3 Reasons an Educational Label Can be a Good Thing
In the US, students need an educational label to receive appropriate services. For example, a child struggling in math or reading may be labeled “learning disabled,” or a child who needs sensory input more often than expected may be labeled as having “sensory integration disorder.” Labels may involve a medical diagnosis, an educational label, or a self-imposed label.
Having your child labeled can be one of the most trying experiences of parenting. So much so that many parents avoid the diagnosis process. This reaction is understandable, as labeling and diagnosis can signal a clear shift in educational and emotional care.
As a parent, I understand the complicated feelings involved. As a special education teacher with twenty years of experience, I view educational labels as extremely helpful.
What The Research Says About Educational Labels
When writing my master’s thesis, I interviewed many university students labeled Learning Disabled. This study from The Frostig Center in California inspired my work and many other research programs. My version of this investigation into educational labels involved extensive conversations with students. My research indicated that labels could improve outcomes because:
- Being labeled gave a name to the students’ struggles
- It helped form significant motivational relationships with someone outside of the family
The importance of motivational relationships was particularly striking, though not a surprise. Before I began my research, I expected students to tell me about a favorite teacher/coach/director who believed in them and helped them understand their strengths.
I’d suspected that naming struggles would also be beneficial. After years of being a teacher, I learned that students correlated their success with their label. As I investigated further, the qualitative data indicated that student labels positively impacted their educational experience. They compartmentalized their issues in school and realized that there was a reason, outside of effort, for their struggles.
A parent writing for Positive Special Needs Parenting went so far as to say that a label can “enable and empower.” It’s important to recognize that these individuals were many years past the initial labeling and therefore had processed the emotional components and experienced the positive and negative impacts. In other words, they understood the value of labeling versus their initial negative expectations of labeling.
Let's explore three key positive effects of educational labels:
#1 Finding Direction & Strategies
As soon as a child receives an educational label, parents and educators are given direction. Once academic struggles are identified and labeled, the child’s support network can implement strategies that have been scientifically researched and found to be effective for their particular diagnosis.
Labeling also helps students understand that their struggles have a name and can be compartmentalized. In other words, their diagnosis defines one part of their life, not who they are. For example, a child with a learning disability may have an average (or even above average) IQ score yet still perform below their potential in a specific area.
Helping students understand their strengths and weaknesses reduces anxiety, increases confidence, and ultimately empowers students to establish coping skills/techniques and strive for success.
The students interviewed during my research often described this time in their lives as being a relief. It was a process, but they felt as if the burden of failure or lack of intelligence was lifted. Powerful!
#2 Qualifying for Educational Services
When your child has a label, it provides them with the opportunity to receive additional educational services.
These services are driven by a highly trained team of experts who will:
- Write an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
- Provide extra support specific to individual needs
- Recommend accommodations (extra time, quiet room, questions read aloud, writing down verbal answers, etc.)
Students do not often receive these supports across all academic settings consistently without an IEP or 504 education plan.
#3 Defining a Learning Profile
Once a label is given to a student, their classroom teachers, as well as teachers in non-academic areas, will better understand how the student should be supported in the classroom.
A team of educators, administrators, and parents identify the student’s learning needs and objectives and establish goals. Older students are often involved in the process. The team determines what strategies, services, and accommodations could help the student succeed. They may recommend things like extra teaching, small group or one-on-one review, extra time on tests, or counseling.
Another important component is teaching students to advocate for themselves and explain what they need to learn best. This process of self-advocacy can also put power back into the student’s hands.
When Labeling Goes Wrong
Of course, some labels — particularly outdated ones — spark an immediate and negative emotional reaction.
Last year I helped a family with a teenage girl find school placement in the United States. Unfortunately, the state they were moving to still uses the label “mentally retarded,” which holds a very negative connotation. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) changed the term to “intellectual disability” in 2011; however, it wasn’t changed in all IDEA documentation until 2017 and is still used in some states.
It was my responsibility to prepare the parents for this term as they went through the process of having their daughter’s disability recognized in her new school.
The best advice I could give was that this is just a word. It does not change how they know their daughter or what they wish for her future. This word does not change that they had found a program that was the best fit for their daughter. What this word did was open the door to their daughter’s best educational opportunities in their new home country and state.
Labels can be scary, demeaning, and harmful if given haphazardly and without great insight and explanation. They should never slow down — or worse, stop — stop a student from receiving available assistance. However, a label that will lead to improvements in the educational environment can lead to a better understanding of how to modify teaching strategies, where to focus research efforts, and a better outcome for students.
Need help navigating the process of receiving an educational label for your child? Let’s chat!
Get free access to templates that are useful for schools and parents
- Learner Profile
- IEP Parent Invitation Letter
- IEP Checklist
- How to run a great IEP meeting