The Liability of Labels

Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about her concerns for her oldest child.  Her child is 9 now and in grade four.  The problem is that he does not read at grade level.  He’s is bright and inquisitive and energetic and really interesting to talk with.  He is a really neat kid.  The problem is that he is bored.  Reading is not fun so he has chosen to do those things which interest him.  Definitely not reading.  That being noted, this child’s school is starting to suggest that he be tested by the board’s psych services department with an eye to having him formally identified as an exceptional learner (a child who has issues or difficulties in any form with learning).  A label.  My friend is not convinced that this is the best plan of action for her son.  And so we talked about her concerns and the liability of labels.  (I do wish that this was a term which I had coined but I first hearit from a member of my doctoral thesis committee.)

If there had been psychological testing of students when I was in school, I would have been identified as ‘Gifted/LD’.  A label.  (And as I know from working with students with this exceptionality – a very messy label.) And then there were the students in ‘Opportunity class’.  Read – not as intellectually able as your ‘average’ student.  Frankly, as I look back on my time as a student, I’m glad that the whole exceptional learner identification process was not the procedural norm in the board where I attended school.  I don’t think I would have liked having to live up to others’ expectations of the term ‘gifted’.

In my teacher training, we spent time learning how to develop lesson plans, how to ask effective questions, assessment and evaluation, statistics, educational law, how adolescents learn – all that was deemed at the time as the essential nuts and bolts anyone entering the profession would need to know.  We did not spend any time on how to individualize instruction to meet the needs of those students whose preferred learning style was not visual.  We most assuredly did not receive any instruction from any professor about special needs learners.  And then I became a full fledged teacher with my own classroom.

When I first started teaching in my own classroom, I remember one student in particular.  He was staring out the window and so I asked him to turn around.  I meant that he should move in his seat to face the front of the room.  What he did was to turn around 180˚ in his chair and face the door.  I was taken aback by his literal interpretation of my instruction.  And he was only one example of the students whom I was expected to teach.  In spite of all that I knew and all that I had been taught, I was not prepared to work effectively with special needs students/exceptional learners.

When I started teaching in secondary school, I worked with students who were identified as ‘TMR’ or ‘EMR’ – trainable mentally retarded or educable mentally retarded.  Thank heavens, those labels were removed from the Ministry of Education directives regarding learning exceptionalities.  Over the course of my 33 year career as an educator, I worked a great deal with students who had been formally identified as exceptional learners.  Many of my students had been identified as ‘Learning Disabled’.  Others had been identified as ‘Mild Intellectual Disability’.  (For most students, their learning issues were in either language or math.  Often students had issues with short term memory.)

For parents, if their son or daughter is identified as a exceptional learner, they are usually happy that there is an explanation for their child’s learning issues.   The problem is not the child (and no child sets out to make learning hard).  The problem is how the child’s brain is hard wired.  If the child has been tested by a board of education psychologist, then parents are presented with a report from that educational psychologist.  They are presented with a great deal of information and terminology by this board of education ‘expert’. The psychologist goes through the report and speaks to the parent about what it means.  For most parents, the terminology used in a psych services report might as well be Greek.  And there is a lot to take in and meetings are generally less than ½ hour long.  The psychologist’s recommendation might be to proceed to a formal Identification, Placement, and Review Committee [IPRC] meeting so that the child can be formally ‘identified’ as an exceptional learner.  The parents usually agree with that suggestion and so a meeting is arranged with the parents, and personnel from the psych services department and a representative of the administration of the child’s school.  The IPRC meetings are little more than the final rubber stamp on the whole process.  And the child is formally identified as an exceptional learner and given a ‘label’.

The problem with any learning exceptionality is that, except for those exceptionalities which are physical or visual or auditory, the learning exceptionality is invisible.  The only people who know that most identified students have been identified are the student, his or her parents, and the school.  So, the exceptional learner ‘label’ lives on the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), with the parents, with the student, and with the educational system.

And here’s where the ‘label’ can become a liability.  I will never forget the stories I was told by parents of how, in elementary school, their identified son or daughter was sent to the resource room when other students were being taught in some subject areas – subjects such as French, math, art, physical education.  Rather than providing individualized instruction for exceptional learners in the class with their classmates, these students were sent off to a different room.  Here they were supposed to be receiving extra help with language or math.  Here, they were often given worksheets to complete.  So, not only were they given boring work to do to ‘strengthen’ the areas where they needed the most support, they were segregated.  And if anyone thinks that these students did not know this and did not carry a sense of being stigmatized by this, they are deluding themselves.  Exceptional learners are not unaware learners.

By the time that these students came to secondary school, they had often come to believe that they were unable, incapable, and stupid.  I remember a student who had difficulty with reading saying to me, “What’s wrong with me?  I should be able to do this [be as able as he felt his classmates were].  I’m stupid.”  He had come to believe the label of his identification and to believe that he was not as good as (capable, able) other students.  His self-esteem had definitely been negatively affected by his identification (his label) and how his learning issues had been addressed throughout his school career.  For him (and for many other students), being ‘identified’ was something bad.  The label was a liability.

And then there were the identified students who used their identification as an excuse.  “I can’t do that.  I’m LD.”  or  “I don’t have to do that, I’m identified.”  For these students, no one had ever gone through their Individualized Education Plan to explain it to them not only their rights but also their responsibilities.  Being ‘identified’ was a way to not have to try.  The label was, again, a liability.

