“People are too complicated to have simple labels.” 
Philip Pullman

For this first blog post, I decided to address an issue that I often think about and am confronted to as a special educator. You’ve probably heard before of those codes that some students have, corresponding to specific difficulties and usually indicated by a two-digits number. The reason why I talk about this here is because one day during one of my internship, a little human presented himself by telling me his name and his code. It struck me that such information was part of his self-presentation. It made me realize the impact that results obtained after a test or a series of observation may shape self-conceptions in an extremely powerful way.

You may be interested in knowing how those codes are assessed and what can be their uses more precisely. Student’s codes serve many functions, namely they allow access to specialized services and structured follow-ups, for better partnership between parents, teacher(s) and other resources, for the maximization of child’s development through adapted teaching methods and external support for those “exceptional students”. They are distributed following assessments made by professionals who use diverse methods such as the following ones:

  • Formal assessment (standardized testing)
  • Informal assessment (classroom assessment techniques; structured behavioral observations; interviews of problem solving approaches; classroom quizzes; etc.)
  • Criterion-referenced tests (curriculum-based assessment)
  • Checklists and rating scales
  • Dynamic assessment of thinking processes
  • Authentic assessment (performance-based assessment of knowledge into real life activities

But what about social and emotional development? — This was the main topic I wanted to come to. I will generalize by saying that teachers are overwhelmed with large classes, that their training is usually not in special education but in elementary or secondary teaching and that there is not enough financial resources to get the children all the help they need from professionals (from special educators to speech therapists to psychiatrists). This may sounds pessimistic, but it is a reality that many teachers and students share on a daily basis. Those children need more help, more time and more attention.

There is a great issue of stigmatization, and I would like to underline that this social stigma does come from others but also from the students with special needs. As I already argued, their limitations (which are codified and easy to communicate) become part of their self-presentation with banality. There is absolutely nothing to be shy about, but they are so much more than a code. And since the other’s need are important too, it obviously may create tensions and frustrations. Being an introvert child does not come with a code or an IEP (Individual Education Plan), but they have needs and challenges that are equally important and require time and energy as well.

No code, no services? This is what I thought at first. After doing my researches, it seems that this is not true. It is the teachers who implemented the notion of “at risk students” in order for them to get all the help they can receive. But indeed, special needs and disabilities mean special codes, and a special code means more services.

Professor Roger Slee, former dean of McGill’s faculty of education, referred to inclusion as the combination of access, engagement and success. I am in complete agreement with him. But I believe that the reality is not that simple; there may be fewer divisions of students in the field of education, less setting aside and greater integration of special education, but I believe that those divisions are still present in the lives of students who bare a code designating their capacities, separating them from their “normal” classmates.

Of course, a code is not necessary to instigate any stigmatization. But ask any children of any elementary school in Quebec and most of them will be able to tell you which of their classmates has what disorder and/or what code(s) he has. This evaluation was rendered by a professional who used psychological assessment tools, statistical data, criterion and various measures. Their interpretations were used to determine with reliability and validity that specific children have specific needs that requires specific services. And I argue that this may change the course of a person’s life. This given result will become a part of this assessed student, which will last for many years if not their entire life, influencing socio-affective experiences, learning outcomes and, importantly, self-esteem.

This kind of labels have both positive and negative effects. Everything is always a matter of balance, and we can all make a difference by countering the stigma, by adjusting our expectations and by giving them all the possible opportunities to thrive, no matter what code or label they may carry in their backpack.