Special Education Labels: Necessary or Negative?

I was a special education teacher for almost ten years. It was something that I adored doing. I loved the children I taught, even though they had some huge behavior problems. It was my job as their teacher to teach them skills they would need later in life to be successful. It was my job as their teacher to build up their self-esteem that had slowly been tattered by everyday life. It was also my job to help them see that being in our special classroom was an okay thing. You see, every other student in the school knew about our classroom. It was the class where the “bad” kids were sent to learn.

My students knew why they were in my class. They knew they were “special education” students. They also knew that they didn’t learn as fast or as well as their peers did, they knew that they needed extra help with social skills, life skills, and job skills. The problem is; because of their label, the other kids in school knew it to. This often resulted in my students getting teased because they were in “that dumb class for bad kids”, which always resulted in me having to assure them that they were not dumb and they were not bad kids. All because of a little label called “special education”.

The question that I was always left with was this: Are special education labels negative or necessary? What I have come to learn is that the labels are both of the above. As a teacher, I can clearly see both sides of the labeling issue. I also saw how the labeling affected my students and it wasn’t always a positive thing.

Special education students need to be labeled. It is important to the state they are in, the schools they attend, and to the teacher they are educated with. Why is it important to have a label on a student? Well, to start with every special education student in every state needs something called an IEP, which is an Individualized Education Plan. The IEP is what the teachers, the social workers, the counselor, anyone who works with the student must follow when educating that child. Each child’s IEP is different from other children on an IEP. It is important to categorize a child as a special education student for this very reasonâÂ?¦the IEP. This paperwork is crucial to a special education child receiving the most appropriate and beneficial educational experience possible. It is reviewed monthly by the teacher and sent home to the parents or caregiver. A new IEP is written yearly for the student, with parents and everyone who works with that student present. IEP’s are essential to special education students.

Another important reason that students must be labeled as special education is money. The district will receive more money from the state for a child who is in special education. The school district needs these extra funds to help with the child’s educational process. If the child isn’t labeled as special needs, then the district won’t get the extra money that student would need for education. Therefore, without the label, no extra money, and that money is important.

Teachers, often like knowing the labels of each special education student, because it can help them plan on how to best educate that child. If a teacher, especially a general education teacher, knows that they are going to have a learning disabled student in their classroom for a period, then they feel more prepared to help that child. If that child wasn’t labeled, and just came to them as a general population student, the teacher would not be able to best serve that student in the his or her classroom. It would be doing a huge disservice to the student to not have a label telling his or her teacher just what disability they have.

Knowing these things always made me feel a bit better about having my students labeled. It also helped me better explain to them why the labels were important, and what the purpose of having them was. It still didn’t make it any easier for my students, when the other students saw them in my classroom, getting a lot of extra help. The other students knew what my classroom was all about and what kind of a teacher I was.

It is a double-edged sword to the children who walk the halls of schools with a special education label attached to their back. They need the label for the school and for the teachers to help them. But, do they need the labels advertised for the entire school to see? Is there a way to label these kids without the school population figuring out why they go into such and such a class for help? That is another question I always found running through my mind. How do we stop that label of special education from being negative and just have it be deemed as necessary?

I am not sure now, looking back, that there is an easy way to stop the negativity that goes along with the labeling of special education students. Most people teaching agree that it is necessary. What isn’t necessary is the special education student feeling crummy and being teased just because they carry that label and go into a special class. How do we find a comfortable balance between the necessity of labeling and the negatives that go along with it?

I wish I knew. The problem is, even though no teacher goes along announcing that a child is staffed special ed or what type of disability that child has, the word still gets out. Kids are smart. They see kids going in and out of a classroom that they aren’t in, they can see that these kids may look a bit different, or perhaps they can hear some of the behaviors that are exhibited in that classroom. The kids figure it out, they tell a friend who tells a friend and that is it. From then on, the kids in the special education room are known as different, just because of the label they carry and the disability they exhibit.

I am really not sure of a way to avoid this negative connotation that comes with labeling a child as a special education student. I am not sure that school districts will ever figure it out. All that I know is that the labels are important. But the students who are labeled are even more important. We need labels that much I am sure of. What we also need are students who are much more accepting of other students who are different than them. Unfortunately, that acceptance is becoming less and less, and our special education population is becoming greater and greater. There is no easy answer, and that is unfortunate indeed.

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