Constructing New Theory to Identify
Students with Emotional Disturbance
Problem-Solving and
Resiliency among Special
Education Practitioners
Dori Barnett, Ed.D.
Purpose of the Study
The problem area explored by this study was
how practitioners in an alternative and
correctional education setting identify
students with emotional and behavioral
difficulties for special education services
given the criteria for ED.
Emotional Disturbance (ED)
A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time
and to a marked degree that adversely affects 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
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school
problems." [Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34, Section 300.7(b)(9)]
As defined by the IDEA, emotional disturbance does not apply to children who are socially
maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have a serious emotional disturbance. [Code
of Federal Regulation, Title 34, Section 300.7(b)(9)]
Context of the Study
The context of the study is a county
alternative education program serving
students in juvenile correctional facilities,
social service institutions, and community
day schools.
A majority of the students exhibit severe
behavioral and emotional issues, such as
truancy, discipline problems, trauma, and
substance abuse.
ACE Schools and Programs
Juvenile Court Schools
& Institutions
Alternative and
Education (ACE)
Reason for Referral to ACE
Informal/Formal Probation
Behavior/Discipline Problem
School Failure
Social Services/Wards of the Court
Outcomes of the Study
The outcomes of this qualitative study
produced six emergent themes that comprise
the grounded theory explaining the
processes, actions, and interactions that
practitioners used to identify students with
emotional disturbance in a contemporary
practice setting.
Emergent Theme Three: Implementing
Reflexive Identification Processes
Adhering to
child find
with other
Exploring the
Etiology of
Needs to
 Practitioners
implemented reflexive
and collaborative
identification processes:
adhering to the child find
process; collaborating
with peers; exploring the
etiology of behaviors; and
linking students’ needs to
available services.
Research based models, such as RtI, emphasize prevention
and early intervention and collaborative problem solving and
decision making (Gresham, 2005, 2007).
Evidence-based practices (EBPs) affirm the value of
participatory action, multi-disciplinary collaboration, and
stakeholder involvement (Adelman & Taylor, 1998, 2010;
Hoagwood & Johnson, 2003).
Collaborative practices are reflected in the underpinnings of
IDEA: Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), the cornerstones of
special education law (Kermerer, Samson, & Kermerer, 2008).
Emergent Theme Four: Resolving
Problems Posed by New Student Trends
Abuse and
Trauma and
 Practitioners described
new student trends that
complicated the
identification process:
increasing severity and
complexity of students’
behaviors; substance
abuse and ED; and
emotional trauma.
Over 50% of children exposed to trauma will develop emotional
and behavioral disabilities in adolescence and adulthood (Bell
& Johnson, 1995; Perry, 1996, 2006).
Exposure to trauma affects brain development and leads to
disorders in social, emotional and behavioral functioning (Bell &
Johnson, 1995; Perry, 1996, 2006).
Co-morbidity studies link emotional and behavioral disorders in
children and adolescents: bipolar and conduct disorders (50%);
ADHD and anxiety and depression (40%); substance abuse
and depression (60%) ( (Biederman et al., 1995; Forness &
Kavale, 2001; Kovacs & Pollock, 1996; Rounsaville, 2007).
Conclusions and Implications
The resulting GT underscores the importance of collaboration and
pragmatic problem solving as key processes employed by special
education practitioners involved in identifying students for special
education services under the classification of ED.
Provides support for collaboration and problem-solving models such
as RtI and PLCs.
Supports the need to broaden and align existing special education
criteria to reflect current research findings.
Supports the implementation of comprehensive and collaborative
school-wide mental health systems.
Reframes the role of the school psychologist from “gatekeeper” to
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Barnett, D. (2010). Constructing new theory for identifying students with emotional disturbance: A
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disturbed. Education and Treatment of Children, 28(4), 328-344.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, P.L. 108-446, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.
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Constructing New Theory to Identify Students with Emotional