Research On The Effects Of Labeling Students With Disabilities

Students with Special Needs and their families face many difficulties throughout their lives. One of the first issues they will face is the labeling of their student with a disability. Labels are almost always stigmatized. However, in order to get many of the resources a student with special needs must have a label. Is the use of labels helpful to students with disabilities, their families, and educators? Or is the use of the labels more harmful and stigmatizing to students with disabilities?

Arguments on the helpfulness of labeling students have been going on for decades. Many feel having a label leads to opportunities that a student would not get without the label. In 1975, Goldstein described having a label as “a passport to special education.” When a student receives a label, it opens the door to many different resources and supports for not only them, but their families and educators that are not available to students who do not have a label. When a student has a label, it provides educators with tools to help the student be successful in the classroom. For families, it provides some comfort when they explain their difficulties to others. It also can help them feel a part of a group.

In contrast, a student who is labeled will face social disadvantages and can be excluded from the mainstream population. Labelling students has been addressed in legislation. It is illegal to discriminate someone because of their disability, race or gender. However, it is human nature to stereotype and make generalizations. Labeling a student can lead to teasing from their peers, which can cause students to dislike school and feeling inferior to their peers. One of the biggest issues with labelling is teachers and people often lower their expectations for these students. Once a teacher learns a student is labeled, they lower their expectations than what they would be for a student not labeled. This can lead to a student missing opportunities and effect their achievement throughout their lives.

Key Terms

Key terms in this article include labels, stigmatization and direct scribing. “Labels have frequently served (and still do, it might be argued) a limited purpose in inclusive education in terms of linking limited resources to the provision of additional support for children”. Labeling refers to placing a student in special education under a specific category. According to Cambridge Dictionary, stigmatization is the act of treating someone or something unfairly by publicly disapproving them. “Direct scribing consists of transcribing the narratives of interviewees on a computer in real time, while interviewees watch the screen and direct the process of amending the text”.

Literature Review

Inclusive Education and Politics of Difference

Questioning how labels are implicated in special and inclusive education is not a new topic. Labels serve as a way to identify and classify individuals in both education and society. In this way, labeling determines an individual’s value and place in society in view with that specified group who have similar characteristics. Other scholars say labeling is the recognition of certain biological traits differing from the norm in ways that have social significance. Particular students may have special needs for one or more labelled category and some may have multiple or a combination of disabilities. Labelling has both negative and positive implications for educational equity and quality. Labels can be used as political tools that the government uses to istribute resources to vulnerable students. They are useful for determining the nature and level of support and helping teachers design and provide appropriate instruction for that student. By explaining their differences, labels also increase awareness and provide comfort to both the student and family. In spite of the positives that come with labelling, labelling students can limit the view a teacher has before they get to know the student well. Teachers have a preconceived perspective about disabilities. They may think a certain strategy they used for a student who had ADHD before, will work on one of their new students with ADHD. However, no two students are the same. In order to provide better education to those with disabilities, there needs to be a focus from labelling to a need. Everyone at some point in their life has a need that must be met with additional support.

“These People Are Never Going to Stop Labeling Me”

There is a disproportionate amount of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in special education. Specifically, African American, Latino and Native American are at the highest risk of being labeled with a disability. African American males represent 12% and 21% in the categories of learning disability and emotional disturbance. The disproportional representation of African American males in special education has been a major theme in special education literature, but this article interviewed African American male college students with learning disabilities about their personal experiences.

Three common themes were found among the participants. The first was the dilemma of access to the general education curriculum. Participants who received their educational experience in a self-contained classroom expressed frustration with teachers in the general education classroom not being able to address the diverse learning styles of these students. Participants who were in self- contained classrooms expressed their experiences as enjoyable because the teachers were able to focus on implementing individualized instruction to those students. One participant’s statement said that there would be no learning disabilities if teachers had many different ways of teaching. The second theme looks at how these students also were confronted with the burden of interdependent narratives related to race, gender and socioeconomic status. Many of the participants mentioned that they had to prove to their teachers that they knew the material and they were intellectually proficient. They felt like they were competing against their white peers and non-disabled peers. The third theme discussed the mischaracterization of African American males as students with behavioral issues, distract the other students’.

To Label or Not to Label: The Special Education Question for African Americans

Labeling African-American students in special education is not advantageous and can even be counter-productive. While there is good that comes with labeling, it creates an extra baggage for African-American students to carry. When African-American students first enter school, some may have difficulty conforming because their teachers are not familiar with their culture and use a traditional mainstream approach to instruction. This puts them at risk for going through the labeling process. Giving a student a label dictates that those students need to be normalized and they are deficient. Labeling is not the answer, it opens the door to a host of additional challenges. It brings a risk of further stigmatizing these students (Gold).

How We Might Make Special Education for Students with Emotional or Behavioral Disorders Less Stigmatizing

People who are identified as having emotional or behavioral disorders are generally stigmatized. The stigma can be minimized through four ways. The first way is to talk about differences in plain language. For example, changing “disorder” to “challenge” may result in a more positive attitude toward a particular behavior. They may also convey a more accurate meaning about the behavior that is being discussed. The second way is to accept the reality of what emotional and behavioral disorders mean for education. People need to accept that a student with EBD is not typical and ordinary instruction will not be successful in making the student’s life better. Nothing will be gained by keeping people guessing what is meant by saying a student’s behavior is problematic, so it should be explained what a student’s problematic behavior means for their education, how it is different from what is expected and why it is interfering with learning. The third way is to emphasize benefits and the skills needed to provide them. There needs to be better research indicating the extent to which special education is beneficial to students with EBD. The stigma associated with special education can be reduced by emphasizing the need for it, the benefits and the unusual skills teacher must have in order to do it well. The final way is to try to make special education for students with EBD what it should be. Special education for all types of disability needs improvement. If people were shown that the instruction that students that receive in special education is superior to the instruction that they would receive in general education, it could reduce the stigma considerably (Kauffman).

