrease.  This increased exposure to ED as a category of special education will challenge our ideas about a family’s role, and an educational system’s responsibilities in regards to children who struggle with emotional disturbances.










(1)  Alderman, Lesley.  “What to Do if You Suspect Learning Disability.”  New York Times (February 2010): Web.  <>


This article, along with (3) is a good source for parents who are learning about the classification process.  It discusses the costs and difficulties associated with the process and gives advise for the individual phases of getting certification and an IEP.  Unfortunately, articles (1) and (3) do not discuss the ED designation.


(2)  Brown, Erika. “When Rich Kids Go Bad.” Forbes (October 2002): Web. <>.


A good source of personal stories about several children and the paths that lead them to therapeutic residential programs.  This article focuses on the details of specific cases and discusses the costs and advantages of these institutions.


(3)  Konrad, Walecia.  “Nudging Schools to Help Students with Learning Disabilities.”  New York Times (February 2010): Web.  <>


(4)  Story, Louise.  “A Business Built on the Troubles of Teenagers.”  The New York Times (August 2005): Web.  <>


This article describes the growing market and profitability of special therapeutic programs, mainly for teenagers. 



Paul Grobstein's picture

Education, emotional disturbance, and culture

"Society has acknowledged and progressed in many areas within special education, but ED [emotional disturbance] is still taboo."

Hopefully your essay will help to make it less so.  The issue of the status of people with "emotional disturbances" is, of course, a problem not only in the educational realm but in a variety of others as well.  Its interesting that in all of these, our culture has been able to make progress on a piece meal basis but seems still disinclined to accept/value human diversity on a broad scale.