Science AMA Series: Hi Reddit, I’m Dara Shifrer, an assistant professor of sociology at Portland State University. I use national data to understand how disability labels (like learning disabled, autistic, ADHD) affect children socially at school. Ask me anything!


Disability labels are intended to improve children's learning struggles by providing them with extra supports and accommodations. Not only it is unclear whether these supports make a difference but my research shows teachers hold lower expectations for students with disability labels than expected given the student's test scores and grades ( Are the benefits of disability labels worth the costs?

I will be back to answer your questions at 11 am PT (2 pm ET),I look forward to hearing your experiences and insights, ask me anything!

Hi! I'm a school psychologist that chairs eligibility meetings for students in the process of the special education referral. I am more curious of the effects the label has on teachers' views and perceptions of students. At least in my state, there are 13 disability categories to choose from when determining eligibility. It is a team decision with parental input. The goal of the disability category is to show what is impacting a students' ability to access the general education curriculum without support. Typically children (young) wouldn't know their label, nor should their classmates. I think the real question is: How do special education services affect children socially at school? Kids are being pulled out for resource time, or having extra adult support in the classroom. That is more noticeable.

What are your thoughts?


Hi! One of my studies actually focused exactly on that - on how disability classifications shape teachers’ perceptions of students ( I basically found that teachers hold lower expectations for students with learning disability classifications, even when compared to a student in a similar level of coursework with similar grades but without a disability classification. Yes, I agree that students may not be aware of their specific IEP information but experience peer stigma and self-stigma by virtue of getting different attention in the classroom (co-teachers) or even being pulled into different classrooms.

My daughter was diagnosed with ADHD. She tried adderol but didn't like how she felt on it. She is on Prozac and doing a little better...a little. She is 12 and can only do OK with one step directions. She cannot organize herself and if we start her with a basic level of organization it will be ruined within a day or so. She cannot turn in work later ever and her grades suffer terribly for it. But when we have tried to get her any help because of her age she is essentially threatened with "you don't want to be in special needs classes do you?" So her school threatens labeling her special needs in order to keep her from requesting an IEP so we parents don't push for one.

How can schools get away with this? How can I stop it? Do you have any suggestions for improvement or a new method of helping students like my daughter?


That’s an interesting dilemma- I imagine, in some sense, the school is trying to protect her from stigma. If you think that extra accommodations and possibly different classrooms would help her, then I’d recommend you advocate for her - there are legal requirements surrounding schools’ obligation to students with special needs. If you think the benefits might be minimal, and not worth the costs, you might work with her to advocate for herself with her current teachers. It’s tough - I wish her well!

As a graduate of Sociology, thank you to instructors like you for providing insight into such fascinating topics. Things like this are rarely discussed in a neutral way outside of academia, but they need to be. On to my questions:

  1. There are parents who, even after testing their children, insist that the behavior is a result of poor discipline. How would you approach this conversation? And what are the strongest indicators that a child's behavior requires pharmacological intervention?

  2. How do these "disability labels" affect a young person's locus of control?

  3. Are there any long-term health risks associated with the "common" ADHD medications? Are these risks different when treatment begins as an adult?

  4. Are there fields in which ADHD characteristics would provide an advantage?

Thanks for your time!


The diagnostic processes are contextually variable and somewhat subjective - the diagnostic process is also complicated by unclear boundaries across symptomatic indicators for various disabilities. For example, it can be difficult to determine whether learning struggles are due to a learning disability, intellectual disability, or autism (Eyal 2013; Fletcher, Denton and Francis 2005; Gibbs and Elliott 2010; Gottlieb et al. 1994). Inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are indicative of autism, intellectual disabilities, and ADHD (Bradley and Isaacs 2006; LoVullo and Matson 2009; Matson et al. 2010), just as social skill deficits are characteristic of autism, learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, and ADHD (Gresham 1992). So, your first two questions are tough ones, at least relative to the current discourse surrounding these disabilities.

