When my daughter was 4 years old I was teaching her how to read, and in the very beginning stages I noticed that she was having a hard time doing what I showed her how to do when it came to copying the print. To make a short story shorter, she needed to go to the eye doctor, and I needed to change the course of what we were doing for a while.
Had my daughter been in public school, her eye problems would have been more of a hullabaloo, and she may have been labeled with some disability, at least for a while. Instead, we got the vision therapy she needed and went on with learning in a slightly different way. Even so, by the end of her second grade year she had read a few of the “Little House” books and did a history fair presentation on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I know that had she been in a typical school situation she would not have fared as well.
At the risk of boring you with family stories, my son was very quiet when he was young and didn’t want to make mistakes, so he was slow to speak when asked a question. Everyone from Sunday school teachers to t-ball coaches answered for him. I know that he might have struggled a bit in school because of this personality trait. He finally burst on the scene when he was about 9 and hasn’t left it since.
What’s the point to these family experiences? Sometimes the best way to handle a possible learning problem is to simply change your course when you have to. There are few scenarios where this is possible unless you are homeschooling or in a small private school, possibly.
Not knowing their past history and labels was actually very helpful to me and the students I taught. Click to tweet
Link between Expectations and Labels
In the last article called, “How to Teach Language Arts to the Struggling Reader” I wrote on expectations of the teacher and the student. There is a direct link to expectations and labels. By label, I mean some sort of description about the child’s learning situation whether ADD, ADHD, Learning disabled, or handicapped in some way that might affect the learning process.
Labels play into expectations because when a child has a label it has a direct effect upon how the teacher looks at and treats a student. Labels are often seen as a good thing. Sometimes parents spend precious time trying to get the school to see that their child has a problem.
The interesting thing about doing research on labeling children is that there are contradictions all over the place. Some websites say labeling does no harm, and some say the opposite. Even formal studies contradict each other. So, what should we believe? It’s complicated because every situation and learner is different. We cannot speak in generalities.
Interview with a Teacher
I did a cell phone interview with my sister who teaches in a public middle school in central Pennsylvania. She says that it’s impossible not to treat a child a certain way when they have a label. Her students don’t like the labels, but they do like and want the help that comes with them.
When a child has severe enough (and sometimes not so severe) learning disabilities to have an IEP, Individualized Education Plan, there is a lot of help. But there is something called, “Inclusion” by law (most often referred to by the government as LRE, Least Restricted Environment, but teachers use the term “inclusion”). Because of “Inclusion” a child with an IEP is supposed to have everything read to him/her if they struggle with reading. These students are mainstreamed into a regular classroom and must have an aide. Even though “inclusion” is supposed to help the learning disabled to fit in with regular kids (least restrictive environment), it’s obvious to everyone that they don’t, and it does cause problems.
In addition to this situation there is another going on in at least Pennsylvania. There is one time when teachers are not allowed to read to and for the IEP student: during the PSSAs. This is Pennsylvania’s standardized test like the AIMS in Arizona (recently changed to AZ Merit).
My sister expresses frustration for her students who get read to all year until the PSSAs. It seems unfair for the student, and it brings the school’s overall average down on the test. This is definitely in my thinking of what we would call a lose-lose situation.
Labels are Complicated
The issue of labels is complicated. Saying that labels can hurt children, isn’t exactly true. Saying that labeling a child’s disabilities or learning problems are a tremendous help to children may not be true in all cases either.
When I was in college, I remember a class I took for special needs learners. We learned about something called, “The Label Treat Act.” As simple as its title: how we label kids is how we treat them, and how we treat them is how they act. This has held true in my teaching experiences for nearly 30 years, and it goes toward the expectations I discussed in the “Struggling Learner” blog. Kids can sometimes do better without labels even though there is a time and place for them when necessary. (See the Guardian website at end.)
What We Sometimes Do Not Know is Helpful
Once in a while ignorance really is bliss. I’ve had teaching experiences where what I did not know was very helpful. As long as I wasn’t told that a student had a particular problem without thinking, I expected that student to respond like any other person in the classroom. In hindsight, it seemed a welcome change to the struggler not to be known for his/her label.
In the case of a vacation Bible school class, one student ended up being the master of ceremonies at the week’s end performance to the amazement of the church (having responded to nothing or very little in Sunday school or anywhere prior). In the classroom, several students made progress in areas where others expected little change, and in tutoring sessions, parents have marveled at what their child would do for me that they wouldn’t do for their teachers or their own parents. Not knowing their past history and labels was actually very helpful to me and the students I taught.
When I taught in a small private classical Christian school, k-12th grades, they would do everything possible for any student in their school before bringing in people to determine what labels to put on the particular struggling learner. What did this look like? It was work: the teacher and principal spent an incredible amount of extra time with the student. They had extra meetings with the parents to discuss what could be done differently at home and school, and would sometimes bring in an extra tutor. In the “real” world this would cost a lot more, but in the private sector you have people willing to do a lot to make positive things happen for a struggling learner.
Proceed with Caution
What can we conclude about labeling children for educational purposes? Proceed slowly, and exhaust as many avenues you can before going for a label. Children learn in different ways: be willing to change what you are doing. There are many resources and help available to you.
http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/diaglabel.pdf See pages 3 and 4.
photo credit: Day 81: When You Care Enough To Send The Very Best via photopin (license)