Changing the focus from label to need
Labeling a student's disability is an important step in procuring special education services for that student. But is there a downside to labeling students? This article looks at four commonly held — but ultimately misleading — beliefs about labels in special education, and advocates for focusing on needs rather than labels.
Special education labels help students achieve the best possible education.
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.