Parents trust that their child’s teachers will find the ‘one’ way to help the child learn.  And teachers try.  I cannot think of one of the teachers with whom I worked who did not try to understand how to support the students in their classrooms so that each student had the best possibility for success in the subject.  Most teachers who come into the profession now have had some instruction in working with exceptional learners.  Many continue to take Additional Qualification courses to deepen their understanding.  Once posted to a school, teachers have access to staff who can help explain a student’s Individual Education Plan.  Teachers access the help if they feel they need it.

But, teachers are human, too.  They have their own understanding of what the identification ‘label’ means for students in their classrooms.  For one of my colleagues, ‘gifted’ did not mean different but more – as in “You’re gifted so you can do more homework than other students.”  But ‘gifted’ students are not unaware students.  What is the benefit in having to do more homework than others in the class?  Why should they have to do it?  In the case of this colleague (who was a very talented teacher), what resulted was a Mexican standoff between him and the student.  The teacher thought the student was being lazy and the student believed the teacher was being unreasonable.  The student’s identification as ‘gifted’ was a liability for both of them.

When I was in school in Toronto, students were streamed into different secondary schools.  The recommendation of which high school to attend was based on the student’s academic success in elementary school.  Those students who were bright and intellectually quick and strong visual learners were directed to the collegiate (with an eye to them going to university).  Those who were not as strong academically and/or whose preferred learning style was usually not visual were directed to the commercial high school or the technical high school (with an eye to them going into the workforce once they graduated).  Those who had difficulty with the academic requirements of elementary school were directed to the 2 year vocational high school (with an eye to them getting some form of entry level work position once they graduated).  The secondary school the student attended controlled their post secondary life – a university degree and life as a professional, or life as a mid to low level white collar worker, or life as a blue collar worker.  Based upon the student’s academic performance and without any sort of identification process, students were covertly labelled based upon their academic ability.

Now, most secondary schools are a form of composite high school.  There is no streaming into one type of secondary school over another.  However, it is a fact that there exists the possibility that a student’s formal identification can affect the courses they will be encouraged to attempt in high school which will, in turn, affect their post-secondary options.  The identification (the ‘label’) can, again, become a liability.  The argument might be made that “We don’t want students to become frustrated.  We want them to succeed.”  Laudable but mislead.  The assumption underlying that argument is that the identification – the label – means that the student is not able to successfully engage the material in courses at the ‘academic’ or ‘applied’ level.  They might not be able to be successful in those courses but, then again, they might be successful.  In the course of my career, I worked with many students who, had they chosen courses based solely on the ‘limitations’ attributed to their learning exceptionally identification, would never have earned a high school diploma.  I remember a student who had been identified as ‘Mild Intellectual Disability’.  In layman’s parlance, a ‘slower learner’.  Her elementary school had recommended that she be enrolled in a programme which would not have lead to the possibility of her achieving a secondary school diploma since there would not have been any way for her to accumulate enough compulsory credits.  Thanks to her tenacity and diligence, this student did graduate from high school with a diploma and went on to community college.  Another student was identified as ‘Developmentally Delayed’.  Her elementary school had recommended that she be enrolled in a Learning and Life Skills class.  No possibility of getting credits at all; no possibility of earning a high school diploma.  Wrong!  She and her parents decided to enrol her in Essential/Workplace courses.  With some academic support when she needed it and asked for it, she graduated from high school and went on to work in the community.

I retired as Head of Special Education at the school at which I taught.  For the last seven years of my career, I was deeply involved in in-school testing of students in preparation for them being referred for psych services testing, developing and updating IEP’s, working with staff to consider ways to differentiate instruction, working with parents to help them understand their son’s or daughter’s IEP, working with students to help them understand their rights and their responsibilities regarding their learning success.  I know that the possible benefits to students of being identified as having a learning exceptionality can be great.  But I never forgot that there were and are two sides to everything.  While the benefits can be great, the liabilities should never be discounted.  Know that the exceptional learner ‘label’ can support but also remember that it can tear down.  Educators and parents must always be aware of the impact of both sides of the identification process.  They need to work to diminish the ‘liability of labels’.


About Authentic Vibrations

My life is about learning and personal growth. I was an educator in the public secondary system for over 33 years. I now work with women, individually and in small groups, using words and music, art and language to help them explore their individaul sense of self in ways with are authentically meaningful for each of them. I also facilitate discussions with educators at all stages of their involvement in the teaching profession to help each of us explore the meaning, value and potential of learning and teaching. It is my belief that, in working individually and in collective, we have the power to transform and evolve. In the power of the collectives which we create together is the power to create culture. As a musician, I believe that the arts have the power to change lives. Certification: CODE Model™ Coach WEL-Systems® Institute Affiliate Education: Ed. D (c) (Applied Psychology – Focus on Teaching) University of Toronto M. Ed (Curriculum Development and Design) Queen’s University (1992) B. Ed (Music, English, Elementary Education) University of Toronto (1976) Mus. Bac. (Music Education) University of Toronto (1975) RCM Grade 4 Harmony, Grade 4 History, Grade 9 Voice, Grade 10 Piano Awards: Life Membership, Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (2009)
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2 Responses to The Liability of Labels

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