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Monday, April 2, 2012

Labels, Labels, Everywhere!

Every child comes with a label... there is the jock, class clown, teacher's pet, the prettiest, the most popular, the trouble maker, and the slow kid. There are people who have lots of friends and people with no friends. Each of our students is unique. They look and act differently. However, the special education student comes with even more labels.

At the beginning of each year, a teacher is handed a file with all the child's information. The child has been pre-judged. It is all in the notes. It reads like the nutritional label off a box of cereal. Ingredients inside: low in reading, writing, math, and study skills. High in aggression, vocabulary, and energy. Attention span varies. Warning: do not shake as contents can be explosive!

In the special needs community there is an ongoing debate about whether or not to label a child. Some say it is necessary to provide the child with the services he/she needs; for others they view it as a form of discrimination.

My question is... do we really need labels? Is it necessary to pass on our experiences with a particular child from one year to the next? Can't kids out grow issues? If we are to differentiate instruction for all students, why do we need to identify and label them?

The question of whether or not to label a student has haunted me for thirteen years. I have three amazing sons, two with special needs. This is our story:

My oldest son was different and I could tell from the start. He HATED to be held. He would scream when you picked him up but couldn't stand to be left alone. He did most things early but there were simple things he skipped or were beyond his capabilities. After consulting my pediatrician, I found out my son had Asperger's Syndrome (a form of Autism). My pediatrician gave me the option of having him officially diagnosed or not as he is extremely high function. With his encouragement, I choose not to have him labeled. It was not an easy decision nor an easy path to take but it was the right one for him.

I worked closely with my pediatrician, his teachers, and the principal. He has never had an IEP or 504. We set the bar high for him and expected him to meet our goals. He was never told he had an issue (until 6th grade). Sometimes he would flounder but he never gave up. I did not want Autism to be the first thing a teacher saw in my son. I wanted him/her to see him for the amazing person he is.

My middle son was normal although adventurous and a risk-taker. I lovingly refer to him as my ER-Baby as he is my only child who has ever visited the ER and he has done so on multiple occasions. He had the worst school year of his life the year that I was too sick to help. His teacher started calling him names, humiliating him in front of the other students, and even made him stand for the entire day. He maybe fearless but he still has emotions. My best behaved child, the one all of his other teachers loved and raved about was being victimized by a teacher.

I knew something was wrong, more wrong than just that teacher. So I brought him home with me. I enrolled him in a virtual school, hoping they could help. They said I was an over-reactive parent. So, I decided to home school him on my own.

I took him to my pediatrician. I thought it was something simple, it wasn't. He has been tested for months. This issues are compounding. As of today, he still has no official diagnosis but he is still struggling. The doctor's are still trying to discover why. For him, I choose to have him labeled as he needs help so no teacher will ever call him stupid again. I choose to label him so that he knows this is not his fault. He was above grade level and something happened and now he is not. I choose to label him so he can receive the help he needs.

The decision to label or not label is an emotional one. I believe it also has to be an individual one.

I had this dream once that instead of people wearing "Hi, my name is...." stickers on the first day of school, they wore warning labels.

I have ADHD

My teacher thought I was a nuisance 

I have never passed a test

My parents will sue you if you tell them I can't read even though it's true

I am ALWAYS the favorite, you better think so too!

I am the class clown

Perhaps this dream was a nightmare as this is all the teachers saw. The cute, innocent little faces were obscured by labels that limit their abilities. These labels limit what we believe they are capable of. 

As I think about my kids from this past week, I can't help but see those invisible labels in action as I observe them in the classroom. Time and again, I see expectations lowered as they are different. I see people pull away in fear that somehow this label maybe catching or perhaps they are just to busy to deal with the issue that label represents. 

What would children be capable of if we saw them as themselves and not the label?

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At April 2, 2012 at 11:47 AM , Blogger TammySF. said...

Great post!! I was actually thinking about this with one of my students who was placed in my room from another first grade class. He was a behavior problem in kindergarten and started his 1st grade year off the same way. Then the principal placed him in my room hoping i could turn things around for him. Some of my kids were in his class last year and seem to think that he's always the bad kid when he has done a complete 180! He is doing wonderful in my class but still, teachers and students look at him as the "bad" one. He knows that I expect the same from him as anyone else and I think that has changed his attitude about his learning!! Sorry for the long comment but your post really got me thinking!! Thanks for that:)

At April 2, 2012 at 2:27 PM , Blogger Melissa said...

That was an excellent post! I choose not to read the notes on my kiddos until a month or so AFTER I've been teaching them.

At April 2, 2012 at 6:29 PM , Blogger KRISTA said...

Your post brought tears to my eyes!! Such an excellent post. I too do not seek out the past teachers or read the student's files before the school year begins. I want to get to know my kiddos for who they are, not what someone else has written about them.

Your boys are lucky to have such a wonderful mom!

Have a great week!

At April 2, 2012 at 6:54 PM , Blogger vicky1970 said...

Thanks Misty for that post...I should take Krista's advice from now on and not read the pinks and blues as we call them - with all the private confidential labeling ( info ) on them. One teacher wrote not so nice things about a little boy that I thought was a total dream...crazy! Thanks and thank you for sharing about your son...will be praying for answers.
Traditions, Laughter and Happily Ever After

At April 2, 2012 at 7:30 PM , Blogger Angel Read said...

I feel that probably, to many teachers, labels are not necessary, because the teachers already look at each student individually and try to figure out how to address their needs. For instance, if you noticed a child was very anxious each day and screamed every time you transitioned, from one activity to the next, you'd probably try making a visual schedule for the child, even without knowing that the child has autism. However, for the educational "system," its all about making sure nobody gets anything extra. If you have a label, you get a smaller class, more services, an individual education plan stating the things you need in order to learn, etc. No label, no extra help!

At April 2, 2012 at 8:30 PM , Blogger Erika said...

Another thought provoking of my favorites. As a teacher I don't read files unless I absolutely need to because I too want to get to know my students the same way I want them to get to know me, which is not based on someone else's opinion. We have a daughter we chose to get labeled so that she could get the services she needs. In that regard it has made her (and us) much happier. Fortunately we are in a Christian school where we talk about how God makes all of us just they way He wants us and God doesn't make mistakes!


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