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A Challenging Future: Current Barriers and Recommended Action for Our Field

Ineffective Educational Programming

Social problems and policies directly impact our educational agencies. In fact, our schools are "the mirror of society and family" (Elkind, 1995, p. 8), and as such, educational trends seem to be victim to political and economic tides. For example, as a microcosm of the larger educational system and society in general, classes for students with EBD seem to reflect many of the increasingly punitive and ineffective practices listed earlier. More and more there seems to be less differentiation between general education and special education programs for students with EBD, and less individualization. Of particular concern are current practices for developing curriculum, for applying behavior management strategies, and for delivering necessary services.

Curriculum Issues

Instead of specialized affective, social, and learning strategy objectives, curriculum in EBD classes often differ little from that found in general education. Academic content (not usually determined individually) is emphasized at the expense of a more functional, relevant curriculum that also targets emotional development and areas such as substance abuse education, sexuality education, and problem-solving. Kauffman (1997) speculated that instruction in nonfunctional and irrelevant skills is a common school practice and that their failure to adequately instruct critical skills is actually a frequent contributor to emotional and behavioral problems. We strongly agree, and argue further that nonfunctional curriculum also may contribute to the fact that over 50% of students labeled SED drop out of school (Wagner, 1991; Yell, 1996).

Particularly puzzling to us is a prevailing lack of attention to students’ emotional well-being and a general absence of an instructional approach (i.e., Colvin & Sugai, 1988; Kameenui & Darch, 1995) to educational programming. Despite the fact that these students are labeled as having disturbances of emotion, Morse (1992) maintains that IEPs often totally ignore students’ emotional needs. Knitzer, Steinberg, and Fleisch (1990) pointed out the lack of school-provided counseling services and community mental health programs. It is ironic that, even after a student is admitted into special education due to emotional disorders, there is no treatment directly addressing these emotional needs. Many researchers and practitioners have described the ideal teacher as part teacher and part therapist. We can guess that expecting teachers to competently fulfill both of these roles results from funding problems, but it also may result from a general ignorance regarding effective treatment for mental illness. In addition, it appears that an instructional approach is seldom the basis for curriculum development in EBD classes. In an instructional approach, problem behaviors are viewed as deficiencies in learning: the result of a failure to learn more socially appropriate responses (Evans & Meyer, 1985; Kameenui & Darch, 1995). Rather than punish these problem behaviors, more adaptive responses are targeted through functional assessment and then are taught systematically. Such an approach is far more likely to expand students’ repertoires of adaptive, functional behaviors than the piecemeal, nonfunctional curriculum too often found in EBD classes.

Management Issues

In regard to behavior management strategies, Knitzer et al. (1990) observed that in too many EBD classes, there is an emphasis on a "curriculum of control." They argue that the primary focus in too many EBD classes is on obedience, and when obedience is lacking, punishment is administered. The behavior management system is usually the most important aspect of the class and is applied for the purpose of controlling a wide range of classroom and social behaviors. In an informal survey of readers of Beyond Behavior, Zabel (1992) found that, of 146 respondents, the majority (114) agreed that the "curriculum of control" dominates in EBD classes. Respondents listed reasons for this emphasis on control, including administrative pressure, a need to emulate general education requirements, and a lack of alternatives.

Unfortunately, less attention is paid to pinpointing the contextual variables and purposes for inappropriate behavior, to teaching students to recognize and better manage anger, frustration, or impulsive behavior, or to teaching students to communicate effective, make decisions, solve problems, work cooperatively, or negotiate requests (Steinberg, 1991). The instructional approach described above has applications in behavior management as well. For example, precorrection (Walker et at., 1995) is a strategy designed to deter anticipated problem behaviors. A precorrection procedure involves first identifying problem behaviors and the contexts associated with those behaviors, then specifying target replacement behaviors and modifying contexts associated with the problem behaviors to minimize antecedents for those behaviors. Finally, just before a student enters the context associated with the problem behavior, the student is reminded of, and possibly even asked to practice, the appropriate replacement behavior. Each instance of the replacement behavior is then strongly reinforced.

Others have expressed concern about the fact that level systems, which are widely used for behavior management in EBD classes often deter individualized decision making and may interfere with students’ rights under IDEA (e.g., Scheuermann, Webber, Partin, & Knies, 1994). These arguments reflect Knitzer’s et al. (1990) concern that the goal of control may be what drives decision making for students with EBD, rather than considerations of individual student needs.

