As many as half the children identified as having special educational needs (SEN) in the UK are, according to a report from School Action, incorrectly diagnosed and rather in need of better teaching.
The September 14th Guardian notes that the number of children said to have ‘mild’ special needs has increased from 14% to 18% in the past seven years. In some cases, the report described 15-16 year old students who were said to have special needs as rather being ‘at risk of falling short of their GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education] grades.’ Due to receiving the special needs classification, the students received ‘additional mentoring from senior staff’ and improved in their schoolwork. It is suggested that, rather than wrongly classify, or ‘label,’ students as having special needs, it’s suggested that better teaching is needed.
If it were only so simple.
This is nothing new, this claim that more students are receiving diagnoses of learning disabilities, ADHD, autism— to the extent that such a diagnosis is ‘trendy‘—not because they actually have some neurological or other conditions but because of poor teaching (on the part of the teachers) or lack of effort, ability, and so forth (on the part of the students). These days, it might seem more the norm, or nothing so remarkable, for a child to have an ‘alphabet soup’ of disorders (ADHD, ADD, PDD-NOS, ED, LD, SPD, and on and on) and to require ‘services,’ in the form of speech therapy, occupational therapy, and more. We live in an age, that is, when it’s more common to ask ‘what’s your child’s diagnosis‘ than not.
In the case of autism—the neurodevelopmental disability that my son has—the past decade has been rife with speculation about whether or not autism is being over-diagnosed or misdiagnosed, or whether more children are being diagnosed with autism (once thought a rare disorder, it is now estimated to occur in one out of every 100 children in the US) because we know a lot more about autism. For instance, we don’t consider it ‘childhood schizophrenia,’ as we once did: Compare the changes in the DSM criteria for autism to get an idea of how our understanding of what autism is has evolved and become more and more precise (and this is due to change again, as the DSM undergoes its fifth revision). Further, diagnoses of mental retardation have been shown to have declined in the same period as diagnoses of autism have increased.
And just to muddy the waters a bit more, a post from my friend Liz Ditz in which she points out that learning disabilities are more likely to be misdiagnosed, and a post from a mother of a child on the autism spectrum who notes racial disparities in special education.
My own son’s learning challenges are quiet significant, to the point that he is is now attending a center specifically for autistic students. (I went into a lot more detail about this on an interview this morning over at BlogTalkRadio with the International Coalition for Autism and All Abilities.) Are too many students these days said to have so-called ‘milder’ challenges with their learning, such learning disabilities and ADD?
Or have we got so caught up in figuring out what diagnosis a student has that we are no longer focusing on the essentials—good teaching by committed, well-trained, engaging individuals?
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