The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

Labelling in Special Education

G. H. Mead may be a familiar name to some, especially those who have taken Introduction to Psychology or Sociology courses. He’s one of the founders of the famous labelling theory, which has already been a common household name for the last decade. The labelling theory states that if an individual is given a certain label (ex. “criminal”, “convict”, “gangster”, etc.), even if it is a label that negatively affects their reputation, the individual will resort to behaving like the label. They may say things like, “I’m a convict, I deserve not to have a job and not to have trust”.

Labelling has been a hot topic in the field of Special Education. The two biggest schools of thought are:

  • pro-labelling: Labelling allows us to identify the symptoms of children with special needs, and this can lead to helping them learn more effectively in the classroom and to better prepare the teacher in their planning and assessment.
  • anti-labelling: Essentially, the labelling theory.

It’s completely understandable why both schools are strongly supported. However, the anti-labelling theory assumes that the system and its inhabitants are naïve and actively attempt to impose a label on youth not for their sake.

Labelling is not innately negative. Like any tool we use to advance society and to make the learning experience better, it highly depends on how the tool is used. Similarly, cleavers may be used to chop meat, or in classic crime series, used to commit homicide.

Labelling allows teachers and staff to provide the necessary resources to help the child succeed. If a student continues to experience problems in their learning from the mainstream methods of teaching (even after the teacher has differentiated all she could), it is clear that the child needs to receive different instruction, whether it is different approaches or different content. What if a child was dyslexic and had serious difficulty in understanding the content?

I can see the concern behind labelling, as seen in the case of Scott Barry Kaufman. His story is that he had been diagnosed as needing Special Education and has been receiving horrible grades in his spec ed classes. However, once he was back in mainstream, he excelled, and is now a psychology professor.

This is not to say that the vast majority of children slip through the cracks like Kaufman did, but many students do need the support and special resources to help them succeed.

There also seems to be a widespread reputation that children in Special Education were thrown there because they were “annoying” or that teachers just didn’t know what to do with them anymore. This is definitely not the case. To identify students in the Special Education program, or to receive an IEP, there is quite an elaborate process that students and parents to go through first to identify effectively the resources the student needs.

A quick overview of the process:

  1. The teacher assesses the student’s work in the mainstream environment. Assume that the teacher notices something peculiar, such as the student stumbling across the same problem repeatedly.
  2. The teacher notifies the Special Ed/Resources teacher.
  3. Resource teacher gives the student a test to assess academic proficiency and marks his/her progress on the bell curve chart. Assume that the problem arises again.
  4. Resource teacher notifies the school psychologist, principal, VP, and parents.
  5. School psychologist gives a psychological/cognition test to the student to assess cognitive abilities, such as perception, reasoning, abstract thinking, etc. The school psychologist also uses a bell curve chart to score. Assume that the student falls out of the normal range (can be above or below).
  6. The panel (school psychologist, teacher of the subject/grade involved, principal, VP), parents, and student are brought up to pace as to what’s going on. A growth plan may be introduced.
  7. If the growth plan seems to need more tweaking or more resources, an IEP (Individual Education Plan) may be introduced. The IEP is a legal document that mandates the teacher and staff to provide necessary resources to help the student succeed, and may have the student fulfill different curriculum expectations.

This 7-step process doesn’t only take place within a week. School psychologists are always in demand and are travelling from school to school, and it can be difficult to schedule an appointment with them. The entire process may take several years, and the tests are very elaborate and controlled.

In Kaufman’s case, it is truly bizarre that his medical history were not taken into account. The 21 infections would have been part of his student record because they were significant enough to affect his learning. From a logical perspective, it seems that the administration and teachers who have dealt with Kaufman and his student record were not too careful. It seems almost ridiculous that because he had not heard the administrator’s questions, he received a below-average score.

Or, as it is with all media, are we receiving only one side of the story? Perhaps Kaufman’s parents had not released to the school that he had 21 ear infections, and that he had trouble hearing (naturally).

Those are the only two reasons that I find would be logical explanations for Kaufman’s case. Teachers and parents here in Ontario know how long and tedious the process is to have a student identified.

Therefore, labelling is important for the child to succeed. It is also important that the school creates a welcoming and safe atmosphere for students of all types so that labels do not carry a connotation, but are rather words that help staff and teachers to try their best in helping the student. Teachers and parents need to take part in teaching their children that students in special education are not “abnormal” or “weird”, but are merely students who would benefit better from a different teaching and learning approach.

A tip for parents and future parents: Please let the school know about any significant injuries that your child has had so your school has sufficient information to understand your student’s progress. Student records are private and government documents, so they will not be solicited. 


One comment on “Labelling in Special Education

  1. keith mcpherson
    July 3, 2014

    I like you article

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This entry was posted on June 27, 2013 by in education, politics, school, teaching and tagged , , , , , , , .


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