Labels: blessing or curse?
Having spent most of my career working in British International schools in Spain, I do agree with labelling students with SEND. The Spanish education system has only recently begun to recognise SEN and to assess and label students with SEN. This means that parents of my students are not used to this labelling system and can be very opposed to the labels. I spend a lot of time explaining to parents why it is a positive thing for their child to have a label of SEN and the more I need to explain it, the more I believe in the importance of it.
My principal reason for agreeing with the importance of labels is that it provides the student with extra time or resources in exams. This is vital for some students to be able to access the exam and to achieve their potential. For example, if a student has difficulty writing, but fully understands the concepts and questions on the exam paper, then they should not be penalised for not being able to physically write down their answer in a legible or time effective way. Having an assessment for SEN will allow this student to have a scribe and therefore be able to communicate their answers and achieve the grade which they deserve based on their level of understanding. Exam results are important in the social system that we live in, but in a wider scale, being able to achieve your personal potential increases self-esteem and confidence. This in turn can motivate an individual to further their education or push themselves professionally later in life, and is inherent in creating well adjusted and successful members of society.
Another important reason for SEN labels is that it highlights to the teachers that this student requires extra time, resources or an adapted method of teaching. In my experience as a teacher, when we do not have a label for a student, we often just see the student as disengaged, demotivated or low ability. One of the disadvantages that Frederickson and Cline (2009) highlight for SEN labels is that they can lower the expectations of the teachers, however, in my experience, once we are told what a child’s SEN is, we actually understand what their weaknesses are, and so in turn understand areas which are not affected by this limitation, and then push the student more in the areas that we know they are more capable in. It also allows the teachers to be more sensitive to the student’s individual needs, and therefore minimises the risk that teachers will admonish the student for behaviour or attainment if it is linked to their SEN. The result of this is that the student actually grows in self confidence, as they are not being punished for things they can’t control, and their strengths are being focused on and rewarded instead.
A key disadvantage from Frederickson and Cline’s article is that having a label of SEN does not guarantee intervention, or effective intervention. Whilst it must be acknowledged that this is indeed a possibility, this is not a negative impact of the label itself. Professionals within education or the care system need much more comprehensive training in SEN in principle and how to provide continued effective support for all different labels of SEN. If effective intervention is not being provided then the systems are failing these students, not their SEN. This is an area which must be addressed and improved upon if we are ever going to overcome the stigma of SEN in society.
In conclusion, labels are a positive thing in all walks of life. They provide the individual with a group to belong to and a social identity with which they can identify. It opens doors to treatment, interventions and resources which they would not receive without the label. The problem lies in the stigma and ignorance attached to labels, both from other students and education professionals. It is this stigma which we must address, not the label.