Home / Content / On Linguistic Difference and Disability: Basic Considerations When Engaging Bilingual Students with Academic or Social-Emotional Challenges by Bryn Harris and Amanda Sullivan

On Linguistic Difference and Disability: Basic Considerations When Engaging Bilingual Students with Academic or Social-Emotional Challenges by Bryn Harris and Amanda Sullivan

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

For decades, scholars and practitioners have tried to untangle language acquisition processes from common educational disabilities (e.g., Artiles & Trent, 1994). The ramifications of misinterpreting or ignoring the relations of language learning and academic development can be life changing. Students may acquire inappropriate special education labels, receive unneeded or ineffective services, be denied necessary language supports, miss out on general education curricula or socialization, or lose out on needed intervention and individualized instruction because educators fail to accurately recognize the educational needs of multilingual learners (Sullivan, 2011). Whether students are inappropriately identified for special education, or their special needs are overlooked, the decision can have long-term implications for students’ academic and behavioral development, treatment by teachers and peers, and outcomes well beyond schools since ineffective general and special education services and disability are linked to a host of outcomes across the lifespan: educational attainment, employment, health, criminal justice involvement, interpersonal relationship, and independent living. Thus, the stakes are high when school professionals are charged with responding to the educational struggles of a multilingual learner, and the determination of whether the student also has a disability goes well beyond simply trying to secure extra help.

The crux of the matter is how to determine the nature of a multilingual students’ educational difficulties when they are also developing English proficiency. For many professionals, this is an unwieldy task not only because they lack proficiency in the student’s home language, but because the behavioral and academic correlates of developing English proficiency – particularly in suboptimal academic contexts – can mimic common learning and behavioral special needs that are difficult to identify even when there are no linguistic considerations. Both a multilingual learner and an improperly supported student with a learning or emotional disability may display poor academic progress and a range of social-behavioral difficulties that elicit suspicion that the student may have a disability that warrants special education (e.g., inattention, difficulty following directions, off-task behaviors, Ochoa, Roble-Piña, Garcia, & Breunig, 1999)–thus, the challenge of distinguishing unexpected effects of limited English proficiency from symptoms of special needs. Furthermore, there is also the possibility that the student is learning English and has a disability. This will result in the need for additional coordinated services to ensure that the child is receiving supports to aid in language acquisition as well as special education services that are appropriate for their disability and language abilities.

Given decades of debate and policy refinement, one might expect a strong research base to guide such educational decisions. Yet, there remain many unanswered questions and contention about the relations of language acquisition and common disabilities, how to assess and interpret students’ learning and educational needs, and most fundamentally, what disability is. Without consensus on each of these topics to guide practice, decisions may be unduly influenced by inaccurate understanding of language and development, inappropriate tools or practices, or stereotypes and bias even when the decisions are based on a desire to help the student.

All too often, scholars and professionals’ responses to much of this debate are dependent on idiosyncratic interpretation of the data rather than a systematic process firmly grounded in theory and research. One professional may interpret slow progress to learn English or master curriculum as suggestive of a learning disability, while others may question past access to high quality English language acquisition support and core instruction. With growing linguistic diversity in schools, renewed debate around the over- or under-identification of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education, and calls to identify more students with special needs, clarity on the nature of special needs and how to appropriately identify them for linguistic minority students is as important as ever, yet remains contentious and imprecise.

While people may believe that the professionals involved in evaluating a child for special education may have the largest burden to carry regarding this issue, appropriate response to and identification of students’ learning needs begins in general education. In fact, the entire school staff can contribute to opportunity gaps and inequality and, thus, can also improve educational opportunity for all students, including multilingual learners. Some of the following recommendations will promote stronger educational decisions.

Prereferral Intervention & Multitier Systems of Support. Having a well-organized, efficient, and clear process at the prereferral level is critical to reducing inappropriate referrals to special education and providing intervention matched to students’ needs. Linguistic considerations can be embedded throughout educational processes such that teams involved in prereferral intervention or multitier systems of support (e.g., response to intervention) should ensure general education teachers and support staff provide necessary language acquisition services, and when students struggle, routinely review information about students such as their language proficiency levels, prior schooling experiences, languages of instruction, and acculturation considerations. English language acquisition teachers can provide data regarding language proficiency growth as well as descriptors of curricular modifications to increase understanding among bilingual students. This information should be interpreted relative to both general and subgroup expectations to inform modification and adaptation of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Where early intervening is warranted, multilingual learners should be provided interventions or supports validated for individuals with their unique characteristics or other best available evidence. Without appropriate matching of interventions to student needs, lack of progress cannot be inferred to reflect the skills or ability of the student.