Placement Issues

One very important and controversial trend in serving students with EBD has been the most recent special education integration effort — full inclusion. The impact of this movement has generated great debate, sometimes scholarly and based on empirical data, and other times emotional and downright nasty (e.g., Webber, 1993). However, even empirical data cited to support full inclusion are often presented as an aggregate of the entire special education population, ignoring data that indicate that certain populations (specifically, students with (EBD) have in fact benefited from special class placement (e.g., MacMillan, Gresham, & Forness, 1996). Furthermore, arguments for full inclusion fail to acknowledge the vast body of knowledge regarding effective instruction of students with disabilities (Editorial, 1996). The push for including more special education students in less expensive general education classrooms often has resulted in a reduction of necessary special education services. More often than not, this attempt at inclusion is implemented with little or no advance training for the receiving teachers, and with little or no formal support system in place for the students. Some think the recent rash of alternative schools, the lengthening waiting lists for residential placement, and the legislative attempts toward exclusion of students with disabilities to be a result of this movement. We think any approach to placement that reduces a full continuum of services, that places the most difficult of students in settings where there is little data-based individualized instruction, that lacks training for teachers and offers few support services for students is irresponsible and bodes poorly for students with EBD.

Lack of Efficacy

In addition to the rapid move toward full inclusion, students with EBD have fallen victim to other unproven interventions. In the desperate effort to meet impossible mandates, the education system seems to be especially vulnerable to "fad cures" and controversial treatments. General education has seen its share of such interventions (e.g., the open classroom concept, whole language) as has special education (e.g., patterning, facilitated communication, auditory integration therapy, sensory motor integration). The challenging nature of students with EBD may make teachers and administrators susceptible to strong, albeit unproven, claims of effectiveness of undocumented interventions.

To illustrate, alternative education programs have become legal mandates in many states with little or no data to support their educational effectiveness. As stated earlier, level systems are a widely used behavior management system in EBD classes (Scheuermann et al., 1994), while empirical evidence to justify such wide-spread use is lacking (Smith & Farrell, 1993). One particularly disturbing "treatment" program, widely employed in Texas, uses highly questionable strategies to punish students with EBD (Clay "Dusty" v. Pflugerville I.S.D., 1995). For example, students in this program have been required to complete useless writing activities at school, sometimes until midnight, with little or no access to food, and have been given academic busywork (at least two levels below where the student is functioning) while the "teacher" stands barefooted on a student’s desk in an attempt to distract the student. Other controversial interventions have recommended extended "time-outs" or bodily restraint, in some instances resulting in the student’s death, yet administered under the auspices of an "appropriate education" or "therapeutic intervention" (e.g., Hobbs, 1995)

The Peacock Hill Working Group (1991) reminded us of "the importance of applying intervention strategies systematically and consistently n working with students with emotional or behavioral disorders" and that "it is critical that these interventions be based on data regarding their effects" (p. 301. However, in attempting to expedite change in their students’ behavior, teachers sometimes resort to techniques that, at best, produce immediate, short-term effects (as in the case of certain punitive interventions) but with great harm to the student’s emotional development and with no lasting improvement in behavior.

Personnel Issues

Nationwide we are facing a serious shortage of qualified special education professionals. The number of teachers specially trained to teach students with EBD is significantly less than the demand for such teachers; recent data indicate a shortage of almost 6,000 certified teachers for students with EBD (Advocacy in action, 1995; Wald, 1996). Furthermore, many current special education teachers are under-trained. Metzke (1988) found that special education ranks first among all areas of teaching in terms of the number of teachers who are less than fully certified. The Office of Special Education in the U.S. Department of Education estimates that as many as 30% of special education teachers are working under emergency certification (National Clearinghouse, 1992). A recent commissioned report, "What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future," criticized the way teachers are trained and the low standards for teachers set by state and local education agencies (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996). The report states, "In the nation’s poorest schools, where hiring is most lax and teacher turnover is constant, the results are disastrous. Thousands of children are taught throughout their school careers by a parade of teachers without preparation in the fields they teach… It is more surprising that some of these children manage to learn than that so many fail to do so." (p. 1). According to this report, 12% of newly hired teachers have no formal training from a teacher education program.

The lowering of certification standards to address teacher shortages ironically perpetuates the problem. Because many under-trained teachers are hired to fill vacant positions as teachers of students with EBD (a very difficult population requiring technical expertise), attrition is inevitable. With no training in curriculum development, adaptive instructional strategies, positive behavior reduction techniques, and affective education, these teachers often resort to custodial and punitive interventions—not unlike a jailer. Subsequently, they often lose interest in teaching, dislike who they have become on the job, exhaust themselves applying ineffective strategies, and either get fired or quit. Other factors contribute to the shortage of trained EBD teachers. For example, many states now require that initial certification be noncategorical; specializations must occur at the graduate level. This, combined with the fact that special certification often is not required and not reinforced (in the form of higher pay) reduces the number of teachers specifically trained to work with students with EBD. Once again, the country’s sociopolitical reactions compromise services to our needy students.

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