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MS in Education Insight: Labeling and Categorizing Special Education in Schools

Study alongside Walden University College of Education students with this required reading taken from the MS in Education degree course, Special Education: Honoring Due Process.

From titles in the business world to positions on a sports team, we regularly use labels to categorize what people do and who they are. But not all labels are helpful. And this is particularly true in the field of special education.

If you’re a special ed teacher or simply have students who take advantage of special ed services, you’re likely familiar with the unkind names some students use to refer to special needs students. Such names are clearly out-of-bounds. And yet, cruel taunts aren’t the only kind of labeling that can negatively affect special education students. In some instances, the labels used by special education teachers can also be problematic, even when the labels are an honest attempt to categorize special education students and their needs.

MS in Education Insight: Labeling and Categorizing Special Education in Schools

To help education professionals avoid negative language while still identifying a student’s specific special education needs, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has developed guidelines as part of their special education policy manual. These guidelines are studied by MS in Education (MSEd) students who are taking the Special Education: Honoring Due Process course offered at Walden University. This particular excerpt reads as follows:1

The field of special education is concerned with children who have unique needs and with school programs that employ specialized techniques. As the result of early attitudes and programs that stressed assistance for children with severe disabilities, the field developed a vocabulary and practices based on the labeling and categorizing of children. In recent decades, labeling and categorizing were extended to children with milder degrees of exceptionality. Unfortunately, the continued use of labels tends to rigidify the thinking of all educators concerning the significance and purpose of special education and thus to be dysfunctional and even harmful for children.

Words such as "defective," "disabled," "retarded," "impaired," "disturbed," and "disordered," when attached to children with special needs, are stigmatic labels that produce unfortunate results in both the children and in the community's attitudes toward the children. These problems are magnified when the field organizes and regulates its programs on the basis of classification systems that define categories of children according to such terms. Many of these classifications are oriented to etiology, prognosis, or necessary medical treatment rather than to educational classifications. They are thus of little value to the schools. Simple psychometric thresholds, which have sometimes been allowed to become pivotal considerations in educational decision making, present another set of labeling problems.

Special education's most valuable contribution to education is its specialized knowledge, competencies, values, and procedures for individualizing educational programs for individual children, whatever their special needs. Indeed, special educators at their most creative are the advocates of children who are not well served by schools except through special arrangements. To further the understanding of and programming for such children, special educators as well as other educational personnel should eliminate the use of simplistic categorizing.

No one can deny the importance of some of the variables of traditional significance in special education such as intelligence, hearing, and vision. However, these variables in all their complex forms and degrees must be assessed in terms of educational relevance for a particular child. Turning them into typologies that may contribute to excesses in labeling and categorizing children is indefensible and should be eliminated.

In the past, many legislative and regulatory systems have specified criteria for including children in an approved category as the starting point for specialized programming and funding. This practice places high incentives on the labeling of children and undoubtedly results in the erroneous placement of many children.

It is desirable that financial aids be tied to educational programs rather than to children and that systems for allocating children to specialized programs be much more open than in the past.

Special educators should enhance the accommodative capacity of schools and other educational agencies to serve children with special needs more effectively. In identifying such children, special educators should be concerned with the identification of their educational needs, not with generalized labeling or categorizing of children.

Decisions about the education of children should be made in terms of carefully individualized procedures that are explicitly oriented to children's developmental needs.

To further discourage the labeling and categorizing of children, programs should be created on the basis of educational functions served rather than on the basis of categories of children served.

Regulatory systems that enforce the rigid categorization of pupils as a way of allocating them to specialized programs are indefensible. Financial aid for special education should be tied to specialized programs rather than to finding and placing children in those categories and programs.

How Can You Learn More About Teaching?

Knowing how to properly categorize and label the needs of special education students is just one of the many topics you can study when you enroll in Walden University’s master’s degree in education program. This graduate program for teachers can help you learn exceptional teaching strategies and gain top-level teaching skills that can help you take your teaching career further, whether you want to specialize in special education teaching or whether you want to focus on any other area of education. And thanks to Walden’s online learning format, earning your master’s in education is more possible than ever before. For those who wish to teach special education students and need a degree program that leads to teacher licensure, Walden also offers a Master of Arts in Teaching that focuses on special education.

To earn an MSEd degree, you used to have to drive to a school of education and take on-campus classes. But with Walden’s online master’s in education program, you can earn your M.Ed degree from home. Plus, when you earn a master’s in education online, you can choose when in the day you attend class. Thanks to this flexibility, Walden’s online education format makes it possible to earn an advanced teaching degree while continuing to teach full time.

Being a good teacher begins with having plenty of knowledge. Through Walden’s master’s in education degree program, you can gain the knowledge you need to succeed.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Education degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden offers both state-approved educator licensure programs as well as programs and courses that do not lead to licensure or endorsements. Prospective students must review their state licensure requirements prior to enrolling. For more information, please refer to

Prospective Alabama students: Contact the Educator Certification Section of the Alabama State Department of Education at 1-334-353-8567 or to verify that these programs qualify for teacher certification, endorsement, and/or salary benefits.

Note to all Washington residents: The MSEd program is not intended to lead to teacher certification. Teachers are advised to contact their individual school districts as to whether this program may qualify for salary advancement.

Walden University is approved by the Minnesota Board of Teaching to offer the Master of Arts in Teaching which leads to Minnesota licensure in special education (K–21). However, before Walden can recommend a candidate for teacher licensure, the candidate must also pass the required exams for Minnesota licensure adopted by the Minnesota Board of Teaching, undergo a Minnesota background check, and complete any other Minnesota Board of Teaching requirements beyond completion of Walden’s state-approved teacher preparation program.

Individuals interested in pursuing teacher licensure in states other than Minnesota may qualify for a comparable license by virtue of completing the Walden Minnesota-approved teacher preparation program; however, individuals must review their state’s teacher licensing regulations to ensure the program meets all requirements, paying particular attention to any requirements specific to out-of-state program completers. Prospective students seeking to be licensed in states other than Minnesota must research their state licensure requirements to determine (1) if they are required to complete a state-approved licensure program, and (2) if there are any other requirements that apply, especially requirements pertaining to programs provided by out-of-state (except Minnesota) or online institutions.

Individuals enrolling internationally must be supervised by a teacher with a valid US state teaching license, in a school that follows a U.S.-based curriculum at the appropriate grade level for the license. Prospective students must check that the program is accepted for teaching credential in the state they intend to apply for licensure.

Walden Enrollment Specialists can provide general information on state licensure; however, it remains the individual’s responsibility to understand and comply with all licensure requirements in the state they wish to teach.

Walden makes no representation or guarantee that completion of Walden coursework or programs will permit an individual to obtain state licensure or endorsement.

Note to all Pennsylvania residents: Walden University’s teacher preparation program is approved by the Minnesota Board of Teaching as leading to licensure. Because this program is not reviewed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, candidates are instructed to apply for Pennsylvania certification as out-of-state graduates of a teacher preparation program.

Note to all Washington residents: Eligibility for initial educator certification in Washington is based on completion of a state-approved educator preparation program. This program is approved in Minnesota and is authorized for field placements in Washington by the Professional Educator Standards Board. Even though you may be residing in Washington while in this program, your application for educator certification in Washington will be processed as an out-of-state application. Go to for more information.

Teachers are advised to contact their individual school districts as to whether this program may qualify for teacher advancement.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,