Thousands of kids in UK removed from special needs list will avoid negative labels

Graeme Paton of the Telegraph is reporting that changes in the way special needs children are diagnosed in the U.K. is going to have hundreds of thousands of children and youth (estimates are in the 450,000 range) removed from the special needs “extra help in school” lists. (H/T # 10 at JNW)

As the video indicates, the concern of U.K. MP Sarah Teather, Minister for Children and Families, seems two-fold: (1) that there be a single diagnosis process encompassing education, health and social services; and (2) that children, who are simply behind in their school work a bit, or have a few behavioural problems, get help outside of special services.

Which, putting aside politics since I live in Canada, makes a lot of sense to me. When I went to school or taught in the elementary and secondary systems myself, we only referred kids to special services when they had profound learning problems. Everyone else we helped as best we could.

We re-taught or reviewed lessons when necessary. We sent extra work home. And, we worked with children and youth during recess, lunch hours and after school — although when children travelled by school bus, staying after school became impossible.

Which makes me wonder whether teachers’ unions have now forbidden teachers from using any of their break and lunch periods to work with kids.  Yes, teachers deserve breaks and time to eat lunch. But, arrangements can be made. If that is no longer possible, however, how very tragic.

Tragic because labels and negative expectations can have far reaching consequences. And, those consequences come about because of what is now referred to as the Pygmalion Principle or the self-fulfulling prophecy principle (something I wrote about back in July of 2008).

In 1968 Lenore Jacobson and Robert Rosenthal assigned teachers to two separate groups of students — one group with above average IQs and one group with below average IQs. However, they reversed the groups so that the teacher with the children with low IQs thought her students were the ones with the high IQs and vice versa. In other words, it became a study about teacher expectations based on labelling.

The result? By the end of the school year all the students thought to have high IQs (but, unknown to the teacher actually had been assessed as having low scores) excelled far beyond what their initial tests showed they were capable. Meaning, labels can change attitudes and beliefs about people, becoming self-fulfilling prophecies — either negative or positive!

So, given the role of expectations and the Pygmalion Principle, my guess is that most of the thousands of kids in the UK who will ultimately be taken off the special needs list, will do just fine in life, as long as their families and teachers provide them the extra help they need and, perhaps most importantly, they “believe” in them.

The power of “labels” in education

There can be power in labels, both positive or negative because labels can predetermine beliefs and expectations about people, a phenomenon that is often referred to as the “pygmalion principle.” While this article is primarily about learning disabilities in a school context (no matter what th learning level), it can also relate to an employment situation and the point that people are much more than a label.

Unfortunately, most children and adults, no matter what type of educational program they are in, if they need accommodations they need to be formally assessed. And, being formally evaluated puts a label on that individual — often for life. Is that fair? Is that the only way we can get help for people? And, why does it matter? What those children and adults and their families are trying to avoid is the “pygmalion principle” — how the expectations of others can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

That term comes out of a 1960’s study by Rosenthal and Jacobson that proved what you tell a teacher (or anyone else) is the kind of results you’ll get. For example, while the students were chosen randomly, some teachers were told their students were gifted (spurters) when in actual fact they were not. Yet, they excelled as though they were. Similarly, another teachers were told their students were slow developers. As expected, those students didn’t perform as well. In all cases, the labels (what teachers expected) resulted in a type of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my opinion, we need to find a way to accept people exactly as they are, while simultaneously providing educational intervenion help where it is needed. It should not be essential to link that help with a diagnosis. Since resource help is available in all schools today and since most, if not all, colleges and univerities have special needs departments, why is it necessary to attach a negative “label” to someone — a label that could affect outcomes.

Not likely some might say. Well, I managed a private special education practice when I was teaching university and I saw far too many capable students with dyslexia be denied appying towards a Master’s degree because of the label — and the attitude “it will be too hard for you.”  

However, while it may be possible for some individuals and their families to resist the pygmalion principle (labels), someone with a severe disability like autism, may not be able to. In those cases, it simply does not make sense, nor is it humane, to deny their reality. However, it is equally true that we should be very careful about labels that tend to predetermine what a person can or cannot do.  And, when someone we know and love does have a diagnosed disability, whenever possible, we need to avoid placing either unrealistic or diminished expectations on them.