Educating Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities in the 21st Century: Looking through Windows, Opening Doors

By Nelson, C. Michael | Education & Treatment of Children, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Educating Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities in the 21st Century: Looking through Windows, Opening Doors


Nelson, C. Michael, Education & Treatment of Children


The task (albeit self-inflicted) of making projections regarding what may happen in the dawning century with regard to special education for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities (EBD) is an intimating one. One reason is that, in the context of the millennium just past, our field is in its infancy. Public school programs for students with EBD have existed for less than six decades (Whelan & Kauffman, 1999) which hardly constitutes sufficient baseline data from which to project future trends, especially in a field that is being so dramatically impacted by social and political forces. The other reason is that a number of authors already have provided their cogent insights and forecasts regarding our field (e.g., Kauffman, 1999b; Walker, 2000; Walker, Sprague, Close, & Stalin, 1999-2000; Weber & Scheuermann, 1997). Over the years, I have drawn heavily from the work of these and other leaders in formulating my own thoughts and opinions; so much so that much of what I have to say perhaps is most accu rately characterized as a review of their work.

Another preliminary clarification regards my choice of metaphors for this article. The dictionary defines a metaphor as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance. Metaphors have been quite popular among speakers and writers addressing the current status and the future of our field. For example, Kauffman (1999c) recently used mules as a vehicle for conveying his messages about the role of science in the field of EBD. Having been prepared initially as a teacher of English, I am drawn to literary devices such as metaphors. For this article, I chose windows and doors as metaphors: Both provide visual and physical passage, and both can let in drafts, keep out the unwanted, or contain the incarcerated. They also imply movement through space and time, as when one looks outside when planning the day's activities or opens a door prior to going through it. Finally, let me attempt to establish a context for my observatio ns. The first is that, while our field is very new, much has happened in the 20th Century (most of it in the past 30 years) to influence its development and shape its future. One significant event is the enormous proliferation of governmental bureaucracies. At the federal level alone, there are a multitude of agencies that direct and support diverse initiatives related to children and their emotional and behavioral needs. Each agency has established its own policies and priorities regarding children and youth with emotional and behavioral problems and their families. These government organizations provide essential support for programs and professionals dedicated to helping their clients. Understandably, other levels of government have followed suit, and professional disciplines also have evolved around the divergent perspectives of the multifaceted and diverse needs of our clientele. Unfortunately, at the level of the consumer, this proliferation of agencies means that the family of a child with complex emot ional and behavioral needs is likely to face a bewildering labyrinth of providers and agencies, many with differing eligibility criteria, service delivery patterns, and guiding conceptual models.

Professionals are hardly any better off: We tend to become isolated within our own disciplinary niches, talking to our own group of colleagues and creating our own literatures. The governmental agencies that regulate helping professions have their own funding streams and priorities, resulting in programs and services for children and families that are uncoordinated, competing, and sometimes incompatible. In the 1980s, the idea of a system of care emerged, in which services for children and families were coordinated across life domains and service providers to remove many of the artificial barriers to matching services to client characteristics and needs across all relevant life domains (Stroul & Friedman, 1986). …

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