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Labeling and Eligibility for Special Education (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Possible Disadvantages of Labeling

  • Because labels usually focus on disability, impairment, and performance deficits, some people may think only in terms of what the individual cannot do instead of what she can or might be able to learn to do.
  • Labels may stigmatize the child and lead peers to reject or ridicule the labeled child. (Not all labels used to classify children with disabilities are considered equally negative or stigmatizing. One factor possibly contributing to the large number of children identified as learning disabled is that many professionals and parents view “learning disabilities” as a socially acceptable classification [MacMillan, Gresham, Siperstein, & Bocian, 1996].)
  • Labels may negatively affect the child’s self-esteem.
  • Labels may cause others to hold low expectations for a child and differentially treat her on the basis of the label, which may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, in one study, student teachers gave a child labeled “autistic” more praise and rewards and fewer verbal corrections for incorrect responses than they gave a child labeled “normal” (Eikeseth & Lovaas, 1992). Such differential treatment could impede the rate at which a child learns new skills and contribute to the development and maintenance of a level of performance consistent with the label’s prediction.
  • Labels that describe a child’s performance deficit often acquire the role of explanatory constructs (e.g., “Sherry acts that way because she is emotionally disturbed”).
  • Even though membership in a given category is based on a particular characteristic (e.g., deafness), there is a tendency to assume that all children in a category share other traits as well, thereby diminishing the detection and appreciation of each child’s uniqueness (Gelb, 1997; Smith & Mitchell, 2001).
  • Labels suggest that learning problems are primarily the result of something wrong within the child, thereby reducing the systematic examination of and accountability for instructional variables as the cause of performance deficits. This is an especially damaging outcome when the label provides a built-in excuse for ineffective instruction (e.g., “Jalen hasn’t learned to read because he’s learning disabled”).
  • A disproportionate number of children from some minority and diverse cultural groups are included in special education programs and thus have been assigned disability labels.
  • Special education labels have a certain permanence; once labeled, it is difficult for a child to ever again achieve the status of simply being just another kid.
  • Classifying exceptional children requires the expenditure of a great amount of money and professional and student time that might be better spent in planning and delivering instruction (Chaikind, Danielson, & Brauen, 1993).

Clearly, there are strong arguments both for and against the classification and labeling of exceptional children. On the one hand, most of the possible benefits are experienced not by individual children but by groups of children, parents, and professionals who are associated with a certain disability category. On the other hand, all of the potential negative aspects of labeling affect the individual child who has been labeled. Of the possible advantages of labeling listed previously, only the first two could be said to benefit an individual child directly. However, the argument that disability labels associate diagnosis with proper intervention is tenuous at best, particularly when the kinds of labels used in special education are considered. What Becker, Engelmann, and Thomas (1971) wrote more than three decades ago is still true today: “[The labels] rarely tell the teacher who can be taught in what way. One could put five or six labels on the same child and still not know what to teach him or how”.

Although the pros and cons of using disability category labels have been widely debated for several decades, neither conceptual arguments nor research has produced a conclusive case for the total acceptance or absolute rejection of labeling practices. Most of the studies conducted to assess the effects of labeling have produced inconclusive, often contradictory, evidence and have generally been marked by methodological weakness.

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