Is the use of labels in special education helpful?

The article discussed the helpful and some helpful reasons for the use of labels in special education. The use of labelling protects the rights of pupils by giving them the resources they need to meet their needs, however, professionals in special education may label students for the sole intention of receiving extra funds to support them and the school. Labelling leads to awareness raising and promotes understanding of particular difficulties, but it can also lead to stigmatization. Stigmatization is now being tackled in legislation, however students will still feel stigmatized in school. Having a label can reduce ambiguities and provide clear communication devices for professional exchanges of information. However, having labels lead to generalization of children’s difficulties, neglecting specific individualized issues. Labels can provide comfort to children and families by explaining their difficulties, however it leads to a focus on the deficits of the child and possibly lowered expectations within the classroom. When a person receives a label, they may feel a sense of belonging to a group. However, it could lead to teasing, bullying and lower their self-esteem.

Teachers’ Expectations and Attributions for Student Achievement: Effects of Label, Performance Pattern, and Special Education Intervention

Teachers’ expectations about students are often based on information given to them prior to any direct observation of or interaction with students. This creates a bias that effects a students’ actual performance. This study examined the effects of student special education label, past performance patter and pervious participation in special education on teachers’ expectations regarding future academic performance. The authors found that classroom teachers will raise or lower their expectation based on a student’s previous special education label and past performance. This is consistent with the results of more than twenty studies indicating that cumulative folder information does influence initial teacher expectancies. Attributions may vary with label. If teachers wanted to see more success in a student with an EMR label, they would alter the difficulty of the test rather than attempting to change the motivation of a student as they would for a learning disabled or a child who does not have a label (Rolison).

It Should Not Be a Pit Stop: Voices and Perspectives of Homeless Youth on Labeling and Placement in Special Education

Little is written about homeless youth and their school careers involving special education. This study includes direct scribing of homeless youth’s narratives. Homelessness and runaways is growing significantly around the world. Homeless youth struggle greatly to adjust to school, but their reading, spelling and mathematics scores are below grade level, 50% of males and 74% of females are suspended, 47% of males and 21% of females are expelled and more than 21% of males and about 30% of females will eventually drop out of school. Many of these youths resist special education labels and programs because they were teased, bullied and realized that special education would exclude them from graduation, so they drop out. In one of the narratives, a homeless boy called his narrative “Being Trapped in the System With the World Against Me.” He described how frustrated he was since elementary school in his special education classes, he rebelled against “the system” by dropping out of school and his street life starting going.

Early Teacher Expectations Disproportionately Affect Poor Children’s High School Performance

Teachers of early elementary level grades over and underestimate their student’s math abilities, basic reading abilities and language skills. Teachers’ inaccurate expectations in first grade predicted students’ standardized test scores at the age of 15. When the teacher underestimated their student’s abilities in early elementary school, the student’s scores at age 12 were lower, even after taking into account prior measures of ability, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and non-cognitive factors known to influence achievement. When a student’s ability was overestimated at a young age, their performance on the test was higher. Early inaccurate teacher expectations leave a lasting effect on students and their academic performance.

Labelling and self-esteem: does labelling exceptional students impact their self-esteem?

Studying the topic of self-esteem in students who are labeled with a disability is very important for practice and research, but more importantly for considering changes to instruction of exceptional students. Educators of exceptional students need to understand the psychosocial and educational aspects of this problem. Labelling can be harmful and stigmatizing for many people. However, labelling does exist and it is not going to go anywhere. Pretending the disability does not exist only heightens the stigma. Being direct, honest and talking openly in public about disabilities can help with stigmatization. It encourages people to confront them and take responsibility for their actions and attitudes towards the disability. Educators and parents need to promote positive self-esteem of exceptional students. They can do this by valuing each child as an individual with strengths, needs, interests, etc., focusing on those strengths and talents, rejecting the child’s behavior, helping with problem solving skills, dividing large tasks into small manageable ones, communicating confidence, emphasizing positive aspects of behavior even if the task was not completely successful. A student’s self-esteem is determined by the conditional acceptance they receive from others and will be determined by success and progress in these four areas: social (friends, acceptance), competence in a skill area, physical (attractiveness, clothing) and character (effort, generosity).


Throughout the history of special education, the use of labels to describe and define disabilities has sparked debate and concern. There are many benefits to labels. They bring consistency to research and communication regrading disabilities. It helps provide a pathway for teachers in the classroom in trying to help students who are labeled. Even though no two students are exactly alike, if the teacher has experience with working with a student who has a disability, they might be able to use some of the same strategies they did in the past if they know the students label. When a student has a label it opens the door to funding, both at state and federal levels. It can provide comfort to both a student and their family because it offers an explanation. However, with labeling brings stigmatizing, isolation and stereotyping. Students who are labeled struggle greatly with being bullied. Teachers lower their expectations for students who have labels. While a student might feel a part of a group by having a label, they still feel different than their nondisabled peers.

Labeling cannot go away, but stigmatizing these students with labels can. Teachers need to be educated on how to boost the self-esteem of these students. They should not be lower than expectations, so the student feels success. They should be adjusting their teaching styles, talk openly about disabilities and promote respect in their classrooms.

01 February 2021
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