The “benefits” of dyslexia labelling

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Research suggests that being labelled as “dyslexic” improves the self-esteem of young people struggling with learning at school

School children give each other labels. This might be bullies looking to justify their actions and to label their victims as very different from themselves. But not all of the labels children apply to each other are negative, for example, “kind”, “clever”, or “sporty”. Children are also subject to labels imposed by educators. In our research, we looked at how negative labels linked to learning ability can result in low self-esteem.

“SEN” is a label increasingly used by educators. The reasoning is that by identifying a child’s needs we can help them by providing interventions and support, both on academic and personal levels. It is also thought that the use of a label such as this can serve to counter negative beliefs that some may have of a child, and help the child to make sense of their difficulties. Some argue, however, that the proponents of the labelling approach are focusing more on educational outcomes and less on the personal effects of these labels. While there is no doubt that help offered to children identified as having SEN can enable them academically, evidence relating to the effects of this label beyond the academic is rather sketchy. Indeed, some evidence suggests that it can hinder the child’s progression by placing them in a category that results in them being stigmatised.

The inconclusive evidence relating to the benefits of the SEN label to children has led to reluctance to assign labels in some instances, and also inconsistencies in the extent to which the label is applied between local education authorities in the UK. This has been exacerbated, in some cases, by the view that the label SEN is relatively useless in terms of enabling the development of interventions, because it is too general. Given that one of the principal arguments for the application of a label is to facilitate processes that support the student, this is an important issue that needs careful consideration. As a result, some educators prefer to confine the use of labels, where possible, to those that are more specific than SEN.

The most common specific educational problem experienced by children in Britain today is dyslexia. The difficulties that children with dyslexia have when learning to read, not only affect the child’s ability to write and spell, but often have the knock-on effect of precluding the enjoyment so often associated with the activities and the learning that results from them. This can then lead to a decrease in motivation and active avoidance of the activity. Because of this, it is often the case that assumptions are made about the child, such as they are lazy, immature or are simply not interested, which can mean that the underlying problems are glossed over.

This link between self-esteem and academic performance suggests that children with learning difficulties, whether general SEN or more specific identifiable disorders such as dyslexia, will suffer from low self-esteem. The question is, to what extent does the use of labels such as dyslexia and SEN counteract the negative effects of social isolation and poor academic performance? Our study expands on previous research as, in addition to comparing the self-esteem of children with dyslexia to a control group of children with no academic problems (who will be presumed to represent the general population for their age group), and children identified as having SEN with those with no discernible academic difficulties, the self-esteem levels of children with dyslexia and SEN will be compared to each other. Thus, there are three groups: those with dyslexia, those with general SEN and those with neither of these educational difficulties. In this way, it is hoped that the effects of labelling per se and the effects of the nature of the label can be untangled.

A sample of seventy-five children from primary and secondary schools in the West Midlands region of the UK took part in the study. Children were categorised on the basis of whether they had been identified as having dyslexia, or a non-specific learning SEN (and had a reading age significantly lower than their biological age) based upon assessments by an educational psychologist (and therefore listed as such by the SENCO) or no learning difficulty (the control group).

It was found that children who had been labelled as dyslexic had self-esteem scores more similar to the control group than to those identified as having a non-specific SEN. The self-esteem scores of the SEN group were significantly lower than those of both the dyslexic and control groups; the scores of the latter two groups were not significantly different.

Any difficulties children have at school can impact negatively on their self-esteem. Academic difficulties can cause embarrassment, feelings of inadequacy and frustration, leading to negative self-evaluations. These negative self-evaluations can be exacerbated or negated by the way in which others (peers, teachers and parents) react to the child and/or the label. Any negative responses by others to either the child as an individual, or to the label that can come to define them, can result in stigmatisation by peers or others and social exclusion, either because of negative peer evaluations or decisions to segregate children with learning difficulties from their peers. The labelled child may become unpopular and even a target for bullies, which can also have negative effects on a child’s self-esteem. So the effects of academic difficulties on self-esteem can be both direct and indirect.

On this basis it was predicted that children labelled as having a learning difficulty, be that dyslexia or a more generally labelled non-specific SEN, would have lower self-esteem scores than those who do not. While this prediction was somewhat supported, in that those labelled as having a non-specific learning difficulty had lower self-esteem scores than the control group, this was not the case for those labelled as dyslexic. It would seem, therefore, that different labels have different effects on children’s self-esteem levels. If this is the case, and we assume that the differences in self-esteem found here resulted from differences in labelling, then the label “dyslexia” does not appear to have the negative effect on self-esteem that a label of non-specific SEN does.

It may be that it is the more specific nature of the label dyslexia that is the key here. While the label “dyslexia” is still rather fuzzy, it is, without doubt, more clearly defined than a label of non-specific SEN. A previous study has found that many children identified as having dyslexia felt that the label had positive effects on the way that they felt about themselves, in that it explained away their inadequacies to some extent, made them feel less alone in their difficulties and enabled them to access appropriate support.

Educators should, therefore, try to identify the problems experienced by children as early on, and in as much detail, as is possible. This should protect the self-esteem of our children and ultimately lead to a decrease in the problems, both on individual and societal levels, that are associated with low self-esteem.

Further information

Dr Laura Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Coventry University:
wwwm.coventry.ac.uk/HLS/psychology

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 43: November/December 2009.

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