Sunday, April 20, 2008

Labeling: Stepping Into a Minefield In Special Education

I recently held a brainstorming session with a teacher regarding how to approach a parent about a child who is showing significant delays across many educational areas. This teacher had just experienced the fury of the parent after remarking to the parent that the child was exhibiting some behaviors consistent with those in some autism spectrum disorders. My teacher friend walked right into the "lion's den" of controversy. Currently, autism is a highly charged topic among parent networking groups, researchers and the media. It is not, however, the only word or disability that sparks instant debate or carries with it certain connotations, myths, and mental images. I have worked with many cases where parents are also concerned about using language like "mental retardation," or "Down Syndrome." The discussion I had with the teacher made me reflect on several strategies and conversational protocols that I use to help facilitate exploration of the educational issues in the world of special education.

1. Take vocabulary cues from your conversation partner ~ Defer all references to labels, disabilities, diseases, syndromes, etc. to the parent until he or she has mentioned one. If the parent names a disability first, then you can feel free to discuss the behaviors and attributes that might be common for that condition.

2. Use specific examples of behavior ~ Instead of comparing the actions and abilities of a student to those of a child with a disability, simply express your remarks as quantifiable measures of progress. One example of this could be that a student frequently echoes words or phrases but does not initiate appropriate verbal interaction. Describe this behavior through a numerical comparison between how many times, on average, the other children in class initiate conversations and how many times the child in question initiates verbal interaction. In this way, a teacher should use many specific examples to express concern to a parent without generating emotions that may be triggered by key words like Autism or Attention Deficit Disorder.

3. Talk to an administrator ~ The appropriate time to speak about a student and use labels referring to disabilities is when discussing a child's progress with the principal, educational diagnostician or school psychologist. I have often had conversations with teachers and other professionals on the educational team about my clients and explored possible disabilities that should by looked at through an assessment process. The administrators should listen to these observations and proceed to contact the parent about assessing for specifically named disabilities.

4. Check the student files ~ I am called upon to evaluate some students to find out if they will benefit educationally from specially developed music strategies. The assessment process includes speaking with parents about their child's reactions to music stimuli outside of school. I routinely audit the student's files for information about what assessments have previously been completed and for the official reasons the student is already receiving special services through an Individual Education Plan. The IEP will list things like, MR for mental retardation, AU for autism, SI for speech impaired and so on. When I speak to the parent about the music therapy assessment and/or progress of their child, I only use the labels that have already been assigned in the student's record unless the parent uses another label.

As a music therapist who travels around to different classrooms and schools everyday, I have observed many different children with a wide range of disabilities. It is often easy for me to quickly come to a conclusion about the nature of a child's disability after only a short time of observation and interaction. I am trained to find out if music activities can benefit a student in achieving educational objectives, but I am not trained to assess and determine disabilities or disease. This limitation is the guiding factor when discussing a student and using specific labels too freely. There are many cases where a child exhibits classic behaviors from the autism spectrum, for example, but the origin of the behaviors is actually traced directly back to a seizure disorder or mental retardation due to trauma at birth. The child will technically be labeled with speech impairment, mental retardation or as other health impaired. Therefore, it is understandable how a parent can be quite upset if an educator is talking about autism and using terminology associated with that spectrum of disorders.

Educators must find a way to address the needs of every child regardless of parents who are understandably wary of believing that anything is wrong with their child. By using care in speaking with labels, educators can keep the dialogue open without creating an adversarial relationship with parents. Most teachers care a great deal about the welfare of their students. Let's all work together and take care of those kids!

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