Sunday, Jun 07th

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Refrain from labelling students

By Terry Nisbett


The principal of a special education school in Jamaica has found that primary schools are sending many students who have no intellectual disabilities to her institution. According to the Jamaica Gleaner, Principal Sylvestina Reid of Randolph Lopez School of Hope finds that at the beginning or end of the school year, there is an increase in the number of students referred to the special education school. When students are tested, it is found that what was characterised as learning difficulties in many of them turned out to be behavioural problems, and students are sent back to their primary schools as they are not in fact intellectually disabled. The principal has warned teachers not to label students as having learning disabilities without doing proper assessment.


This problem of children being mis-sent to special education schools or classes is by no means confined to Jamaica. In 2010 in England, an Ofsted report indicated that more than half of the students identified as having special education needs were misdiagnosed. The report indicated that what the students needed was better teaching and pastoral care, the latter being support for the emotional and general wellbeing of the students. One example of one school’s misdiagnosis was when all the children whose fathers were serving in Afghanistan were diagnosed as having special education needs. In this case, the children quite likely only needed some emotional support. No doubt fear and worry over the safety of their fathers was affecting the academic performance of students. It could even have affected the students’ behaviour. It should have been an obvious flag to the school that these students with a common experience could not all suddenly have developed learning disabilities.


Sometimes, there are health problems or other physical problems which impact the progress of students. Teachers can often miss these signs. After all, a teacher may not have the ability or the information to make a proper assessment. But that gives even more reason to exercise caution before labelling students as unable to learn. Hearing and sight problems often contribute to the slow progress of some students. University professor Scott Barry Kaufman was one such student. He had a hearing disorder which meant there was a time lag in his hearing. As a result, he performed poorly on an IQ test at age nine and was sent to the special education class where he stayed for his entire primary school education. Through the insight of a special education teacher, Kaufman was able to question his label and move to regular high school classes where he performed excellently.


The problem with misdiagnosing students as needing special education is that such students may accept the label and perform accordingly. Kaufman said that while he was in the special education classes, his grades were C’s and D’s, but he began to get straight A’s as soon as he went into the regular high school classes. He clearly believes that the special education label could be self-fulfilling for the student who has been misdiagnosed. The school has set low standards and the pupil also just aims for the low standards.


Students who are grappling with a new second language are often swept up in the learning disability categorizing. Children who have newly migrated to another country which uses English as their official language and language of instruction, while for instance their mother tongue is Spanish or Mandarin, will have problems comprehending learning materials. But this in no way reflects their learning abilities. Students grappling with a new language are unlikely to perform well on a test that they can hardly understand. Still this foreign language problem is often used to misdiagnose a student as intellectually disabled. Such students are often ethnic minorities and in some countries questions have often been raised about the over-representation of ethnic minorities in special education classes. Many feel that there could be the issue of racial bias contributing to the over representation.


We do not want to lose sight of the fact that there are students who are correctly identified as needing special education. There are parents too who are often relieved when they can have a name for what affects their child. Others are naturally pleased that their children can have their learning tailored to their needs and specialist educators to assist them. One disadvantage of filling special education classes with students who do not have special needs is that the practice can serve to take attention and resources away from students who truly have special needs thereby decreasing their chances of reaching their full potential. In the end, it detracts from the development of all the students in the special education classrooms – those who need to be there and those who should be elsewhere. The focus here is on the tendency to misdiagnose which is sometimes motivated by laziness on the part of teachers and the opportunity of passing on the responsibility of dealing with a difficult situation to someone else.


Worse than that, it was found in the Ofsted Report that where the number of special education students was linked to receipt of funding, some schools tended to put more students in special education groups. That is a rather insensitive approach that ignores the fact that minds and lives could be adversely affected. Apart from special needs and even within special needs, there are many labels being applied to students even those just starting school. One wonders how we managed as teachers or as students before all these labels. Did we manage at all? We would probably say that many of us did manage, including the teachers.