A body of research known as labeling theory has found that some labels can result in stigmatization and act as self-fulfilling prophecies. New research suggests this theory applies to youth labeled with learning disabilities.
High school students labeled as having a learning disability faced lowered expectations in school from both their parents and teachers, according to research published in the December issue of Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
“Youth labeled with a learning disability appear to experience stigma as a result of their disability label,” Dara Shifrer, a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told PsyPost. “A long history of research finds teachers’ perceptions influence students’ outcomes. In other words, a student will perform more poorly if their teacher has low expectations for them, even if that teacher does not communicate these expectations directly.”
The study was based on data from the Education Longitudinal Study, which gathered information about 16,373 tenth graders along with information about their parents, teachers, and schools. Those participating in the Education Longitudinal Study were surveyed in 2002 and again in 2004.
The researchers found students labeled as having a learning disability tended to be more socially disadvantaged, have poorer academic histories, and have fewer positive attitudes toward learning.
Importantly, students labeled as having a learning disability had lower educational expectations from teachers and parents even when they were compared to similar students who were not labeled
“This study found that teachers hold lower expectations for students with a learning disability label than they do for similarly achieving and behaving students without a disability label. Moreover, labeled adolescents’ lower expectations for themselves are partially attributable to teachers’ lower expectations for them,” Shifrer explained to PsyPost.
“These findings are particularly troublesome because students labeled with a learning disability typically have low levels of achievement but average or high IQs. Moreover, evidence suggests the learning disability labeling process is subjective and inconsistent. In other words, low achievers’ likelihood of receiving a learning disability depends on other characteristics of youth not necessarily related to neurological difference, as well as the qualities of their schools.”
“With racial minorities, linguistic minorities, and poor students more likely to be labeled with learning disabilities than their peers, the possibility arises that the learning disability label reproduces disadvantage,” Shifrer said.
Untangling the effects of the learning disability label from the effects of the learning disability itself is no easy task. The Education Longitudinal Study unfortunately did not provide enough data to examine whether the poorer outcomes of students labeled with learning disabilities were caused more by their own deficiencies or by stigmatization.
But the fact that students labeled with learning disabilities face lowered expectations calls for additional research that incorporates direct measures of stigma, Shifrer said.
“This study is limited by the fact that these relationships may be attributable to factors not measured in the dataset,” she told PsyPost. “Nonetheless, the very possibility that the learning disability label is stigmatizing suggests further investigation is merited, and that special education policy may require reform.”