NLTS2 Data Brief
Reports from the National Longitudinal Transition Study
August 2004 • Vol. 3, Issue 2
NLTS2 is being conducted by SRI International
The Characteristics, Experiences, and Outcomes of Youth with Emotional Disturbances
By Mary Wagner and Renée Cameto
The National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) provided the first national
picture of the lives of youth with disabilities in their high school years and
in their transition to early adulthood. NLTS analyses from the early 1990s showed
tremendous variation across disability categories in the experiences and achievements
of youth, yet the outcomes of youth in the primary disability category of emotional
disturbance (ED) were found to be “particularly troubling” (Wagner
et al., 1991, p. 11:3). Youth with ED demonstrated a pattern of disconnectedness
from school, academic failure, poor social adjustment, and criminal justice
system involvement, although there were positive findings regarding other aspects
of their lives, such as employment (Wagner, 1995).
The potential social costs of poor outcomes among these youth spurred new policies,
programs, and interventions to improve their prospects for a successful transition
to adulthood. A National Agenda for Achieving Better Results for Children and
Youth with Serious Emotional Disturbance (Chesapeake Institute, 1994) was one
reflection of that increased national attention, as were amendments to the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990 and 1997, and research priorities
established by the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department
The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (see footnote
1) provides an opportunity to take another look at youth with ED. How have
their experiences changed in the years since NLTS? This Data Brief takes a fresh
look at selected characteristics of youth with ED and their households that
distinguish them from other youth with disabilities and/or from youth in the
general population. It also describes aspects of their school histories and
their current school programs and experiences, as well as indicators of their
academic performance and social adjustment at school. Finally, the activities
of youth with ED outside of school are highlighted.
Student and Household Characteristics
Secondary school youth with ED differ from the general population of
youth in many ways other than their disability—differences that
can help in understanding their outcomes. For example, more than three-fourths
of youth with ED are male (Exhibit 1). Thus, conditions that are more
common among young men, such as criminal justice system involvement (Snyder,
2002), are likely to be more common among youth with ED than the general
population, apart from any effects of their disabilities.
Youth with ED also have a cluster of other characteristics that are associated
with poorer outcomes in the general population, including a higher likelihood
of being African American, living in poverty, and having a head of household
with no formal education past high school. Youth with ED also are less
likely to have the advantages of a two-parent household than their nondisabled
Further, almost two-thirds of youth with ED are reported by their parents
to have attention deficit or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD), with its associated impacts on behavior. One-fourth of youth with
ED are rated low by parents on a scale of social skills (see footnote
2), which could be expected to influence relationships both in and
out of school.
Past Experiences with School
Not only do youth with ED face the challenges of poverty and other risk
factors to a greater extent than the general population of youth, but
many also bring a troubled history with school to their high school experiences
More than half of secondary school youth with ED did not begin receiving
special education services until age 9 or older. This is a much higher
rate of beginning services at this age than youth with disabilities as
a whole, largely because youth with ED tend to have their disabilities
identified later. Youth with ED also experience greater school mobility
than other youth with disabilities; 40% have gone to five or more schools
since starting kindergarten—more than the three schools typically
attended in the grade-level progression from elementary to middle school
and middle to high school for students in the general education population.
This mobility can be associated with considerable disruption to their
school programs and their relationships with adults and other students
at school. Academic challenges can result; 38% of youth with ED have been
held back a grade at least once in their school careers, according to
A history of social adjustment issues also accompanies many youth with
ED to high school—almost three-fourths of them have been suspended
or expelled at least once, a rate more than twice that of youth with disabilities
as a whole. These experiences may contribute to the fact that youth with
ED are more likely than youth in any other category to have parents report
that their child’s last school change was made because he or she
was reassigned to a different school by the school district, not because
of a family move or other personal choices.
Secondary School Programs
Course-taking. When youth with ED reach secondary school,
their academic course schedules closely resemble those of youth in the
general population (Exhibit 3). Nearly all secondary school youth with
ED take language arts, math, and social studies in a given semester, and
84% take science. Only a foreign language is taken at a markedly lower
rate by youth with ED than youth in the general population.
A comparison between youth represented in NLTS2 and those represented
in NLTS (see footnote 3) shows a notable increase
in the academic focus of courses taken by youth with ED. There has been
a 13-percentage-point increase in their taking science and social studies
and an 11-percentage-point increase in their taking a foreign language,
a course often required for college admission. Thus, youth with ED in
the 21st century are taking high school courses that better prepare them
for postsecondary education.
Several nonacademic courses also are part of the typical course schedules
of youth with ED in a given semester, including physical education (71%)
and occupationally specific vocational education (51%). However, youth
with ED are less likely to be taking occupationally specific vocational
education than students in the general population (64%), even though such
training has been shown to contribute to higher rates of postsecondary
vocational training and competitive employment for youth with high-incidence
disabilities (Wagner, Blackorby, Cameto, & Newman, 1993). In contrast,
youth with ED are more likely than those in the general population to
take prevocational education. Rates of vocational course-taking by youth
with ED have not changed appreciably since the mid-1980s.
