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Challenge: Back to School

A Label by Any Other Name: One Teacher's View of Diagnosing a Child

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I've been in teaching for at least a decade, more depending on how you count. It's been long enough, in any case, for me to be familiar with many, many children and the labels that seek to define them. And though I truly believe that there is no one way to be normal, I’ve taught enough children to recognize one who is not managing well in the classroom, a child overwhelmed by what his or her classmates consider mundane.

I have spent most of my teaching years in preschool. Often children that I teach have yet to be diagnosed with this or that label. Mom has yet to cry. Maybe I am the first person to make her cry. Perhaps I am the one to tell her that the child she thought was so perfect might not be considered perfect by the rest of the world, that the possibility exists for her child to be the recipient of a dreaded label.

People are for and against labels, for varied and sometimes valid reasons. Some people want children labeled as if the label in and of itself would help the child. A parent fights against a label if he or she thinks it’s going to hurt the child. A parent fights for the label if he or she thinks it might help his or her child. I’ve even overheard my own children’s pediatrician wonder aloud at how a certain label will affect insurance benefits.

Autism, sensory integration disorder, dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar–the label options have multiplied considerably since I was a child. But each child with autism and each child with ADD has an individual story; each of them is a unique and wonderful person, a miracle really, just like anyone else.

So what does the label really mean? In my mind the best labels are only this: a toolbox. They give the teacher, the parent, and ideally the child a new set of tools, a way to cope with the world around them that they didn’t have before. The label says to the child, the parent, the teacher, “Here is your toolbox. Here are ways other children have successfully coped with some of your same struggles. Maybe one of these tools will help you, too. Maybe then your days can be a little easier, a little less traumatic, a little more even keeled.”

In an ideal world, a label would also give the parents, the teachers and the child support. The toolbox would also say, “Here’s your support! Here is somebody to help you operate in class because you might have missed the oral instructions. She might walk with you in line in the hallway too, because that seems like a rough time for you. Here Mom, here Dad, here is a nanny because we know that you had to go to therapy today instead of cooking that dinner you really wanted. And here Mom, here Dad, here teacher, here is someone to help you fill out the paperwork. Because all labels produce lots and lots of paperwork.”

That would be ideal. But it’s not what we have. Most of what we have these days are strategies, sometimes medication, and very, very little in the way of support. We have leftover stigma from days gone by. We have preconceptions and plenty of frustration.

I say all this not to say “poor teacher” or “poor parent” or even “poor child”.

The reason I am writing this is to explain that there are not “sides” and this is not a battle.

Your child’s teacher may be beaten down by a decrepit, overworked system. Or she may be fresh out of college and full of ideals. Your child’s teacher may love children. She may be exhausted at the end of the day and dread grading papers at night. She may have taught for 30 years. She might be tired. Or your child’s teacher may be 70 years old and still a spring chicken. Your child’s teacher may be teaching a grade level she doesn’t like or subject she’s not comfortable with.

She enjoys summer and winter break to be sure, or she moonlights during vacations. But your child’s teacher most certainly went into teaching not for the winter break and not even for the summer break, but because she loved children, had something to offer children, and had a good rapport with children.

And if your child’s teacher has to tell you that your child’s behavior is not typical of the peer group, it’s not because she doesn’t like your child. And it’s not because her job is too hard and the expectations are so high (although they are). It’s definitely not because she wants more paperwork.

I can only speak for myself, but if I have taught your child, I have loved your child. I have loved your child regardless of whether he or she had special needs, struggled, or soared immediately upon entering the classroom. And if I have asked you whether you have considered this or that screening, whether you have questioned your child’s pediatrician about a certain behavior or lack thereof, whether you would mind if an outside observer spent time in our classroom, it is for this reason and this reason alone: I want your child to soar too.

Originally published on Blunt Moms (republished with permission)

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