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During Taraji P. Henson’s testimony at the Congressional Black Caucus Taskforce forum, she discussed the stigma of mental health and trauma in the black community and suicide rates among black youth. The Hidden Figures actress also shared her experience as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles where she worked with children with special eduational needs. To her surprise, most of those children, who were black, were not disabled.

“When I got there I was in a room full of black young males labeled ‘special ed,'” she said. “None of them were [disabled]. As I started talking to the young men I found out that they were going home to no parents.”

Unfortunately, the mislabeling of black children in the classroom is still happening. When Henson pointed this out, I couldn’t agree more. While working with black children and adolescents as a psychotherapist, I see that most of them who are deemed to have special education needs are mislabeled.

Many young black teens that I have worked with lack self-confidence. I have worked with clients who don’t put much effort into understanding their coursework because they feel like they won’t understand it no matter how hard they try, so they either put their head down or walk out of the classroom. Being aware of that label isn’t helpful either. Some children and adolescents who are aware that they have special education services see themselves as “stupid” or “crazy” and it affects their overall attitude about school.

Some teens may be able to understand the work but because of their difficult lives at home or their past or ongoing trauma, their “emotional disturbance” stands out more than their academic ability. Whether it was the death of a parent, being in foster care, an absentee parent, witnessing domestic violence, having an incarcerated parent or a dysfunctional family, all of these factors can affect a child’s academic performance and lead to them being mislabeled as someone in need of special education services. While most of them are in need of mental health services and positive community involvement, they are instead thrown into a classroom that hinders their personal and academic growth.

Research has also shown that receiving special education services is more detrimental than anything to the mislabeled student. Besides being stigmatized, the students are held to lower standards and are not held to the same educational standards as their peers who do not receive special education services. According to research by Dr.  Jamila Codrington, “special education programs often lack a pedagogy that challenges and develops students’ analytical and critical thinking skills.” Dr. Codrington also pointed out that children in special education classrooms “are often held to lower standards due to low teacher expectations” and “are conditioned to underachieve–to jump no higher than the glass ceilings of their
classrooms.” She deemed the environment more stifling to their educational development than encouraging.

This environment can reinforce a student’s negative feelings about themselves and doesn’t address the root of the problem. Since black children are disproportionately and erroneously placed in special education environments at higher rates than other races, it is important to thoroughly assess what is going on in their home and with their families before slapping the label of “learning disability” or “emotionally disturbed” on them. Too often, they are not those things and in actuality they are experiencing symptoms of trauma, depression and low self-esteem/lack of confidence. Take a look into a child’s mental health first because their educational setting may not be the factor in their lives that needs to be addressed.

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