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Is Valid Classification Important?
Q: I'm the administrator of a private service in Toronto (Ontario) called Parent's Advocacy in the School. We have an issue with the school board, which is difficult to resolve. An eighteen-year-old male was labeled "exceptional" and he was getting the help he needed from the school. The school board has removed this label because of bureaucratic nonsense. Of the possible labels, the only one that fits is LD, but so far, they refuse to give him this label. We believe it is important for this young man to have a diagnostic classification. He has LD characteristics and was diagnosed with some LD elements several years ago. He was also recently diagnosed with ADD.
What is your view of this situation? I realize there are differences between the U.S. and Canada, but I would still appreciate a response. We are attempting to justify the importance of having a valid classification for possible use in situations after he has left high school. The school board is being unbelievably rigid.
A: This is a rather specific question, but I'm responding to it because it gets at the important issue of whether or not to label kids who have learning disabilities. I'm based in Massachusetts, which for many years has had what's referred to as a "non-categorical approach" in dealing with kids with special needs. This means that labels are infrequently used, and when they are, it's usually only for the purpose of "head" counts required by the federal government.
The positive benefits of this approach is that we don't have to agonize about what to call the condition, and that evaluations are focused on describing the child's profile of strengths and needs. We have few programs just for kids with LD. Such placements are typically only available for students with severe language-based learning disabilities who, despite average to above-average intelligence, would flounder in a non-modified environment. (Here, modified does not -- or should not -- mean "easy," but rather "accessible," in terms of non-print materials, computer-assisted writing programs, etc.)
We often see a real mixture of kids in our regular classes as a result of the "inclusion" movement. The term "learning disabilities" has become a "catch-all" term. Very few regular educators could give a formal definition of LD, and even many special educators (who have been trained in non-categorical teacher preparation programs) probably could not define it either. As a result, many teachers lack the specialized training in the methods that we know work with these kids. When you hear statements like, "All kids have learning disabilities" or you read that 30 percent of the kids in a particular school district share this informal label, you know something is wrong.
There are other problems with this "loose" approach. Parents who aren't told that their kids have LD don't find their way to support services, such as LDA or it's local affiliates. (There is a Canadian counterpart). Kids with LD (who don't know it) are likely to assign much more harmful labels to themselves, such as "stupid" or "dumb." They attribute their difficulties to some inner weakness and not to a neurologically based learning disability. This view has a negative impact on kids' self-esteem and their future.
On the other hand, a strict categorical approach can draw a line that prevents kids with real learning disabilities from getting services. This is a significant problem for gifted kids who are also learning disabled! Some districts still use complex formulas and discrepancy analyses (the difference between achievement and IQ), even though research does not support such approaches to identification. I argue for an educated understanding of LD (gained through studying and comparing various definitions) coupled with a sensitive, individualized look at kids by a group of people who aren't too hung up on labels. If this isn't possible, then I'd refer this young man to a private school for kids with LD. If they accept him, he's got LD. If they don't, then perhaps he'll gain a better understanding of his true condition.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.