Labels for Special Education Students – A Necessary Evil

The word “label” can cause many parents to cringe inwardly. They often see it as a big sign hung on the back of their child, making them conspicuously different from the rest of the population. Some parents may fear a label will stay with their child for the rest of their lives, preventing both social acceptance and employment opportunities. Others may see a label as some kind of failure in regards to their parenting skills. In fact, no parent wants his/her child to be labeled.

However, labeling may be unavoidable. Getting your child diagnosed is the single most important step in the foundation of his education. If you perform your own evaluation and red flags pop up, it’s time to take action.

Your first call should be to your child’s primary care physician. At well-child check-ups, your doctor will ask questions regarding developmental benchmarks. Benchmarks are guidelines of normal development your child should reach by a certain age. These include expressive language, receptive language, vocabulary, and fine and gross motor skills. Because language development can vary from child to child, physicians may be lax in taking appropriate action for a child who is not reaching benchmarks. As a parent, your intuition should serve you well. Call your local county Child Development Services (CDS) office and request an evaluation. Your CDS case manager will refer you to specialists more suited to diagnosing disabilities.

If your child is already attending school and you are worried about his progress, keep the lines of communication open with his teachers. Many teachers will refer students to the special education department for an evaluation. Regardless of the results of a public school evaluation, you may want to get an unbiased, independent evaluation. Tutoring centers like Sylvan use specialized testing. In this way, you have a back up should the school district decline services.

If your child does have a disability, an appropriate diagnosis is important in order for the state to recognize him as a special education student. State funds ensure support staff will be available to help your child meet the goals listed in his IEP, or Individualized Education Plan. This plan includes any therapeutic services your child may need such as speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and adaptive physical education. These services are vital to your child’s success throughout his primary and secondary education.

Sometimes the biggest hurdle is dealing with having your child “singled out” as a special education student. You fear your child will be seen as different, weird, stupid or weak. While there is no easy fix for this issue, being an advocate for your child and his education can alleviate some of those fears. At the primary level, ask the special education teacher about reverse mainstreaming. This process invites mainstream students into the self-contained/special education classrooms. Students who spend time in the specialized classrooms tend to be more accepting of differences because they are allowed to get to know special education students on a personal level. If reverse mainstreaming is promoted regularly, lasting bonds can form between students that will carry over into the mainstream classrooms and all over the school.

Finally, teach your child to advocate for himself. Understanding the cause and reason behind a label can sometimes ease anxiety about being different. Understanding how a specialized program works, even on a basic level, can go a long way in teaching your child to advocate for himself throughout the course of his education.