Between 40% and 47% of youth with ED take fine arts, life skills, and
study skills courses in a semester. The percentage of youth with ED who
take a fine arts course has increased by 13 percentage points over time,
with life skills course-taking increasing by twice that much (26 percentage
points) since the mid-1980s.
Instructional settings. Not only do the types of courses youth
with ED take closely mirror those of youth in the general population,
youth with ED are quite likely to be taking many of their courses in general
education classrooms (Exhibit 4). There is an increase of more than 10
percentage points in the percentage of youth with ED taking science, social
studies, and foreign language in a general education setting since the
mid-1980s. However, youth with ED experience educational instruction in
a general education setting to a lesser degree than youth with disabilities
as a whole. More than three-fourths of youth with ED take at least one
general education class (compared with 88% for youth with disabilities
as a whole), and 22% take all their courses in general education classrooms
(compared with 27% for youth with disabilities as a whole). On average,
youth with ED take half of their courses in general education classrooms
(compared with 60% of their peers with disabilities as a whole).
Special education classes also are included in the course schedules
of the majority of youth with ED—about three-fourths take special
education classes. This is a decline of 15 percentage points since the
mid-1980s in the proportion of youth with ED who receive instruction in
special education classes. Although 44% of the courses youth with ED take
are special education classes, on average, 16% of youth with ED take all
of their courses in special education settings (compared with 9% of youth
with disabilities as a whole who take only special education courses).
Student supports. Youth with ED receive a variety of services
and supports to help them manage their behavioral issues at school (Exhibit
5). According to school staff, 55% of youth with ED have a behavior management
plan or participate in a behavior management program, half receive behavioral
interventions, and a similar percentage receive mental health services.
In fact, comparisons of findings from NLTS and NLTS2 show a 20-percentage-point
increase in youth with ED receiving mental health services from or through
Substance abuse education or services are provided to 45% of youth with
ED, and 43% take part in a conflict resolution or anger management program.
Case management and social work services are provided to 34% and 30% of
youth with ED, respectively. Each of these services or supports is provided
significantly more often to youth with ED than to youth with disabilities
as a whole.
Academic and Social Outcomes
Despite these supports, secondary-school-age youth with ED face more
challenges in getting along at school than other youth with disabilities
(Exhibit 6). Their parents are only about half as likely as parents of
youth with disabilities as a whole to say their adolescent children with
ED get along “very well” with teachers or other students at
school. In fact, 28% are reported to get along with other students “not
very well” or “not at all well,” and 26% have those
levels of difficulty getting along with teachers.
Youth with ED are more likely than those with disabilities as a whole
to be involved in bullying or fighting while coming to, being at, or going
from school, either as victims or as perpetrators. During a school year,
42% of youth with ED are reported by parents to be involved in fights,
and a similar percentage is reported to be bullied. More than one-third
(36%) are reported by parents also to be perpetrators of bullying. These
behaviors may contribute to the high rate at which youth with ED are subject
to disciplinary actions at school, including suspensions or expulsions;
44% are reported by parents to have been suspended in the current school
year, which is more than twice the rate of suspensions of youth with disabilities
as a whole (19%).
Youth with ED also experience academic difficulties at school. Although
on average, their reading and mathematics abilities are closer to grade
level than those of youth with disabilities as a whole, they are more
likely to receive poor grades. Fourteen percent of youth with ED receive
“mostly Ds or Fs” according to school staff; only 8% of youth
with disabilities as a whole receive those low grades (Exhibit 7). Further,
nearly all youth with ED who take general education academic classes have
teachers who report they are expected to keep up with other students in
class, although only about two-thirds actually are reported to do so.
What Parents Think of School
With their children’s difficult experiences at school, both past
and current, it is not surprising that parents of youth with ED are more
likely to report dissatisfaction with their children’s schools and
school programs than parents of youth with disabilities as a whole (Exhibit
Twenty-nine percent of youth with ED have parents who report being “somewhat
dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with their children’s
schools, and 22% have parents who report similar levels of dissatisfaction
with their special education services, compared with 20% and 16% of youth
with disabilities as a whole.
Parents of youth with ED also are more likely than parents of youth
with disabilities as a whole to report that obtaining the services needed
by their children with ED took “a great deal of effort.” Thirty
percent of youth with ED have parents with that perspective, compared
with 19% of students with disabilities as a whole.
Dissatisfaction with the usefulness of the transition planning process
to prepare youth for life after high school also is more prevalent among
parents of youth with ED. One in four have parents who report that transition
planning is “not very useful” or “not at all useful,”
significantly more than the 18% of students with disabilities as a whole
whose parents report this view.
