Is Special Education Labeling Helpful or Prejudicial and Damaging?

One of the more controversial education conversations I hear and have been a part of concerns labeling kids. Over the years I’ve met lots of parents and teachers who argue that labeling is a negative thing. I’ve been to lots of dinner parties where, as soon as someone discovers my profession, the subject comes up, and sometimes heatedly. A few of the more consistent “negatives” presented are: “Labels mark a kid for life and I’m afraid that can hold him/her back,” “Labeling my child will lower expectations” and “Everyone today is labeled and then drugged.” Anyone whose child has been helped by such labels argues the other side.

Are diagnostic and special education labels like ADHD, Dyslexia, and Autism Spectrum Disorder helpful or not? Do these terms box children in and constrain them, or do they provide a safe container in which to play and develop? Are they too restrictive or are they safety harnesses that are absolutely needed?

In an opinion piece from Education Week, Labeling Students With Disabilities Has a Downside the writers suggest that Special Education Labeling has upsides and downsides.

Do you have an opinion either way? Is labeling a helpful thing or prejudicial and limiting?

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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3 Responses to Is Special Education Labeling Helpful or Prejudicial and Damaging?

  1. Richard says:

    It’s a great question and I too think labels have both good and bad effects on people.

    A good effect might be helping a person understand the difference between their intelligence and their learning issue.

    A problem effect might be that not all people with dyslexia (for example) are the same but the “dyslexia” label might lead to being treated like every other person with dyslexia a teacher has ever experienced.

    I was “labelled” very early in my life and I can’t say that it did me a lot of good. However, the thought of not having that label to explain the difficulty I had with reading and writing is troublesome.

  2. Sanford says:

    Richard, thanks.

    You hit it right on the head when you said, “I was “labelled” very early in my life and I can’t say that it did me a lot of good. However, the thought of not having that label to explain the difficulty I had with reading and writing is troublesome.”

    It’s a terrible comparison for obvious reasons, but getting labelled “hypoglycemic” (a physical condition) won’t necessarily lead to the right solutions, both lifestyle and other adaptations) depending upon who’s giving the health advice and yet, without the label, there’s no chance of understanding why one’s tired or irritable or whatever the effects.

    I’m curious as to whether there were any differences between how you were treated or felt about the term dyslexic in elementary versus junior high or high school?

  3. Richard says:

    I went to Fieldstone Lower School in New York until 6th grade and it had a language training program and an innovative curriculum aimed at students like me. I’m not sure how much good it did but it did less harm than a public school might have done.

    Junior and high school were both horrors, I did very poorly and got little support. I didn’t really learn how to read and study until I got to college.

    The label “dyslexic” was only meaningful at Fieldstone, after that it had no meaning in the schools I was at. Remember, I’m 66 so it was another time.

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