Definitional Dilemma: Perspectives on Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

There are three main perspectives on emotional and behavioral disorders: clinical, empirical, and educational (Hallahan and Kauffman, 1997; Kauffman, 1997). Childhood behavior disorders have been most often conceptualized from a clinical, medical-model perspective. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th ed. (DSM IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) has used professional judgment to identify and assign psychiatric diagnoses such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), and antisocial personality disorders (APD). Some researchers contend that there may be a developmental progression from less severe disorders (e.g., ODD) to more severe disorders (e.g., CD) noting that prevalence rates of these disorders decrease as the severity of the disorder increases (Frick et al., 1992; Frick, 1998; Lahey and Loeber, 1994). Yet this clinical classification system suffers from problems of reliability and validity due to the heavy reliance on professional judgment (Gresham, 1985).

Empirical approaches to behavior disorders, in contrast, employ factor analytic procedures for identifying behavior patterns and thereby afford improved reliability and validity relative to clinical classification systems. Examples of such tools include Achenbach’s (1991) Child Behavior Checklist, Quay and Peterson’s (1983) Revised Behavior Problem Checklist, and Gresham and Elliott’s (1990) Social Skills Rating System. These instruments can be used to identify broad-band (e.g., externalzing and internalizing behaviors) and narrow-band syndromes (e.g., aggressive, delinquent behaviors vs. withdrawn, immature behaviors). One dilemma with the use of empirical classification schemes, however, is how to interpret reliable data in which multiple informant perspectives (e.g., parents, teachers) do not converge.

The final perspective is that of education. The federal definition of ED first came into being as part of the Education of the Handicapped Act in 1975 and has not changed substantially in the past 25 years. Congress constructed the federal definition of ED from a study conducted by Eli Bower that identified the following five dimensions of maladaptive behavior as characteristics of ED (Bower, 1960):

  1. inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;

  2. inability to build or maintain satisfactory relationships with peers or teachers;

  3. inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;



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