By Cammie Jones

As parents, we are so aware of learning disabilities and children with special needs today.  There is a plethora of information right at our fingertips and resources available to help parents if they feel their child is struggling in school. What exactly does “special needs” mean and what are the advantages and disadvantages of labeling a child in the school system? How can parents make sure their child is getting the best education possible in the most positive environment?

In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into law and basically ensures that children with disabilities in the United States will receive special education services. Talithia F. Newsome, director of Special Education and Support Services in the Richmond County School System, says there are 13 categories of exceptionality defined under the Disabilities Education Act. “In order for students to receive special education they must be identified under one of the categories and be in need of special education and support services,” she says. There are both advantages and disadvantages to being labeled as a child with special needs.

Advantages

1. Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

An obvious pro of labeling a child who has special needs in the classroom is that teachers can use this information to help the child learn using their limitations as a guide.  “Once a student is identified, the student can receive an individualized education program designed to meet his/her unique needs,” says Newsome. “Identifying students in specific categories of disability allows professionals to design an educational plan specifically for the student which will best meet the students’ educational needs.”

2. Extra Learning Support

By labeling a child, they will receive extra services that they may not have been able to receive otherwise. For example, the child may be able to receive instruction in a learning support room at a pace that works for them. “They can receive frequent repetition and instruction in a much smaller setting with other students just like them,” says Rose Kivi, author of “How the ‘Learning Disabled’ Label Affects Students,” posted on brighthubeducation.com.

3. Targeted Instruction

Kivi says that by labeling the child as “learning disabled” these students are able to get help in order to remediate their specific problem. “Receiving instruction based on what students need is crucial in helping them excel and be successful in the future,” she says. The teachers and staff are better equipped to teach the child in a way that ensures learning by knowing what the specific learning disability is for each student.

Disadvantages

1. Low Self-Esteem for the Student

There are many laws in place that protect the rights of students with disabilities including access to services and helping to ensure these students are not discriminated against. However, many children do have low self-esteem once they are labeled.  “Students who are identified as students with disabilities may doubt themselves, feel that they are not as smart as others and create a sense of learned helplessness,” says Newsome. These students may feel that they cannot do well in school or are not smart.

2. Lower Expectations from Parents & Teachers

Parents and teachers may be guilty of having lower expectations for children with special needs. They may believe the student cannot do what is required of the other students and therefore lower the learning expectations for the child. Basically, if the teachers and parents don’t believe in the child, then the child won’t believe in himself either.  “Lower expectations sets up the student for failure,” Newsome says. 

3. Peer Issues

Fellow students can be mean and make fun of the student with special needs because they are different. “This may lead to the student having difficulty making friends and/or make them vulnerable to bullying or other mistreatment,” adds Newsome. It’s very important that teachers and parents help these students to build a positive self-image and boost their self-esteem by helping them build healthy relationships with others and to recognize their strengths.

In order to ensure that the positives outweigh the negatives when labeling a child as special needs in the school system it is necessary that parents get involved and become educated about the process. “It is important for parents to attend IEP meetings and other parent conferences,“ advises Newsome.

Parents are considered to be full and equal members of the IEP team, along with school personnel.  Because parents have inside knowledge of their child’s strengths and needs, they are crucial members of the team. “Parents have the right to be involved in meetings that discuss the identification, evaluation, IEP development and educational placement of their children,” says Newsome. They are encouraged to stay engaged with the school and communicate to work effectively with the staff. “Most importantly, parents should be there for their child to listen and to support them as needed throughout the school year,” Newsome says.

This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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