These more negative perspectives on the part of parents of youth with
ED may contribute to the fact that they also have a higher rate of participation
in special education mediation with their children’s schools or
their school districts than parents of youth with disabilities as a whole
(18% vs. 11%).
Life Outside the Classroom
Although many youth with ED face challenges at school, the quality of
their lives is shaped by more than their school experiences. Friendships,
extracurricular activities, and employment can be important for all adolescents,
but they may be particularly important for youth with ED because they
can provide opportunities for developing positive relationships and recording
achievements that may be difficult to experience at school.
Life outside of school for youth with ED resembles in many ways that
of youth in the general population (Exhibit 9). More than half of secondary-school-age
youth with ED (53%) hold a regular paid job in a one-year period, an employment
rate very similar to that of the general population of youth (50%).
And half of working youth with ED earn minimum wage or more at their
jobs, an increase of 33 percentage points in youth earning minimum wage
or more since NLTS. Nonetheless, working youth with ED are less likely
to earn that amount than their nondisabled peers.
Additionally, youth with ED are about as likely as youth in the general
population to belong to organized extracurricular groups at school or
in the community, such as a sports team, performing group, or religious
youth group. More than half of youth with ED (57%) belong to such groups.
They also have quite active friendships, with about one-third of youth
seeing friends outside of class and in organized group activities four
or more days a week. However, these frequent informal friendship interactions
may be cause for concern. The original NLTS demonstrated that youth who
see friends frequently outside of school have significantly higher rates
of absenteeism and course failure than youth with disabilities who have
somewhat less active friendships. In turn, high absenteeism and course
failure rates contribute to a higher likelihood that youth with disabilities
will drop out of high school (Wagner, 1991).
In 1991, NLTS examined the secondary school and early adult experiences and
outcomes of youth with disabilities and asked the question “How are they
doing?” Findings at that time pointed to “a mixed bag of transition
experiences” (Wagner et al., 1991, p. 11:1). The present examination of
the characteristics, experiences, and outcomes of secondary school youth with
ED suggests a similar picture of accomplishments and of causes for concern.
Changing school programs reflect increasingly rigorous course-taking in general
education settings and increased services and supports to help students succeed,
suggesting that students with ED may be better prepared to complete high school
and to pursue postsecondary education. At the same time, youth with ED have
a pattern of difficult experiences associated with school throughout their school
careers, and they have parents who express dissatisfaction with their children’s
schools and school programs more frequently than parents of youth with disabilities
as a whole.
Analyses of future waves of data from NLTS2 will explore the ways in which
these high school experiences of students with ED, as well as youth with disabilities
as a whole, help shape their achievements in early adulthood.
Chesapeake Institute. (1994). National agenda for achieving better results
for children and youth with serious emotional disturbance. Washington,
Gresham, F. M., & Elliott, S. N. (1990). Social Skills Rating System
Manual. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.
Snyder, H. N. (2002, November). Juvenile arrests 2000. Juvenile Justice
Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved April 13, 2004, from http://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/jjbul2002_11_1/contents.html.
Wagner, M. (1995). Outcomes for youths with serious emotional disturbance
in secondary school and early adulthood. The Future of Children, 5(2),
Wagner, M., Newman, L., D’Amico, R., Jay, E. D., Butler-Nalin, P., Marder,
C., et al. (1991). Youth with disabilities: How are they doing? Menlo
Park, CA: SRI International.
Wagner, M., Blackorby, J., Cameto, R., & Newman, L. (1993). What makes
a difference? Influences on postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities.
Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
Wagner, M., Cameto, R., & Newman, L. (2003). Youth with disabilities:
A changing population. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
NLTS2 Welcomes Feedback!
NLTS2, 333 Ravenswood Avenue., BS-136
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Phone: 866.269.7274; E-mail: email@example.com
The authors are part of the NLTS2 research team at the Center for Education
and Human Services, SRI International.
- NLTS2 has a nationally representative sample of
more than 11,000 youth who on December 1, 2000, were ages 13 through 16, receiving
special education, and in at least seventh grade. More than 1,000 youth in
the disability category of emotional disturbance are included in the sample.
Information from NLTS2 is weighted to represent youth with disabilities nationally
as a group, as well as youth in each federal special education disability
category. The information reported here was gathered from parents/guardians
of NLTS2 youth in telephone interviews or through mail questionnaires in 2001
and from mail surveys of staff in schools attended by NLTS2 youth in the 2001-02
school year. More information on NLTS2 is available at http://www.nlts2.org.
- Eleven items comprise this scale, most taken from
the Social Skills Rating Scale (Gresham & Elliott, 1990).
- The original National Longitudinal Transition Study
(NLTS) was conducted from 1984 to 1993. All comparisons between NLTS and NLTS2
are taken from Wagner, Cameto, and Newman (2003).
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This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.
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