Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Emotional Disturbance vs. Social Maladjustment- Marissa Murphy

Emotional Disturbance versus Social Maladjustment
By Marissa Murphy

A vast amount of controversy and debate generated when Public Law 94-142 came into effect due to the vague and incomplete federal definition of emotional disturbance. The lack of resolution among educators and administrators attempting to clarify the distinction between emotional disturbance and social maladjustment has resulted in continued conflict.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) vaguely defines emotional disturbance (ED) as:
A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance: (a) an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors, (b) an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers, (c) inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances, (d) a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression, and/or (e) a tendency to develop physical symptoms of fears associated with personal or school problems. Emotional disability includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance (Cavitt, 2007).
IDEA’s definition is criticized because it leads to under-identification, narrowly interprets school performance as academic, emphasizes emotional problems, and underemphasizes behavioral problems (Smith, 2007). But IDEA’s definition for emotional disturbance (ED) causes confusion amongst educators primarily due to its failure to include a definition of socially maladjusted (SM).
Despite federal or state laws inability to fully define socially maladjusted (SM), two separate court cases offer a definition for social maladjustment. According to Doe v. Board of Education of the State of Connecticut, social maladjustment can be defined as “a child who has a persistent pattern of violating societal norms with truancy, substance abuse, a perpetual struggle with authority, is easily frustrated, impulsive, and manipulative” (Whitted, 2008, para. 4). Springer by Springer v. Fairfax County School Board, on the other hand, defined social maladjustment as “a child who is incapable of fully profiting from general educational programs of the public schools because of some serious social or emotion handicap but who is not expected to profit from special education” (Whitted, 2008, para. 5). Although some educators and administrators within individual school districts have turned to court cases for assistance in an attempt to gain a definition of social maladjustment, others have simply devised their own definition. Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency defined social maladjustment as:
…a conduct problem, whereby maladjusted students choose not to conform to socially acceptable rules and norms…students demonstrate knowledge of school/social norms and expectations and consistently demonstrate a pattern of intentionally choosing to break rules and violate norms of acceptable behavior (2004, p. 8).
With educators and administrators establishing definitions of social maladjustment for their school districts, they are enabling themselves the ability to see the differences between a child suffering from emotional disturbance (ED) and social maladjustment (SM).
For instance, a child with an emotional disturbance is unable to comply with teacher requests while a child who is socially maladjusted is unwilling to comply with teacher requests. A child with emotional disturbance misses school due to emotional or psychosomatic issues while a child who is socially maladjusted misses school due to choice. Thus, intentionality is the distinguishing feature between social maladjustment and emotional disturbance.

Cavitt, Dennis. (2007). Chapter 7: Emotional or Behavioral Disorders [PowerPoint slides].
Smith, D.D. (2007). Introduction to Special Education: Making a Difference: Sixth Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Wayne County Regional Educational Services. Social Maladjustment: A Guide to Differential Diagnosis and Educational Options. Retrieved from
Whitted, Brooke R., Cleary, Lara A., & Takiff, Neal E. (2008). Socially Maladjusted Children and Special Eudcation Services. Retrieved July 4, 2008, from

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