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School Therapy August 25, 2020

Allies in Allied Healthcare: Coded Language in School-Based Therapy

Written by the Clinical Team

Coded language refers to commonly used terminology that can unintentionally reinforce systematic racism or stereotypes by not actually addressing the “why” behind what you are trying to explain. As clinicians we have responsibilities to discuss our clients and the communities we work in during meetings, in reports, and with interdisciplinary teams. We challenge you to discuss these phenomena with more context by learning more and continuing to develop your own vocabulary. Being more specific and educated in the language we use to describe situations can lead to more solution-focused conversations that benefit the clients we are serving!

Achievement Gap
The “Achievement Gap” is defined by the National Education Association (NEA) as “the differences between the test scores of minority and/or low-income students and the test scores of their White and Asian peers.”  Although it is a popular term in education, it is another example of coded language—meaning that it does not accurately describe the phenomenon that is actually occurring. Yes, there are gaps in test scores and grades, but by saying “Achievement Gap,” it places the blame of low achievement on the students, instead of focusing on the systematic issues at hand. At the heart of this issue are funding and resources—factors that give every child equal opportunity to achieve. Teach for America suggests that we call it an “Opportunity Gap” which “implies that, when given the resources and opportunities they deserve, all kids can achieve.”

Under-Resourced Schools
The term “under-resourced” can often come up in conversation between professionals while discussing different districts, understanding potential job opportunities, and when someone is describing one's job. Although the term might be a true description of a situation, it only scratches the surface of the real issue. Keep in mind, that schools are under-resourced because school funding in theU.S. is based off property taxes, local taxes, and state/federal funding, as explained by NPR. Redlining, a concept that is now illegal, forced BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) families to move into specific areas and made it extremely difficult for them to secure loans for a home. Meanwhile, white families could freely move around and receive housing loans with less comparative wealth. The after-effects of Redlining can still be seen in communities today, as described in The Washington Post. Instead of using “under-resourced” to describe a school—implying negative connotations—try identifying the strengths and the needs of the school to evaluate how we as clinicians can work best within it.

At-Risk Students
The term “At-Risk Students” was first coined in 1983, in the article “A Nation At Risk”. The article's purpose was to raise awareness that the United States was declining in its academic achievement. This article set into action educational reforms that picked out youth who would be considered “at-risk” to participate in additional support systems from a young age. Although supports such as early intervention, Head Start, and other programs can be extremely positive, NPR and The Conversation say that the label can have harmful effects, because “when students are labeled “at-risk,” it serves to treat them as a problem because of their risk factors. Instead, students’ unique experiences and perspectives should be normalized, not marginalized.” In place of using “at-risk” as an adjective or a catch-all phrase, consider being more specific in the challenges each student faces, so they can be connected with the most effective and appropriate resources.

The terms mentioned above are just a few examples of coded-language used in everyday school-based discussions. By learning more, we can be better allies for our clients and their families. Keep learning, keep listening, and keep growing!

Check out more in our Allies in Allied Healthcare Series in our Representation in Therapy Materials post!


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