ED or Socially Maladjusted? How to Get Therapy

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I have a client who has had some serious discipline problems.   He has problems relating to other kids.  His test scores are extremely high, but he is failing classes because the school puts him out for suspensions.

The school district says:

1.  Because he has some friends he does not qualify as seriously emotionally disturbed.  They say he is “socially maladjusted” which they claim is not covered.

2. They claim he only needs counseling and there cannot be an IEP for counseling only.

I’m a therapist and non-lawyer. You seem to have a question about eligibility and another question about how to get services for a kid who is having some serious problems. For the child to be eligible for special education, he has to have a disability and the disability has to negatively affect educational performance.

The school says he is “socially maladjusted.” You say he is “emotionally disturbed.” You have a disagreement about this already. This disagreement sets the stage for problems later even if you succeed in getting him qualified for services as “emotionally disturbed.”

Negative Impact of Labeling Kids as “ED”

In most states, the kids who get the poorest quality special ed services are kids with an “ED” label. Schools tend to view these kids as pains and wish they would go away. Schools have a long history of expelling these kids and “encouraging” them to drop out of school. Assume that the school grudgingly finds him eligible for special education as an emotionally disturbed child.

Do you think the counseling he would get from the school (that they don’t want to provide) will be of value?

  • Do school counselors, social workers, and psychologists have the time, motivation and therapeutic skills to work with this kid?
  • Can they protect him from being suspended?

In my experience, the best therapists don’t work in public school systems. There are just too many constraints in school systems for a therapist to do good quality work – from scheduling problems to unsympathetic school administrators.

Better Options

If you want him to have therapy, what other options do you have? Is there a university counseling center or mental health center or juvenile justice person who may be able to help or steer you in the right direction? In my opinion as a therapist, no therapy is better than bad therapy. It is less damaging to a kid who is already vulnerable.

  1. I’m both a parent of a ED student and a school psychologist. Social maladjustment (SM) and ED are different in several ways. Often the presenting behaviors may look alike, but why a student is behaving a certain way is the hallmark difference between SM and ED. Students with SM choose to behave in a certain way. Students with an EM may have psychosis (hearing or see things that are not there), or be very depressed or anxious. They cannot control their behavior. The treatments for SM are different than the treatment for ED. Usually students with an ED need to learn coping skills, while student with SM need behavioral supports (consequences). Hope that makes sense.

  2. My son was out in IEP till 3 grade speech, writing, he is ambidextrous, they took him out at a very bad time. I had lost my eldest son was very hard on are family, they decided to put him in ALP writing,mean while his behavior was not good.They called CPS on me 3 times, later find out from worker, everything was unfounded , broke my heart. We found out after 8 months are son had ADHD after testing from are Doctor. They then decided to put him in IEP after i complained to GPS district, 6 th grade he,s was doing great after adjusting to medicine, making honor grades, doing excellent on aims, all the sudden in of 6 th grade they did all these test told me are son was autism, he not they were covering the fact that i complain to the district about someone touching my son in the wrong place private area, and for once he did not hit back,.

  3. David1, I am not sure as to what states you are referencing. Many states do have restrictions that a student cannot be eligible for an Emotional Disability or Disturbance AND Autism or other eligibilities, BUT there is no way a school could be restricted from changing an eligibility from ED to Autism.

    You would hope the school gets it right the first time they evaluate, but apparent symptoms can change over time and lead to eligibility changes. This is often the case with younger students who initially may be found eligible under a Developmental Delay, but may later be identified as eligible for Specific Learning Disability or Other Health Impairment for ADHD.

    • Unfortunately what happens is certain doctors will give an Autism dx to ED kids because they feel that is the only was they can receive the most services from the school.

  4. I have had a similar experience with my own child. We requested occupational therapy as well as a physical therapy evaluation. The OT can identify sensory triggers that may set him off and PT can potentially identify strategies to address or head them off.

    Our school district is not allowed to administer any evaluation without signed consent. In my written request for these initial evaluations, I included my consent for the specific evaluations that I requested.

    General note: In some states, a child who has previously been identified as ED cannot be later identified by a school district as having Autism.

    Systematic suspensions only reinforce any feelings of not being able to socially adapt. This practice is the opposite of ABA therapy.

  5. I’d echo dad2luke’s thoughts. This sounds like a kid with some undiagnosed issue – ADHD, Asperger’s, visual or auditory processing, etc. – who is acting out in a situation that is beyond his ability to cope with. Finding that out can be done without therapy (though I’d also agree that bad therapy wouldn’t help!) or with it, but focusing on the root cause rather than the symptoms seems like a better path here, and one that benefits the school, parents, and student.

    I’d recommend a fast read of Ross Green’s Lost at School, as this description sounds a lot like the kids he describes in that book. Nowhere to Hide by Jerome Schultz also covers this area.

  6. I’m just a parent, but when I read this I keep thinking of the saying I heard someplace, that kids’ behaviors are attempts to communicate. Viewed through that lens I’s have to ask what is this kid trying to communicate?

    Then I’d have ask is the school willing to try and figure out what the kid is trying to communicate? I think that the suspensions say that answer to that is “No”. I doubt that an IEP will change things since no new actors will be involved, and the school staff will now be in a position of defending prior actions.

    I’d be given to wonder if the kid has Asperger’s Syndrome, and if outside testing (or an IEE) should be done to find out. However, the experience with my school district is that they do not have a clue how to treat Asperger’s kids, and the parents should preparing to do it themselves.

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