African American learners and six-hour emotional disturbance: Investigating the roles of context, perception, and worldview in the overrepresentation phenomenon

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Beth Harry - Committee Chair


Of all the students in our nation's schools, students placed in programs for emotional disturbance (ED) are among those experiencing the most negative outcomes with regard to academic underachievement, high dropout rates, and encounters with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The primary candidate for the ED designation is the African American male, who is one and a half times more likely than a non-African-American student to be identified as ED. Although the problem of overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in special education has been widely documented in the literature, the factors responsible for the phenomenon remain the source of much debate.Building on a previous 4-year large-scale investigation of the processes involved in the placement of minority students in special education, the purpose of this study was to examine the efficacy of outcomes and stakeholder perspectives regarding four case study students placed in ED programs. Qualitative data sources included participant observations of students in classrooms, at home, and in their communities, formal interviews and informal conversations with school personnel, students, and families, and archival documents including cumulative records, psychological evaluations, social histories, standardized test data, and student work samples. Grounded theory and ethnographic techniques were applied to develop theory inductively and to capture the dynamic nature of the decision-making processes regarding these students' experiences. The results of this study suggest that the potential for positive outcomes for Black students in ED programs is constrained by a complex set of interconnected factors. These factors include parental disempowerment, negative and untested assumptions about families, lack of efficacy of instructional and behavior management programs, divergent perspectives of school staff and families in their explanations of ED, heightened standards for behavior thrust upon students once labeled, and decision making processes that violate the principles of least restrictive environment. These factors further suggest the ED label is largely socially constructed and is highly robust, even in the face of disconfirming evidence. This study documents the potency and durability of the ED label, and demonstrates the repercussions of this lasting stigma on interpretations of students' behaviors and on placement decisions made about students. Specifically, even when students' behaviors fell within the normal range, and even when students had demonstrated appropriate behaviors that should have qualified them for mainstreaming, the robustness of the label appeared to preclude them from such consideration.Implications of the study include the need for a revision of the way the emotional disturbance is conceptualized, a focus on the contribution of classroom context in children's behavior, the delivery of intensive functional behavioral assessment and positive behavioral supports prior to referring and evaluating children, and personnel preparation in developing a critical awareness of personal and contextual biases that may affect decision making. Recommendations for future research are outlined.


Black Studies; Education, Special

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