Adolescent females identified as seriously emotionally disturbed: A qualitative study of their experiences and perceptions

Date of Completion

January 2002


Education, Educational Psychology|Education, Religious|Psychology, Clinical




Public schools have been challenged to provide for the needs of special education students diagnosed as Seriously Emotionally Disturbed (SED). Educators and interested professionals working with families and children with SED must provide opportunities for academic learning while accommodating the students' emotional needs within the context of the public school. There is significant literature to indicate that the school experience for girls is often disadvantaged by institutional bias. Literature on Special Education and females having SED suggests replication of gender-biases within special education. Thus, the prevailing labeling system, which already connotes pathology, may foster a number of misconceptions regarding female behavior. ^ This study investigated the experiences and perceptions of a purposeful sample of adolescent women identified as being Seriously Emotionally Disturbed. The qualitative research design focused on five areas relative to adolescent women with SED; self-identity, experiences and perceptions contributing to their diagnosis, participation in school, aspirations for the future, and their needs as they move toward responsible independence. ^ This investigation incorporated personal interviews, extensive participant observation, review of records and the collection of participant artifacts. Data analysis was initiated during the data collection phase and includes cross-case comparison. ^ Overall the young women who participated in this study do not identify themselves as disabled and give little credence to formal diagnoses; instead they describe specific behaviors that interfere with their ability to manage daily living. They attribute their current status to experiences that have impacted them profoundly. Relationships are of primary importance. These young women bring to school their beliefs regarding people, life and themselves. They look to the school for academic skills and anticipate that the academic experience will enhance their coping skills. The participants look to respected adults, teachers (particularly women) and parents (particularly mothers) to provide self-efficacy skills and guide them to responsible independence. ^ This study begins to address the need for more current knowledge about the experiences of adolescent women having SED. It is hoped that while these data are preliminary, the nature of the apparent problems in understanding and providing for the needs of adolescent females with SED will generate dialogue and further research. ^