Labels - When are They Helpful?

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Intellectual labeling, when it is used in a pejorative way, can never be considered helpful or positive. Outdated terms like slow, special, and retarded, are increasingly looked down upon and thank goodness for own evolution. The question of whether it is helpful to label students who are learning challenged, has been studied all the way back the 1970s. The issue looked at in most of these studies, focuses on expectations both of the students for themselves once they are given the label, and of teachers; it has been established that some teachers unintentionally expect less from a learning challenged student..

A more recent research study originally published as part of a larger review for the West Virginia Alternate Identification and Reporting Program, titled, An Exploratory Analysis by Yetty A. Shobo, Anduamlak Meharie, Patricia Cahape Hammer, and Nate Hixson, was quite comprehensive in its findings. What they found was that teachers often do not expect the same from those students who are labeled, leaving them essentially disadvantaged. The research study which compared many additional controlled studies and compared the findings, seemed to indicate that children labeled with dyslexia often suffer an increased stigma because they can't read or the disability is visible in the writing. And, in one controlled study of teacher's expectations when told that one group was learning challenged and one was not, they did not as often refer the learning labeled children to gifted programs regardless of abilities or IQ.

But on the whole the conclusion of that study was:

Labels seem to function in both negative and positive ways in education. Early evidence showed that knowing a child’s label—especially the labels of mentally retarded, emotional/behavioral disability, and learning disability—affected teacher perceptions and expectations for success (Bianco, 2005; Foster & Salvia, 1977; Foster, Schmidt, and Sabatino, 1976; Gillung and Rucker, 1977). Other research showed that only certain labels (i.e., emotionally disturbed) influenced teachers’ expectations for student success, and that teachers may be more influenced by student behavior, such as a sample of student work (Levin, Arluke, & Smith, 1982).

So, how does this help us? Well, I feel that it affirms two things: labels are necessary for accommodations and labels mean nothing if you don't assign limitations to the individual child. It's about raising our own awareness, and evolving to expand our own expectations. Of course, we know, that these children, without being formally diagnosed, slip through the cracks and lose valuable education in the process. However, I do not believe in some parents' and educators' views on constantly referring to a child by the label. In my opinion, it's enough to know, and then we go to work to help this child succeed. But if you talk to some parents, my goodness, in the first five minutes, you would think it was as easy as saying this is my son or daughter - they lead with an encyclopedia of diagnoses. My child has ADHD and dyslexia and dysgraphia and he has behavioral this-or-that etc. How about we re-frame that paradigm, which seems to have become increasingly popular among ambitious Gen Xers-now parents. Instead of referring to the child's learning disability as a way of introduction at EVERY educational meeting, especially with the child sitting right there, why not try by beginning with something like this...This is my son, Brett. He is kind and funny. He loves baseball and he is an incredible artist. We've come to you find the best way to see him reach his full potential. Look, it's not perfect, but it's certainly refreshing. We need to up our game for these children. It's 2018 - we know more so let's do better!

It is true that in some cases, without a label, a differently-abled child will get lost in the system. This is never good as it can lead to gaps in education, anxiety, high drop-out rates, and worse. This is why I believe so strongly in finding the "right" program for your child. There are many advanced, progressive, educational leaders and educational institutions that didn't exist even twenty years ago. Many of whom and many of which don't perseverate on the diagnoses and/or the labels and some that don't even believe in grades. Still, these programs are terrific schools that work with a child's individual needs. Again, it's about the individual first not the diagnosis. Labels are useful, but if overused or even miscategorized, they can be hurtful and stigmatizing. So, make it about getting to the truth for your child's highest good, and then rip off the labels and give your child the room to soar --- beyond any limiting label or box. You never know, your kid just might surprise you!

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