Date of Submission


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)



Department Chair

Robert A DiTomasso, PhD, ABPP, Chair, Department of Psychology

First Advisor

Lisa Hain, PsyD, Chairperson

Second Advisor

Terri Erbacher, PhD

Third Advisor

Kristine Peters, EdD


Determining eligibility for special education services under the educational classification of Emotional Disturbance (ED) has historically posed difficulties for school psychologists. The federal law provides vague eligibility criteria and a clear exclusion for students with Social Maladjustment (SM). This study evaluated the results of an online survey that required participants to identify behaviors that are most commonly associated with the constructs of ED and SM. This study further proposed to assess levels of comfort in determining eligibility based on a constellation of behavioral symptoms presented in short case vignettes. The study sought to reveal any differences in symptom identification based on the level of education, years of experience and setting of practice of participating school psychologists. The survey was distributed via email through the association of school psychologists in the states of DE, MD, NJ, and PA. There were a total of 80 participants that completed the survey. Previous researchers have suggested that the two constructs are separate while others suggest that they cannot be validly or reliably differentiated. The results of this study suggest that less than half of participating school psychologists were able to accurately identify behaviors associated with either the ED or SM construct while less than half of the participants also indicated a lack of comfort with determining eligibility when appropriate. Significant differences were noted in years of practice and level of education when identifying a small amount of ED and SM specific behaviors. The results of this study are consistent with previous research as they indicate a great deal of overlap between ED and SM behaviors which indicates the need for the federal definition to be operationalized to reduce ambiguity or revised to reconsider the SM exclusion. Results also suggest that implications for consistent practice amongst school psychologists will rely on a clear and consistent operational definition as well as the ability to identify subtypes of ED students with complex behavioral presentations so that treatment recommendations are more appropriate and effective.