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About this series

Special education: Telling facts from fiction

As a teacher, hearing that students in your classroom have a diagnosed learning disability or other special need can be overwhelming and even intimidating. Preparing lesson plans for twenty students already seemed difficult enough. Now you are expected to provide specialized instruction with no real training or guidance from special education staff!

It’s perfectly natural to feel concern or frustration. And you’re not alone — many teachers have been in your shoes at some point in their careers. This blog is here to help.

Each article in this series considers a commonly held belief about special education, providing special instruction to students with special needs, and the behavior problems you might encounter in an inclusive classroom. Many students with learning disabilities also have underlying behavioral or processing disorders, and researchers have struggled to design ways to reliably identify those problems and to treat them. Here, though, we’ll concentrate on classroom practices. The authors look at each issue, ask what the research says, and offer teacher-tested strategies for teaching students with learning and behavior problems.

This series is based on LEARN NC’s blog of the same title, which ran during 2009–10.

Learn more

Related pages

  • The law and disabilities: A brief overview of two major laws — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 — that protect students with disabilities in schools.
  • The challenge of a broken pencil: From dealing with meltdowns to setting a routine, Rhonda Layman shares communication and management strategies for students with autism spectrum disorders.
  • Gender in special education: Do boys have more incidences of disability than girls? The numbers suggest that they do, but the matter is complicated. This article addresses some of the issues behind the statistics.

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The myth

Special education labels help students achieve the best possible education.

The facts

Before we begin our discussion, it is important to note that labels are an integral part of the current special education system. According to federal law, a student labeled with a specific disability, whether it’s ADD or autism or dyslexia, is entitled to services. Without a specific label from a diagnosis, parents and teachers cannot procure an IEP or 504 plan for a student that outlines the supports or accommodations he needs.

However, once the labels are applied, studies show that focusing on them can sometimes do more harm than good. Teachers with the best intentions can misinterpret what the label means and how they should use the label to help the student, which in turn can undermine the purpose of the diagnosis. Fraser Lauchlan and Christopher Boyle named four commonly held — but misleading — beliefs about labels in special education:1

Belief #1: Labels open doors to treatment and resources.
While it is true that students must be diagnosed in order to receive accommodations through an IEP or 504, a label might actually prevent some students from getting the resources they need. Not all disabilities are created equal. For example, knowing that a student has Asperger’s Syndrome may inform a teacher that he needs a structured classroom with a clear routine. But that does not tell her that this particular student also needs books on tape because of reading difficulties. And if the student’s IEP does not specifically name the reading difficulty as a disability, he may not be entitled to receive those books on tape.
Belief #2: Labels increase awareness and understanding.
Because of legislation requiring labeling, the public — and teachers more specifically — have a better understanding of children’s special education needs. Teachers are given information about their students’ labels, and thus have come to know that, for example, dyslexia has no impact on a child’s intelligence. However, labels, especially emotional or behavioral (e.g., ADHD or bipolar disorder), can limit a teacher’s view of her students’ capabilities before she meets them. Lauchlan and Boyle cited a study that showed that teachers have preconceived notions about disabilities that are very hard to shake; in one instance, teachers held the belief that children with autism had no common sense, and thus treated their students with autism as such.2 And yet, a child with autism may have an abundance of common sense, or be social, or possess any of a number of other characteristics not typically associated with the syndrome.
Belief #3: Labels give a clear method of communicating with education professionals.
There’s a frequent assumption that labels mean the same thing to all people. If a doctor diagnoses a child with dysgraphia, her reading specialist knows what he means and can thus communicate the child’s needs to her teacher. And yet we know that not all children are the same. Diagnoses are not the same either. Some categories are ambiguous at best; ADHD refers to myriad behaviors that require different accommodations. Some students with ADHD need help focusing, others need help transitioning from activity to activity, and still others need help processing information. A simple diagnosis of ADHD with no follow-through of details and observation may not help a teacher at all.
Belief #4: Labels provide comfort to children (and families) by “explaining” their difficulties.
If a child is experiencing continued frustration in school, it can be comforting to know that there is a specific reason that can be addressed. In the book Caged in Chaos, the fifteen-year-old author describes how her diagnosis of dyspraxia was life-changing. She could not understand why no matter how hard she tried, she could not make her body move the way other children could, so the diagnosis gave her clarity and helped her to understand her condition was not her fault. Studies do confirm that labels can work positively for children, as long as they do not become the only focus of the adults in the child’s life. When a strong emphasis is placed on the diagnosis, even a well-intentioned adult can forget that Julie loves art and tells funny jokes and has an incredible memory, remembering Julie only as the girl with ADHD.

The bottom line

While labels can be necessary aspects of special education, we need to assure that we are using them as a tool to help children rather than as the definition of who the child is. Every child is unique, with needs and abilities specific to himself, and labels can obscure that fact. Labels should be used as the jumping-off point to begin discovering how best to help students in the classroom when taking into consideration all of their other qualities.