Advantages and Disadvantages of the Special Education Label

Updated on December 14, 2016

So Many Acronyms

Identifying Students For Special Education Services

Since the inception of special education laws like IDEA, schools have had to develop ways to successfully identify students who may be in need of services. Depending upon when a child will be identified this process can begin prior to school or after a child has already entered school.

One such way is in annual child find notices published by school districts. Schools are required to make their community aware of services that are offered to them if they feel their child has a disability. The child find process covers students from the ages of preschool through 21 and is just one way to identify children in need of services (Heward, 2003). However, once in a school there are other ways in which children may be identified as special education. This often includes teacher, parent or agency referrals (Heward, 2003). Once a student is in school a teacher may notice that the child is experiencing problems and refer them to a counselor. In the district in which I work students are identified through a CASST process whereby a teacher makes the initial referral and the team evaluates the possibility that the child has a disability.

Self Esteem Issues

In addition, students labeled as learning support may fall victim to the self fulfilling prophecy and suffer from lower levels of self esteem (Heward, 2003). Students who have been in special education for a long period of time tend to suffer from issues with self esteem and thus perform below their ability (Heward, 2003). This creates a situation where the student approaches tasks with an attitude of “I can’t” rather than I will. Additionally so, teachers and others who deal with the child may hold lower expectations for the student based on a belief that the child cannot do something.

Why Labels Are Needed in Special Education

Although these are some of the disadvantages of being labeled as such, there are advantagesto the student being properly labeled. Special education students cannot just simply be placed in services because someone feels they need them. There needs to be some criteria to determine if a student is indeed in need of special education. This falls in line with determining what type of services a student needs. For example, it would not be appropriate to place a student with a learning disability in emotional support services. Doing so could lead to the creation of other problems not previously seen in the student. Therefore, labeling special education students can serve to make sure the student is receiving proper services so his or her needs are met.

Dangers of the Special Education Label

Ever since the existence of Special Education students have been placed with a label on them. Based on their disability, a special education student will either be classified as learning support (LS), emotional support (ES), or mentally retarded (MR). Regardless of what label is given to them this can present problems for the student, teacher, parents and even administrators. One such problem with labels lies in how the definition is interpreted. In some schools and states, definitions are interpreted differently. For example, the term serious emotional disturbance is one which is too broad to encompass all children who may be eligible for special education services.

According to the guidelines set forth by the federal government a serious emotional disturbance is one in which marked by problematic behaviors in one or more of the five characteristic areas of functioning (Kauffman, 2005). Simply this states that children who are seriously emotionally disturbed are unable to learn and this is not explained by intellectual or other factors. However, when one interprets this we are left wondering what other factors are involved. The current definition fails to identify other factors leaving such an interpretation up to individual schools.

In addition, states’ definitions on a learning disability vary to a certain degree. For instance, Pennsylvania states that a disability can be one in which a physical or mental impairment is present and which substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities; a record of having such an impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment. In New York, the definition is stated a (Gacka, 2009) physical, mental or medical impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, genetic or neurological conditions which prevents the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques; a record of such an impairment; or a condition regarded by others as such an impairment (New York State, 2009).

The inherent issue with labeling students for special education services is that the definitions established by states leaves much to individuals interpreting criteria as established. In one state the student may qualify as a learning support student, while in another he or she is emotional support. In some cases, students who are labeled emotional support may not receive services in other states. However, there are other issues associated with labeling students, including fulfilling the role of being in special education and perceived issues with self esteem.

The Self Fulfilling Prophecy

One problem with these varying definitions lies in its inability to incorporate how some children end up being diagnosed as seriously emotionally disturbed while others are not. Would it not seem that every person could potentially be corrupted by society? How does this explain that concept?

Finally, the alienation perspective attempts to explain that serious emotional disturbance is driven by neither disease or societal norms, but rather a direction which is perpetuated by the need to self actualize one’s full potential against the pressures of societal norms (Newcomer, 2003). This suggests that all people who are diagnosed with an emotional disorder are indeed attempting to fulfill their potential. It would suffice to say that emotional disturbance is caused by several factors, all determining what course of treatment needs to be taken and the prognosis for each case. In addition, such definitions may contribute to a student falsely being labeled, leading that student to believe he or she needs to fulfill this label attached to him or her.


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    • profile image

      Thandi Mathe 

      3 years ago

      My son is doing well in his school work the problem with him is very difficult for me to say exactly what is it whether its anger or he passes out I don't know. and at school they say he needs a special school

    • Missy Mac profile image

      Missy Mac 

      7 years ago from Illinois

      When I started teaching, it became important on how we publicly addressed referred students with "special needs". Parents were cautious about enrolling or supporting programs for their child. Great article


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