Go beyond labels and diagnoses. View the child from many angles

Madam, I would like to consult you regarding my son who is dyslexic.

Ma’am, my eight-year-old son has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Is there a school that would admit such a child?

Madam, Aditya, my 15-year-old son, has been identified as a dyscalculic. He has tremendous difficulty with math. He coped well till class eight but is now having difficulty with algebra and geometry.

There are two girls in my class who are slow learners. How can I help them?....

For the nth time I wondered, why has it become a trend in recent times to brand children and throw them into a classification that is really unnecessary? What compels us to pass judgment on children struggling with academics? Why is our society so obsessed with this testing mania?

Clinicians conduct lengthy tests on underachieving students to identify the underlying causes for their academic or behaviour shortfalls. This is unfortunate because tests of academic skills such as the ability to spell accurately, write legibly, read quickly with comprehension or automatically recall multiplication facts, do not reveal much about the student’s strengths, pinpoint the cause for their weaknesses and any ensuing educational needs.

I am not anti-label as I believe that labelling gives professionals the language to constructively discuss their problems. Just the very act of recognition and understanding can relieve both the parent and the child from the angst of wondering why they are not able to keep up with their peers. What I am against is the negativity that goes along with the labelling of children with these special needs.

Most mainstream school teachers, due to the lack of awareness, immediately put these children in a box, never to be challenged. This, in turn, limits their growth and creates a prejudice that almost always spreads to the child’s classmates. All this just further aggravates the situation for a child that struggles to learn in a traditional sense. Stemming from this sense of inadequacy are other behavioural problems like emotional difficulty — acute loneliness, stress, depression and a sense of victimisation. Issues that further compound an already complex issue.

Understanding needed

Mel Levine, author of A mind at a time, says, “There is a need to diagnose learning problems, not just in terms of assigning kids to categories or labels, but to really understand why a student is struggling, why is writing such a challenge for an 8th grader, what makes math so complicated for this 5th grader?” In Aditya’s case, for instance, rather than labelling him ‘dyscalculic’, would it not have been more positive or productive to explore what was it about algebra that did not make sense to him? Obviously, at one time he was able to learn simple math skills or he wouldn’t be in high school! Our job as educators should be about understanding what it takes to replicate previous successes. The label ‘dyscalculic’ will just weigh him down rather than propping him up because in focussing on the problem only, nobody will take responsibility for his learning.

Descriptive profiles

Dr. Levine avoided labels in favour of descriptive profiles, delved into specific breakdown points, relentlessly searched for assets and demystified students by explaining their problem to deliver a message of hope and optimism.

Being in the field of education for more than three decades, I have come to understand that our education system requires students to be adept at a wide range of activities and tasks, which is a tall order for many. In contrast, adulthood accommodates specialists. In reality, this means that many students who struggle in school will flourish as adults when they can focus on their strengths rather than have to be weighed down by their weaknesses. Children are much better equipped to cope with life’s challenges when they are aware of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities as well as their assets and talents. Self-awareness is crucial to the long-term success of people with learning problems.

So if you know a child who does not measure up to expected demands, academic or otherwise, do not give up and do not allow him to give up either. That very student has a good chance of coming into his own sooner or later. That is because we know a pattern of strengths or weaknesses may operate particularly well at specific ages and certain contexts but not nearly as optimally in other times and under alternate circumstances.

I believe a big part of teaching and parenting entails helping our children make it through periods when they feel inadequate. No case, however complex, is ever hopeless. It’s the protecting self-esteem in this period that one needs to be more careful about.

We, as professionals, must make an effort to refrain from labelling a child. We must always consider its negative effect on the child’s self-image or a parent’s respect for a son or a daughter? A question that plagues my mind is, what if a diagnosis gone awry has mislabelled the child? It may cause him to grow deviant, pathological or hopelessly inferior to his peers and siblings!

The writer is a remedial educator

Email: rajfarida@gmail.com

Some interesting quotes

Sometimes, what seems obvious is not – sometimes we need to pause and reflect on seemingly common knowledge that we have taken for granted.

Go beyond labels and diagnoses. View the child from many angles.

American Psychotherapist, Dr. Bradford Keeney, says “Diagnoses are like barbed wire fences,” in that the labels we often place on people keep them stuck.

A label never leaves a child. He is stigmatised for life.

Sometimes, what seems obvious is not – sometimes we need to pause and reflect on seemingly common knowledge that we have taken for granted

Go beyond labels and diagnoses. View the child from many angles

American Psychotherapist, Dr. Bradford Keeney, says “Diagnoses are like barbed wire fences,” in that the labels we often place on people keep them stuck