Why “Labeling” In Learning Isn’t Always Bad

During a recent parent conference, we talked at length with a set of parents about their legitimate concern about harm that may come from labeling students in certain ways related to their learning.  It is not uncommon for parents who have had a negative experience in their own school career regarding labels, class placement, or achievement to have this apprehension. However, a number of factors must be considered that distinguish a parent’s experience from their child’s.

 

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Why Labeling In Learning Differences Is Thought Of Negatively

A generation ago, educators lacked the sophistication and knowledge about learning variations that good educators today have.  Not long ago, it was common for teachers and families to equate such learning differences with learning defects, lower intellect, and reduced potential.

Learning Differences: A Fact For ALL Of Us

As contemporary and seasoned educators have grown in related training and knowledge, we now more frequently understand that variations in learning strengths are a part of every person’s experience but do not necessarily imply any sort of significant limitation, particularly when well understood and well managed.  Not long ago, the interventions and strategies that were effective for helping students with a wider range of learning styles were debated and not always understood; now, efficacious approaches are well documented and proven; we know what works and what does not in a way that we, not long ago, did not.

Why It Is Time To Rethink Labeling

We now more accurately distinguish among the kinds of labels that are necessary to serve students with learning differences. First of all, every student or adult who has significant difficulty with reading or writing may find it useful to use the term “dyslexia” to describe his or her challenge (as in, “No, I prefer not to read out loud in church today; that rarely is comfortable for us dyslexic learners.”).  While “dyslexic” is a somewhat informal label indicating difficulty in reading achievement, it can also effectively be used to ease awkward situations when the difficulty is in written language (more properly, “dysgraphia”) and even difficulty with math (more properly, “dyscalculia”) because it is a convenient, relatively socially-acceptable and succinct way to convey to a listener that this may be a sensitive area warranting consideration.

How A Label Can Help

Other labels play important roles.  In order for a student to receive special accommodations and modifications to a curriculum so that they can fairly and reasonably have the opportunity for equal achievement, certain rights and protections are assured for students who have specific learning challenges.  However, they must meet eligibility requirements defined under state and federal regulations that protect the rights of people with disabilities.  Consequently, eligible diagnoses often include the word “Disability,” such as “Specific Learning Disability in Reading.”  It is not possible to be eligible for guaranteed protections without this label, though it must be noted that to have such a learning profile does not constitute an actual disability when the students are appropriately served.  It should also be noted that enlightened educators often provide an array of these accommodations and considerations regardless of the “eligibility” simply because they know that a wide range of students, not just those diagnosed with a learning problem, can benefit from some of these approaches.

Another form of label is also important to bring under discussion, particularly with the student, parents, and instructors. Those are the very specific labels that describe particular processing strengths and weaknesses.  For example, is not especially useful to simply urge someone with weak auditory processing to “try harder” or to tell them, “I know you can do it.”  Such students are well-served when trusted adults can accurately label, specifically and non-judgmentally, the learning trait causing difficulty.  For example, it is useful to say, “It’s hard for you to listen carefully in this room because you are a person who gets very distracted by background noise.”  It is useful to say, when fitting, things like, “You don’t remember much of what you read when the chapters are really long.”  Precise, non-judgmental behavioral descriptions serve a positive function. Without modeling such language, students tend to end up self-labeling themselves in a more destructive fashion: “I am a bad listener,” or “I suck at reading.”

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