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Kittens, Sheep, and Wolves. Oh My.

As many of you who follow me on Facey Face know, I have been that poor kitten holding onto the branch. I have been swamped with my spring Testival and IEPooloza, in which I test kids for learning disabilities and hold Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to chart their course. Well, well, well, look at me now!

Only I’m not really sleeping because I know that round 2 is about to begin. This is the round of testing that happens right around spring break….

Dun. Dun Dun.

ED Testing. ED stands for “Emotional Disturbance” and it is one of the categories of disability in special education law. It is basically reserved for a small group of students who are exhibiting such severe emotional and behavioral problems that they cannot be taught in a general education setting. That being said, it is a very popular assessment because there are many students who by springtime, have worn out their teachers with their shenanigans, or many of the attempted interventions have not been sufficient.

To illustrate: I used to work at a school I called Haides Middle School, in which many of the students had emotional and behavioral challenges. Students threatened teachers, weapons were on campus frequently, and it was not uncommon for windows, doors, and walls to be punched. At times, fecal matter was left as a “present” for the Principal, and my vocabulary of offensive things one could say to others exploded (in several languages.) Now one might call this whole school ED, but it was not supposed to be. In fact, there was a group of students who were learning, but I never got to see them. Weird.

Anyhoo, the types of behavior I saw at this school were systemic because of the school’s location and demographic, and sadly poor leadership by administration, but the only intervention in town was special education. So I got ED referral after ED referral. These are pretty intensive assessments, so I was never the kitten on top of the paper at this school. My task was to figure out if the problem lied with the student (if he or she was emotionally disturbed enough to be “disabled”) or if the problem was circumstantial. I mean, I might be depressed and anxious and not able to focus on my work if I saw my dad murder my mom. I also might be acting out if I had chronic PTSD from witnessing violence in my community. Would I be “disabled?”

This is the job of the school psychologist—to sort through all the data, observations, history, observer reports, and individual assessment with the student to determine if the child is eligible as a student with an Emotional Disturbance. Yes, our job is to see if a student is disturbed enough to be disabled. It sounds crazy when you type it out. To complicate, there are a series of rule-outs and conditions that quite frankly, get second prize to the dumbest special education criteria (1st prize? I’m looking at you “significant discrepancy”).

For example, you must show that the unusual behavior is not a straight up behavior disorder (e.g. Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder), but it comes from an emotional disturbance (e.g. depression, anxiety, psychosis). So, in essence you have to show that the kid isn’t just choosing to climb up a flagpole and wield a knife on his own free will, but it comes from an emotional place. (Um, how do you assess that?)

For me, I have framed it in a different way. I think it’s almost impossible to prove where unusual behavior is coming from, so I just focus on assessing for depression, anxiety, or psychosis first and worry about the explanation of the behavior later. I also look at what is the main reason the kid isn’t learning. If the child has cognitive limitations, that might be a better explanation for why the kid is not being able to manage emotions. As I write this, it just gets more and more complex. Each case is so unique, and you have to look at all the angles at once. There are few straightforward ED assessments. In general, I find it best to think of a few different types of students referred for ED.

Now I have compared kids (and husbands) to animals before, so here you go. I just love me a good metaphor. I know it’s oversimplifying, but blog posts aren’t supposed to be 8 hojillion pages long, I’m told.

Types of Students Referred for “Emotional Disturbance” Assessments

1) Sheep. These students are a slam-dunk when it comes to assessment, because their emotional disturbance is fairly obvious. These are vulnerable students who have crippling anxiety that keeps them from coming to school, deep depression that keeps them from being able to complete work, or psychosis that interferes with daily functioning. These students often have suicidal or homicidal ideation and have histories of hospitalization. Despite years of counseling and intervention support, they continue to be highly vulnerable and cannot manage a typical school environment. You could also call them “internalizing” students, meaning the manifestation of the disturbance is inward.

2) Wolves. These students tend to be highly disruptive and kinda predatory. I know, I know, wolves are shy in the wild and only prey on others for food or if frightened, but let’s pretend for a moment that wolves are aggressive. And pretend that they argue with teachers, break the rules just to see what will happen, defy authority, and generally run with packs of other similar students.* These students are also suffering, in their own way, since they likely have a high need for control, have poor role models, and in general have difficulties with true relationships that aren’t manipulative. They are charmers and you can show them a video of themselves tagging the school wall and they will still stay it wasn’t them. You could call this group “externalizing” students, meaning the manifestation of their school problems is acting out. This group, in the absence of an underlying emotional problem (anxiety, depression, psychosis) is typically not eligible for special education services under “Emotional Disturbance.” But they still need help to break the coercive and aggressive pattern of interacting with others so they can succeed in school.

3) Sheep in Wolves Clothing I would say these students represent the majority of my ED referrals and are the most difficult to assess. These are students who pretend to be super tough and act out, but when you get them one-on-one for assessment, you find a deep emotional problem that is likely causing them to act the way they are. These students have both internalizing and externalizing problems. In these cases, you have to also look at eligibility from a response to intervention perspective. Are they acting out because they had a recent emotional trauma? Then, it would not be “abnormal” or “pervasive” to say a child is disabled because they are acting out. It’s circumstantial. If there were few signs of problems prior to the trauma, then it’s probably not ED. Are they acting out because they have never had counseling or behavioral interventions? Then you can’t show that they need special education to be successful because you haven’t tried anything yet in the general education setting (suspending a kid doesn’t count as an intervention). I also feel for the Sheep in Wolves Clothing because they too need intervention and they may or may not qualify for services with the way the law is written.