Peer Comparison. When students are involved in intervention, they are often progress monitored to assess for growth. While this is a helpful practice, there are things to keep in mind. First and foremost, who is this student being compared to? Often, when we discuss results of standardized assessments, the norm group may not be representative of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, thereby jeopardizing the validity of any inferences made about the student’s skills. There are very few assessments that include bilingual students in the standardization sample. When school staff complete interventions, they often compare the student to other 4th graders (as an example) which may not be an appropriate comparison either. We recommend that schools try to compare to similar peers if possible, especially those with similar language acquisition histories. When such needed information is not available from the developers of an instrument, educators can develop their own reference groups from data collected within their site or school system.

Interdisciplinary Teaming. One of the ways that teams can increase the likelihood of making sound educational decisions about the educational needs of multilingual students is to consistently include multiple stakeholders in the MTSS process with various areas of expertise relevant to multilingual learners. Particularly in schools with high bilingual populations, it is surprising that English Language Acquisition Teachers are often not included in these processes, but they should be standing members of such groups. Parents should also be integral members of these teams, especially when learning about an individual student’s linguistic and academic development. Further, there are other specialized support personnel such as speech language pathologists and school psychologists with advanced training pertinent to students’ development and resultant intervention.

Special Education Evaluation. For some students, a multidisciplinary evaluation may be warranted to determine whether the student is eligible for and in need of special education services. If a disability is suspected after obtaining developmental and educational information about the child, providing tailored interventions, and appropriate progress monitoring, the student should receive an individualized evaluation in the language most likely to provide valid results. An evaluation cannot be delayed until a student is English proficient; this common practice is both illegal and unethical (see the recent Dear Colleague Letter from the Office of Civil Rights). In conducting an evaluation for special education eligibility, the school team must involve the students’ family throughout the process; select reliable instruments likely to yield useful and valid information about the student; rely on multiple tools, participants, and methods throughout the process; and consider whether limited English proficiency could be determinant factor in educational progress. In both prereferral processes and special education evaluations, educators should rule out low-inference hypotheses (e.g., difficulties are due to inadequate or inappropriate instruction or other experiential factors v. high-inference hypotheses regarding ability or disability) for students’ difficulties and seek disconfirmatory information and dissenting opinions to maintain the objectivity and rigor of the evaluation process (Christ & Arañas, 2014; Watkins, 2009).

It’s also critical we recognize the continued complexity and uncertainty surrounding differentiating linguistic difference and special needs. We must resist the lure of oversimplification and un-validated (or invalidated) approaches that purport to offer quick, intuitive means of classifying and interpreting the cultural and linguistic load of various psychoeducation measures and their meaning for determination of disability. Quite simply, no such tool or approach exists. Reliance on such weak tools can undermine the resultant decisions and is counter to legal and ethical guidelines calling for research-based practice.

While much more research on this topic is needed, there is more training and discussion on this topic than decades prior. School professionals have the responsibility to provide culturally and linguistically responsive services that maximize the educational success of the child. Ultimately, it is the way in which professionals interpret the data (or lack thereof) that holds the greatest potential for helping or harming a student. With more professionals involved, greater emphases on equity and data collection, and a focus on the individual needs of the child, educators can offer sound educational decisions to help students develop and achieve.

Artiles, A. J. & Trent, S. C. (1994). Overrepresentation of minority students in special education: A continuing debate. Journal of Special Education, 27, 410-437.

Christ, T., & Arañas, Y. A. (2014). Best practices in problem analysis. In P. L. Harrison & A. Thomas (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology data-based and collaborative decision making (pp. 87-98). Bethesda, MA: National Association of School Psychologists.

Ochoa, S. H., Robles-Piña, E., Garcia, S. B., & Breunig, N. (1999). School psychologists’ perspectives on referrals of language minority students. Multiple Voices for Exceptional Learners, 3, 1-14.

Sullivan, A. L. (2011). Disproportionality in special education identification and placement of English language learners. Exceptional Children, 77, 317-334.

Watkins, M. W. (2009). Errors in diagnostic decision-making and clinical judgment. In T. B. Gutkin, & C. R. Reynolds (Eds.), The handbook of school psychology (4th ed., pp. 210-229). New York, NY: Wiley.

Author Biographies 

Bryn Harris, PhD, NCSP, is an Associate Professor in the School Psychology doctoral program in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. Her primary research interests include the psychological assessment of bilingual learners, health disparities among bilingual children, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder, culturally and linguistically diverse gifted populations, and improving mental health access and opportunity within traditionally underserved school populations. She regularly conducts international research, primarily in Mexico. Dr. Harris is the director and founder of the bilingual school psychology program at the University of Colorado Denver. She is also a bilingual (Spanish) licensed psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist.


Amanda Sullivan is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Coordinator of the School Psychology Program at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Sullivan completed her training at Arizona State University and is a licensed psychologist. Most of her research focuses on describing special needs among children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and understanding the educational and health services they receive. She is particularly interested in elucidating disparities in the educational treatment and outcomes of students with and at-risk for disabilities and identifying malleable factors related to outcomes in order to inform policy and practice to better support students’ educational needs. Much of her work entails secondary analyses of large-scale datasets that allow for population estimates of students’ characteristics, experiences, and outcomes.