In some sense, disability labels can offer some relief, providing an explanation for distinctions that may have previously been attributed to the child’s own decisions or parenting choices. On the other hand, disability labels can increase the immutability of learning differences, suggesting to the child and others that their differences are beyond their control - in other words, decreasing their sense of internal control over their learning outcomes. It is unfortunate if the child has more actual control over their learning outcomes than their disability label has led them to believe. I advocate that with more open discourse on the remaining gaps in scientific knowledge, children might incorporate useful insights from a diagnosis while not feeling the diagnosis seals their destiny or captures their complexity.

Do we have an objective way to measure the effects on school culture from either inclusive or exclusive policies related to those with disabilities? As a reporter, I have covered stories with schools (officials and students) speaking subjectively about the benefits of inclusiveness for the broad student body and school culture, but sound bites are just that. Any good research?


So the question is about whether separating children into special education classrooms, where they potentially experience stigma and less access to good curriculum, is better or worse than providing children with accommodations and differentiated instruction alongside their regular-education peers. In the regular education classroom, it’s possible they won’t receive sufficient attention and differentiation. I agree this issue is currently more ideologically informed than well researched, and, as a former teacher, I think teachers’ perspectives on the challenges of teaching classrooms with a very diverse range of learning abilities should be given serious consideration. Special education researchers might start by drawing on findings from researchers focused on whether tracking in general is beneficial for students (still a highly contentious topic). See: Gamoran, Adam. 1992. "The Variable Effects of High School Tracking." American Sociological Review 57 (6): 812-828.

One issue I've come across is that children I work with (as a title 1 tutor) will not get any special accommodations or help with standardized tests or even other kinds of schoolwork, if they do not have a diagnosis, and then an IEP.

It seems like a problem because a lot of diagnoses depend on non-medical and/or non-psychological screening, so teachers or parents figuring out what's going on, and also, these things are pretty grey in my experience. Additionally, I see students who are dealing with trauma and that creates a practical disability but not a medical or necessarily a permanent psychological issue or condition, but they need specific diagnoses to access services....

The school district in which I work does not pull kids out of standard classes, except when they are disruptive or cannot function at all in a "normal" classroom environment. I think it helps a lot socially, but also creates issues like teachers treating kids like they're stupid, and a lot of these classes are 25-30 kids, so the tailored education students (all students) need doesn't happen.

I guess my question is, are there alternative systems you've seen that work socially and academically? I know that isn't just a social question... but it's difficult to see since either way, the needs aren't met. What does a diverse and truly inclusive learning environment look like? Are there specific ways teachers (or tutors and others) can create an atmosphere of acceptance?


Wow, you hit on all of the big philosophical questions surrounding disability diagnoses and special education: how the structure of our system virtually requires labeling for kids to get what they need (is this necessary?), how the structure of our diagnostic processes (the DSM) results in issues that are socially sourced (trauma) being treated as biological deficiencies (similar criticisms are levied at mental illness diagnoses), and how the diagnostic process is inherently subjective. And, then, are we responding to these differences in kids in the most effective ways? Some of the articles I’m currently working on really dig into these issues - keep an eye out for their publication at Researchers and policymakers are focused on all of the questions you raise at the end of your post but I don’t think there’s a consensus yet - your post also reminds me of how helpful it can be to use international comparisons to think about different possibilities and solutions for addressing differences in how children learn.

I teach elementary in a private school with class sizes of 10 or less. We do not offer individual accommodations or modifications for special needs; if something is needed, it is provided for the whole class. Last year I had 40% sped students. Since I had previously taught in public school with IEPs and 504s I was extremely nervous about teaching these students without sped resources. However, because there are no accommodations/modifications there are no disability labels. Students are not pulled to separate sped rooms, and there are no paraprofessionals. This seems like a much more authentic version of "inclusion". My sped students excelled at the same rate as their peers. I am curious what are your thoughts on this model for teaching?


This sounds like the new model for what special education hopes to look like, although I doubt it’s happening at this level in most schools. It’s very encouraging to hear what a positive experience you have had - I hope you keep sharing that experience. My colleague Rachel Fish and I plan to extend our investigations to understanding the effect of special education very soon - with attention to the sort of issues you bring up!

