Should Students Labeled EBD also be Labeled Gifted?

At one of SEED classes this past year, our overarching topic was special education: with sub-topics ranging from birth through adulthood, disparities that can be found, and purposes for services.

I’ll admit- special education is beyond complicated and seems to carry a lot of negative baggage. Until I had the opportunity to co-teach with a special educator and actually learn a lot of the accommodations that get provided, I was quick to associate sped with unnecessary meetings, frivolous lawsuits, and a waste of time and resources. While there are some hints of truth in these gloomy views, I know most special educators have hearts of pure gold. I do see a genuine desire to help the people labeled as struggling students, even if the system does often fall short.

Did you know that services really weren’t even legally required to be offered until 1975? The Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.

Special Education is such a giant umbrella. In Minnesota, these are all of the SPED categories:

  • Severely Multiply Impaired
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Blind-Visually Impaired
  • Deaf-Blind
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing
  • Developmental Cognitive Disabilities
  • Developmental Delay
  • Emotional or Behavioral Disorders
  • Other Health Disabilities
  • Physically Impaired
  • Specific Learning Disabilities
  • Speech or Language Impairments
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

The area that I am most curious about is EBD- Emotional/Behavioral Disorder. IDEA defines this under “emotional disturbance” as a condition exhibiting one or more specific emotional and/or behavioral difficulties over a long period of time and to a marked degree, which adversely affects educational performance.

The major issue besides such an ugly label? Minnesota African American and Native American students have much higher rates of identification in the EBD category.

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 9.54.40 AM

According to a MinnPost article by Erin Hinrichs, that we read for class and where the above graph also comes from, she reports: “In the Minneapolis Public Schools district, black students accounted for 67 percent of all students given the emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD) label. Yet black students only made up 36 percent of the student body. In the St. Paul Public Schools district, black students accounted for 56 percent of all students given the EBD label. That same year, black students only make up 27 percent of the student body.”

Hinrichs describes the efforts of Keary Saffold, a Twin Cities native, in his endeavors of challenging the clear imbalances of students of color overrepresented in the EBD special education category.

This topic has me thinking about what more I need to learn about the EBD label. When I think about “emotional disturbances”, I think of trauma, usually outside of a child’s control. I also wonder about the variation of services provided- even from a young age. I remember my brilliant, white younger sister getting pulled early for Gifted & Talented, even though one could argue our home life was traumatic (parents were divorced when she was four, multiple homes in multiple years). What was different about her experience that she was still flagged as someone who needed more challenge? It makes me question who makes these calls in the first place. And how my own lens as a white female educator is shaping the judgments I make about students and their capabilities.

A few years ago I got to attend a summit with keynote speakers Dr. Nekima Levy-Pounds and Dr. Yvette Jackson. Dr. Jackson began her talk by asking GT teachers to raise their hands, to which a handful throughout the room of hundreds complied. As she began talking about the pedagogy of confidence, she really inspired me. By the end of her presentation, she asked the GT teachers to raise their hands again, and every hand was raised. All kids are gifted and talented. Even the ones we give much less flattering labels too.

The trick then is how to we transmit that message to every student so they internalize the truth that they are each gifted and talented. I know adopting that mindset has been helpful for me already, but I still want to learn more. It causes me to ask: are students labeled with EBD receiving regular classroom instruction below their intellectual needs?

My friend Kara reminded me about the disparities between the Autism and the EBD diagnoses. As we were chatting, we wondered about how often white students are considered for the Autism spectrum where students of color are labeled EBD. I don’t have data on this, but just from observation, I have never taught a white student labeled EBD and I only know one black student vocal about his autism, but I have never taught him.

I guess I’m just wondering about how much of the EBD diagnosis is really about policing student behavior to fit in with white norms. Even as I type this, I’m feeling a bit hesitant- like, oh boy, do I really want to get into this conversation? I guess the only thing I can truly say I know about the EBD diagnosis is that there is a lot I still don’t know. But I do know that out-of-the-box thinkers who don’t seem to comply well with the prescribed routines of school are typically a concern for teachers, and I am becoming more and more aware of who I deem as gifted/bored/more of a project-based learner and who is actually in need of a medical diagnosis.

I know I work in a predominately white system, so I want to ask the right questions when it comes to thinking about EBD and Autism as labels without diminishing the reality of the diagnosis. My plan is to pay more attention to conversations about the labels and to add some reading to my summer list, including (either excerpts or all of) the books Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris and Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby. (Thanks again to Kara for introducing me to both texts). Also, if anyone knows of any good podcasts about the EBD label or working with students who are considered troubled, I can’t seem to find what I’m looking for, and I’m looking for suggestions!


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