Special Education Name Calling: Is It Time to Put a Stop to It?

Group Of Elementary Age Schoolchildren Answering Question In Class

Today, every child is entitled to a free appropriate public education.  If someone, such as an educator or parent, becomes concerned about a child’s progress at school, he or she is obligated to refer the child to the Committee on Special Education (CSE).

special edThe CSE is made up of a multidisciplinary team, the parent, and, if parents want to bring in other people for advice, they are entitled to do so. CSE members, working collaboratively, design an individual evaluation, and then it is carried out at no cost to the student’s parents. Based on this evaluation, the CSE then designs an Individualized Education Program (IEP), that by law, must be carried out.  If parents are not satisfied with the plan, or how it is being carried out, they are entitled to extensive due process rights.

I am fully supportive of all that I have just described.  However, currently in most school districts, in order for students to receive an IEP, they must be provided a couple of labels.  That is, they must first be designated as having a disability, and then the specific disability, such as “learning disability,” “intellectually disabled”, or “emotionally disturbed,” is entered into the child’s school records.  special-education-studentsAlthough there are parents, students, and educators who embrace these labels, many find this aspect of the IEP process highly objectionable.  For those individuals who do object to the labeling part of the process, why not just eliminate it?

The Argument For Permitting Parents and Students to Opt Out of the Labeling Part of The Process

LearnFor quite a few years I was employed as a school psychologist. In that role, I served as a member of my school district’s CSE. During these years, I saw first hand many examples of the labeling process becoming harmful.

In one case, a young teenager had managed to get to high school without any special education services, but now he was having a great deal of difficulty passing some required classes. When he was told that in order to get help he would have to be labeled mentally retarded, he became furious, walked out of school, and we never saw him again.

Child 3In other cases, despite full agreement on all other aspects of the IEP,  the “emotionally disturbed” label led to anger, increased personnel time and financial school district expense in order to resolve differences over this matter. “Why not just give my child the IEP!?” yelled one parent. “I don’t want anyone putting in my child’s record that she is emotionally disturbed.  It’s not right!”

LDI have seen many examples of the “learning disability” classification causing problems as well.  “First of all, I don’t have a disability,” said one young teenager.  “I have a learning difference, not a disability.  In most areas, I learn fine, and even better than most kids in my classes. I find it hard to read, that’s it!  The learning disability label paints too broad a stroke. It makes me look like I have trouble learning everything, which isn’t at all true!”

From time to time I see some of the students who were labeled as having a disability when they had been in school now all grown up. Many are not receiving any disability services, are fully employed, and raising beautiful families. Why did they have to be assigned a disability classification when they were young just so they could get services that helped them succeed? Why not give students a chance to show what they can blossom into before we have to label them in school?

My Recommendations

label-jars-not-peoplePhrases in the law such as “Rights Afforded to Students with Disabilities” would be changed to “Rights Afforded to Students with an IEP.”  Rather than classifying students, the education system would classify educational concerns. If a teacher was concerned that the child was reading below average, the CSE would design an IEP that would address that concern.

At the CSE, parents would be informed that it is the philosophy of the school district to view each student as an individual. The student’s strengths would be emphasized along with the concern that led to the student being referred to the CSE.

There are a number of school districts that have come pretty close to trying out the approach that I am advocating.  The federal law still requires that the student be “viewed” as a person with a disability, but beyond that, no other label is required by these districts. From what I have heard, the students in these school districts are doing as least as well as those still requiring records be littered with all of the standard labels.

maskLabels are like masks held on by rubber band straps. They hide some of the student’s characteristics. Wearing such masks may serve some purposes, but after awhile they may start to get uncomfortable, particularly around the ears. Let those who want to wear these masks be free to do so, but let those who want to meet us face to face, also be free to do so. This is in the best interest of our students.


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.



About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. I totally agree with you. I also face same problem

    • Hi Santos Datta. Much thanks for your comment. It is important for people to hear your voice on this issue.

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