Aren't labels effective levers to get school officials to provide appropriate accommodations? Aren't they also effective in helping teachers understand the "why" of an Individual Education Plan, thereby improving their compliance?


This is the question! This question on whether the benefits of labels are worth their cost is a bigger philosophical issue that extends far past disability. Labeling theory has been used to understand the experiences of the mentally ill, felons, homosexuals (see Scheff, Thomas J. 1966. Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transaction; Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York, NY: The Free Press). The arguments for solving these problems within schools range from improving how these labels are applied, the response to labels, and then to disbanding labels entirely to special education. From the perspective that, as you say, labels enable efficient responses to diversity and provide relief to those whose inability to function like others was unexplained, it seems a moderate response is warranted--a response that capitalizes on the benefits of labels but minimizes the costs.

Another thing is, what are your observations for kids that have been labeled "at risk"? I have been labeled that in my school's data system because I almost killed myself a few years back and they have a special code for kids that have done things like that. It no longer affects my learning, but it makes me uncomfortable to know that there is a red "R" next to my name in the teacher's rollbook. Do somewhat embarrassing things like that ever prompt further dangerous behavior from at-risk kids? I feel like maybe having a label makes kids want to either fight against the stereotype that has been placed on them, or just completely go along with it and not even try.


This is such a great example of how the costs and benefits of labeling extend past disabilities. And I totally understand why that red “R” bothers you. I don’t know if there’s research on the “at-risk” label itself but now I want to do some! Labeling theory has been used to understand the experiences of the mentally ill, felons, homosexuals (see Scheff, Thomas J. 1966. Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transaction; Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York, NY: The Free Press). I do know there is research on how the gifted label perpetuates advantaged children’s advantage. And I think your point that there might be variety in how people respond to a label (both positive and negative responses) is a great one. Have you considered a career as a sociologist? :)

A lot of these labels are, dare I say, dangerously broad. With the lack of definitive objective tests for things like ADHD, autism, etc. how precise is the data being gathered?


Yes, I agree these labels are not precise, and moreover ever-evolving. Despite these issues, children typically receive discrete diagnoses and classifications, so, as researchers, we are often forced to treat those as the best-available information we have. Some researchers have tried to diagnose children through the survey process but that’s also problematic. On top of that, data on disabilities is not widely available because of efforts to protect children from stigma that might occur should the data be released. Efforts have improved though, particularly with federal recognition that racial minorities are disproportionately labeled with many of these disabilities (except autism, notably). SRI was part of early efforts to collect better data on special education students (see Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study) and the large national longitudinal datasets from the National Center for Education Statistics now include at least some disability information, which is great news for disability researchers and activists.

In my life, the label of autism has been a defining core of my identity in both positive and negative ways, and I am glad to be diagnosed and labeled as it has given me a sense of community and an ease of finding help and support. How often is this the case, in your experience?


I think this is a really important aspect of the labeling debate. Despite costs of labels, there are benefits! There are functional reasons we use labels - for one, categorizing and classifying the world around us is a central part of how we function as humans. And, as you say, labels provide relief to those whose inability to function like others was unexplained and can enable treatments that help. The social model of disability (versus the medical model) emphasizes the social causes and consequences of disabilities, and is actually used by disability activists. When taken too far, though, the social model pays insufficient attention to the real difficulties people with distinctions face - Tom Shakespeare, a sociologist with Achondroplasia (dwarfism), wrote a beautiful book addressing these issues (Disability Rights and Wrongs). For these reasons, I advocate for a moderate response to special education labels, in which we work to capitalize on the benefits while minimizing the costs.

Hi Dara! Fellow PSU student here :)

Do your studies also cover the effects of students being marked as either "good" or "bad" depending on their performance? I imagine that the labels are quite reinforcing and that they would have lasting effects.


