There is no such thing as Good or Bad Labels…they’re all Bad

I remember when I was working for the Peel Regional Police in Mississauga, Ontario.  I was a secretary in a bureau and one day a police officer strolled into the lunch room grinning from ear to ear. “I just got a phone call from my wife!” He crowed. “The school told her my son is gifted.” Watch What is an IEP?

I wasn’t a teacher then and I had not even been to teacher’s college yet, but instinctively I was dubious about both the label and the telephone call.  As it turns out it was a public school and I was not surprised.  Public schools can be so laissez-faire about serious matters. I wonder if a teacher also calls a family to inform them that their child has a learning disorder or needs to be in special education classes?  Imagine hearing such poignant information over the phone?  You just don’t do that.  My school system (Roman Catholic or Separate) doesn’t permit teachers to simply call up families and say “guess what?…”  It is unprofessional.  It denies the parent the ability to have an extended conversation with the teacher since a mere phone call is not intended to be an in-depth interview. Most of all however using a label about a student misleads parents and students.  It marks students for better or for worse.  Let’s not forget that special education also includes “gifted” children. Watch Special Education Teaching: Understanding Special Education Terms

I can hear opposition to my statement about public  boards and their laissez-faire attitudes. Yes public schools can be wonderful places of learning and they do have terrific teachers but the issue I am discussing here is not about that; it’s about the manner in which a student assessment is communicated to families.  Imagine you are contacted by your doctor’s office and the receptionist informs you that you have cancer.  Just like that.  Wouldn’t it be more prudent for the receptionist to telephone you and ask you to attend an appointment with your doctor?  And yes you want to believe that educational labels do affect families as hard as if someone has cancer.  In fact I have researched families who committed murder after a special education assessment was made about their child.  No joke.  One family murdered its own child; the child had been assessed as low functioning and the parents were ashamed to have him as a family member. This is the incredible impact that schools and educational labels have on families. (Public schools take note:  Watch Special Education Referral

Special education is a label that leaves me feeling ambiguous.  A “gifted” child belongs in special education but most of us forget that and assume the child is behind. Besides every child has gifts to offer the community. Sometimes a family thinks gifted means the child is a prodigy. Wrong. I think it’s time to lose the “special” in special education, too (see my post Taking the Special out of Special Education). How about advanced? And I really have no use for slow learner.  This has to be the unkindest label of all, and again one of the most confusing for families.

Often when a family hears it’s child is a slow learner it is believed the child eventually can catch up to the rest of the class. Wrong.  It means the child will always work beneath curriculum standards for his/her grade level and will always be a step behind his or her peers academically. These are the sort of details parents need to discuss with both the special education and the regular classroom teacher in an interview about a child’s assessment; not a frivolous phone call that leaves many questions unanswered and may be very misleading. I couldn’t entirely pinpoint why that phone call irritated me before I became a special ed teacher.  Now I get it. Watch Special Education Teaching: Defining Special Education

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