Labeling Children as Learning-Disabled: Offsetting the Potential Harm

Published December 3, 2016

By Staff Writer

According to the Twenty-Ninth Annual Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, as many as one out of five people in the U.S. has a learning disability, and roughly one million children receive special education in school. While it is good that children with learning disabilities are getting the specific services they need, there is also potential harm done by labeling children as learning-disabled, behaviorally-challenged, and so on; and this is an issue that parents and teachers should take seriously. The dangers of labeling go both ways: a perceived negative label such as “learning disabled” often sets a child up for academic failure and social rejection. A seemingly positive label such as “gifted” can make a child feel pressured to live up to that image and if they don’t, to feel like a failure. However, we live in a world in which labeling is, for now, inevitable and we have to find ways to offset any potential harm.

Naming or characterizing abilities or disabilities allows a parent or teacher to utilize the right approaches in teaching and accommodating learning disabilities or handling disruptive and challenging behaviors. The problem with “naming” psychological, biochemical, and/or behavioral conditions is that the lines are often blurred as to the source of the symptoms. For example, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) is alarmed that since the 1990s, Ritalin prescriptions have increased 500 percent. What in the past was seen as a child with high energy or disruptive behavior is now looked upon as a medical condition needing a pharmaceutical treatment. While there are some children who might genuinely have a biochemical imbalance, it seems certain that many more children are being treated with drugs because they exhibit behavioral issues that are a challenge in the family and the classroom and it is all too easy to drug the child rather than take the time and exert the energy to successfully address and effectively handle the challenging behaviors.

A very interesting study was done that has far-reaching implications. Mothers of children diagnosed with ADHD were given mindfulness training. This training included: (a) contemplative and concentration exercises; (b) behavioral practices such as loving-kindness, compassion, and generosity; (c) cognitive strategies such as reflection on the transitory nature of events and circumstances; and (d) empathy practices that help a person “walk in another’s shoes.” The training provided to mothers did bring about improved behavior in the children. When the children were also provided the training, behavioral improvements were even more pronounced and some were able to be taken off their medication. This study appears to support the idea that if parents and teachers take the time and have the intention to look beyond the surface of the behavioral problem into the worth of the child — to do whatever it takes to assist him or her to find a more effective mode of coping, behaving, and responding to the world — that beneficial outcomes are possible.

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