Labeling Children "Learning Disabled" Often Unfair and Sometimes Exploited By Ambitious Parents

The criteria for labeling school children as learning disabled are inaccurate, unfair, and sometimes exploited by some for favorable treatment, says Yale Psychology Professor Robert Sternberg and Research Scientist Elena Grigorenko.

“Once the kids are labeled they get very different services, realistically speaking, in a wealthy district versus in a district that is poor and that has few resources,” Sternberg said. “And now there are so many benefits in some towns to getting the label – extra help, extra time on classroom tests, extra time on high-stakes tests such as the SAT – that some people are fighting for their children to be provided with these services. But labeling has costs as well as benefits. What this system can end up doing is to encourage the students to capitalize on weaknesses.”

In a newly-published book, “Our Labeled Children,” which Sternberg co-authored with Grigorenko, the authors said that the arbitrary way that children are labeled as learning disabled is evident by the lack of uniform standards.

“If you look at the proportion of children having learning disabilities in different communities in the state of Connecticut, the proportions vary widely,” Sternberg said. “That immediately suggests that something is wrong. What one district is calling a child with a learning disability another is not.”

The concept of learning disabilities, the authors said in their book, can be traced to a meeting of parents at a hotel in Chicago in 1963. Each family had at least one child who was having difficulty reading and there were no school services to help them. Their children were described by specialists as “brain-injured” or suffering from “minimal brain dysfunction.” A psychologist attending the meeting suggested that the problem be characterized as “learning disabilities,” and from that meeting the Association of Children with Learning Disabilities was born.

Sternberg and Grigorenko said learning disabilities often are defined in terms of discrepancies between IQ and a specific kind of learning ability. For example, a child who scores much lower on standardized tests of reading ability than on standardized tests of intelligence might be viewed as showing a reading disability.

On the surface, they said, this judgment seems to make sense: the child is intelligent, but a poor reader. But, the authors said, there are many problems with this procedure, among them the fact that an IQ is not necessarily a complete measure of intelligence, that IQ reflects verbal as well as reading skills, and that comparisons of IQ scores to reading scores at different points along the IQ spectrum do not mean the same thing. For instance, someone with an extremely high IQ could test only above average in reading ability and technically be considered to have a reading disability.

Sternberg said an alternative is to construct ability tests, instruction, and assessment that capitalize on what the students are best able to do, rather than what they have difficulty accomplishing. Students also need instruction that helps them correct and compensate for their weaknesses. He also has advocated a triarchic method of teaching that encompasses not only verbal, memory and analytical skills, but also creative and practical skills. Children should be identified by particular deficits, he said. Rather than using an IQ-reading difference to label children, children’s weakesses should be identified and corrected to the extent possible, without regard to their IQ.

“Creative and practical skills are ones in which children with learning disabilities are likely to show no particular deficit,” he said. “Children with learning disabilities may even show advantages in these skills, since these are the skills they had to practice to survive in a world that is, in some respects, challenging and even hostile to them.”

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