Updated: Feb 15
Having your child labeled can be one of the most trying experiences of parenting. So much so, that many parents avoid the diagnosis process. A reaction that is understandable as labeling and diagnosis can signal a clear shift in educational and emotional care. Labels may involve a medical diagnosis, an educational label, or a self-imposed label.
As a parent, I understand the complicated feelings involved in parenting but as a special education teacher, for the last twenty years, I view educational labels as extremely helpful. In the U.S. school system, students need an educational label in order to be provided with appropriate educational services. For example, a child that is struggling in math or reading may be labeled ‘learning disabled’ or a child that needs sensory input more often than expected may be labeled as having ‘sensory integration disorder’.
When writing my master’s thesis, I interviewed many university students who were labeled Learning Disabled. This study from The Frostig Center in California was the inspiration for my study and many other research programs since. My version of this investigation into the labeling of students involved extensive conversations with students and indicated that students felt they were successful for two reasons. #1 The event of being labeled was momentous in that it gave a name to their struggles and #2 a significant motivational relationship with someone outside of the family was imperative.
My second finding was not a surprise. Before I began my research I was expecting students to tell me about their favorite teacher/coach/director who believed in them and helped them understand their strengths. After years of being a teacher, I realized the benefit of a label from the educator's perspective but had also recognized that many parents and students had been resistant. However, in my interviews with students, I learn that students correlated their success with their label. As I investigated further, the qualitative data indicated that student labels had a positive impact on their educational experience in that it seemed to compartmentalize the issues they were having in school and made them realize that there was a reason outside of effort for their struggles.
A parent writing for Positive Special Needs Parenting even went so far as to say that a label can “enable and empower.” One important variable to consider in analyzing this research is to recognize that these individuals were many years past the initial labeling and therefore had processed the emotional components of labeling as well as experienced the positive and negative impact of labeling. In other words, they were able to understand the value add of labeling versus their initial negative expectations of labeling.
There are many different perspectives and arguments that come from labeling. Focus on the positive effects of educational labels:
#1 Let the research begin!
As soon as a child receives an educational label parents and educators are given a sense of direction. Once academic struggles are identified and labeled the child’s support network can best 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, while still performing below their potential in a specific area for a variety of reasons. Helping a student understand their strengths and weaknesses is a concept that 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 Extra help.
When your child has a label it often provides them with the opportunity to receive additional educational support, accommodations and/or modifications within the school setting. An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will be written by a highly trained team of experts, extra support specific to their individual needs will be provided, and accommodations (extra time, quiet room, questions read aloud, someone to write your child’s verbal answers, etc.) will be provided. Students do not often receive these supports across all academic settings on a consistent basis without an IEP or 504 education plan.
#3 Defined learning profile.
Once a label is given to a student, their classroom teachers, as well as teachers in non-academic areas, will be able to better understand how the student should be supported in the classroom. The student’s learning needs are identified and learning objectives and goals are established by a team of educators, administrators, and parents. Older students are also often involved in the process. The team also determines what type of strategies, services, and accommodations could help the student to be successful ie. extra teaching, small group or one on one review, extra time on tests, counseling.
Another important component is teaching students how to advocate for themselves and explain to their teachers what they need in order to learn best. This process of self-advocacy can also put power back into the student’s hands.
Last year I helped a family with a teenage girl find the right 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. Nationally, the term was changed to Intellectual Disability in 2011. However, the reality is that this word is still used in some US states and it wasn’t changed in all IDEA documentation until as late as 2017. It was my responsibility to prepare the parents that they would encounter this word as they went through the process of having their daughter’s disability recognized in her new school. The best advice I could provide them 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. However, a label that will lead to improvements in the educational environment can lead to a better understanding of how to modify teaching strategies, the direction of where to focus research efforts, and extra help in school.
April Remfrey is an American special education consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com