Go Viks! The national datasets I use include students with and without disability classifications, which really helps me to make good comparisons of students who are otherwise similar with the exception of their disability label. Because, as you point out, low-achieving students without a disability classification might be perceived as “bad” too. Ultimately, I find that students with a learning disability label are perceived more negatively than their similarly achieving peers without a label, suggesting that, as you say, “labels are quite reinforcing” and may have long-lasting effects. You might be interested in these articles which you can find at Shifrer, Dara. 2013. "Stigma of a label: Educational expectations for high school students labeled with a learning disability." Journal of Health and Social Behavior 54(4):462-80. Shifrer, Dara. 2016. "Stigma and Stratification Limiting the Math Course Progression of Adolescents Labeled with a Learning Disability." Learning and Instruction 42(1):47-57.

Have you seen the labels affect the behavior more of the labeled children, the other children that they may interact with, parents and guardians, or teachers and faculty? Is there an age threshold where labels do not matter until that point?

How well does it follow Labeling Theory? Though that's usually applied to crime and Juvenile Delinquency.

Edit: I'm a month away from getting my Bachelors in Sociology, and I've been studying Adult Disability as that's what I want to do career wise, is behavioral therapy.

Also, story told to me by a friend that is applicable. My friend graduated high school in probably the early 2000's. a few years later he went to his parents and asked them why they always held his sister to a different standard academically. Apparently, his sister was always pressured to get A's and they only wanted wanted my friend to at least get C's. His parents told him because he had a learning disability that he did not know about from a car accident when he was really young. They had decided to not let him know until after he had gotten his diploma.


Hello fellow sociologist - you’ve chosen wisely! I haven’t compared all of the people you mention but one of my studies did compare the expectations of teachers and parents, finding that the expectations of teachers were more negatively impacted by learning disability labels than the expectations of parents (see Shifrer, Dara. 2013. "Stigma of a label: Educational expectations for high school students labeled with a learning disability." Journal of Health and Social Behavior 54(4):462-80. - accessible at And I love that you bring up the criminology side of labeling theory - that’s actually how I came to it - I was wracking my brain for a theoretical framework for my dissertation and was overjoyed when I discovered Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York, NY: The Free Press. And labeling theory has been used to understand the experiences of the mentally ill, felons, homosexuals (see Scheff, Thomas J. 1966. Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transaction; Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall). Your story about your friend is so interesting - I wonder if he perceives his parents’ choice as a good one?

Hi there. I was a student diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and a learning disability. I was told that I "just needed extra help" or required a "modified curriculum". This involved either putting me in a classroom with students that had similar diagnoses or letting me take tests with open notes/open books. I finally got out when they started pushing me toward technical school (nothing wrong with it, but I wanted to go to college). When I left the program, I was being taught math by the head football coach who had talent scouts come into our classroom and meet with his players. We did maybe 200 multiplication problems in the two years I was there. The feeling from the actions of the school I got was that I was not as able as the other students and so should be put into a different classroom so resources could be allocated to better students. I stuggled throughout undergrad for lack of study skills, but I did finish and even completed a Master of Science.

My questions are: 1. Have you found a difference between words and actions of the school/admin/teachers? 2. Do students in these programs tend to be more at risk of poverty or get worse jobs for lack of secondary educaton? 3. Are these diagnoses a stigma for these students when interacting with their peers?

Thanks for the AMA!!!


I’m sorry you had these experiences - although, sadly I don’t think you’re alone. And bravo to you for completing your Master’s! There is research that finds poorer educational and occupational outcomes for adults labeled with disabilities as kids, but it’s hard to know whether it’s the label or their own differences. Bruce Link has a really interesting article addressing this tension, in which he developed the notion of ‘modified labeling theory’: Link, Bruce G., Francis T. Cullen, Elmer Struening, Patrick E. Shrout, and Bruce P. Dohrenwend. 1989. "A Modified Labeling Theory Approach to Mental Disorders: An Empirical Assessment." American Sociological Review 54(3):400-23. As for whether these labels result in peer stigma, I think it really depends on how the school has handled it: are peers aware of the label? Are the student and peers (and teachers!) educated on what these diagnoses mean (i.e., kids with learning disabilities typically have average or high IQs), and for that matter, on how these diagnoses are imperfect and occur subjectively at least in part? Is the student in classes perceived as different and inferior by peers? These are examples of the ways schools can use labels like this more carefully to ensure costs are minimized.

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