The length of the post shows the complexity of assessment for ED. Part of me feels like rather than trying to sort out if a kid is “disabled enough” to qualify for special education, I should spend that time doing actual interventions. Whether kids be Sheep, Wolves, or Sheep in Wolves clothing, they still need psychological help, and the families and teachers need support.

To close, the other day, I saw a student at my school rip up and throw away a referral he got in the teacher’s face, screaming “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” To her credit, I’m sure she wanted to throw it back and say “HAPPY NEW YEAR! You’re suspended!” but she was calm and professional and redirected him to my office. If you don’t see blog posts for a while, you know why. It’s that time of year.

*How to deal with these students? Here you go, a video demonstration

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Comments on Kittens, Sheep, and Wolves. Oh My.

  1. I'm knee deep in these referrals as well.

    The thing that worries me is: once assessed and identified, the "sheep" are going in the same emotional support classroom as the "wolves" (those few wolves who display externalizing behaviors but also have internalizing symptomology)

    Both types emotionally disturbed but both displaying their disturbance in different ways. And you know what happens when wolves and sheep get together….

  2. Anonymous says:

    What types of tests do you use to assess ED?

  3. Rebecca says:

    @6 Impossible Things: Good point. We have to carefully consider the placement of these students. It's a challenge to say the least.

    @Anonymous: I do the standard LD battery (cognitive, processing, etc) so I can see how they approach tasks and frustration, etc. I typically do classroom observations, interviews, BASC-2 rating scales, drawings, projective story telling (Roberts-2) or the CAT if they are little guys, and projective sentence completions.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Any tips on how to conclude in your reports that the child is a wolf rather than a sheep? I find this tricky.

    Also, anyone have experience using the Emotional Disturbance Decision Tree? It's a relatively new rating scale with a scale for Social Maladjustment. Wondering if it has helped anyone tease out the wolves from the sheep using actual data.

  5. Rebecca says:

    I have to say, I tried the ED Decision Tree survey and I hated it. I spit on it. Bleh. It's terrible. The kids always come up high on both scales. I don't actually spit on it. That might make me ED.

    I think you're better of just looking for the emotional problem and determining if it's pervasive and abnormal for the circumstance (e.g. a grief reaction 6 months after a death–normal. a grief reaction that is still pronounced 3 years later and with hallucinations–ED). If they have both ED and CD they still qualify ED. That's why I think the CD rule-out is dumb. Kids with behavior problems almost always have an underlying emotional difficulty.

  6. From the side of the teacher of students with ED, I find that we have a lot of students in our program who are "situationally disturbed" but still end up in our program, as we have the intensive behavior supports. It's really not all that often that we get the kids who are truly ED (with the anxiety, depression, psychosis). Apparently in Maryland, we don't hesitate to give those kids with severe behavior problems due to PTSD or community problems an ED label.

  7. Well said as always…

    And to @6 Impossible Things… I have the luxury of running schools where we can differentiate our ED programs. It is great.

    We use the analogy of not having the "Guppies swimming with the sharks."

    However, I don't think people realize just how much the "wolves" or "sharks" benefit from the differentiated programs === sometimes much more than the "sheep" do!

    Also, another vote against the decision tree… it strikes me as trying to over-simplify what requires a more professional analysis. It just does not come out right.

    I am very middle-of-the-road with the CD versus ED issue. I agree with Rebecca to a point, but I deal with too many juvenile delinquents and gang-bangers to want them to become over-identified or pathologized.

  8. Anonymous says:

    hello there! I am a school psych working for LAUSD and i do countless ED assessments as well. i appreciate the way you shared that it sounds different when you read it written out! One thing our district does is case conference…so we all sit around and talk about what we are seeing and we each give or two-sense….very cool… LOVE YOUR BLOG just found it today…

  9. Anonymous says:

    I too work with the ED population quite a bit at my placement in southwester Kansas. One case that recently came flying at me out of no where involved drug abuse and psychotic disorder. It's all well and find if those making the law somehow decide that drug abuse is a rule out, but it was not helpful to this case. The student's psychotic disorder (also at one point schizophrenia) started around the time of the drug abuse. Can we really say one caused the other. And then does that make them not qualify from services? Well I called the state department for some advice and they told me this would be a time for professional judgement. So, professionally, did the egg come before the chicken? And if the egg did come before the chicken does that mean the chicken should not receive special education even though the chicken has a severe psychotic disorder?

  10. Petra says:

    Hello there!

    I'm studying psychology in Vienna, Austria an at the moment I'm preparing a presentation for one of my courses which is about diagnostics in english. I decided to talk about the EDDT (emotional disturbance decision tree) and during my research I found this discussion here. If someone would be so kind and let me know some practical information about the EDDT it would be great! Some sample items would also help me a a lot!!

    Thanks in advance!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I wanted to comment on the EDDT. I agree that it may seem like it oversimplifies things, but I do like it for the purpose of obtaining objective data on the ED criteria (especially the parts like "marked degree," "adverse effect on performance," etc.) I will say that the EDDT is a thousand times better than the SAED, which was designed for the same purpose of looking at the IDEA criteria for ED (although I have not used the more recent second edition but I have heard that the SAED-2 is similar to the SAED). For example, on the SAED, the "adverse effect" component is measured by only ONE ITEM, whereas on the EDDT it is measured by several multiple-choice items. I use the EDDT to confirm/refute my hypotheses regarding ED based on the data gathered from other sources (BASC-2, interviews, observations, etc.), plus, I would think it would be more defensible in court compared to projective tests.

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