The Benefits and Detriments of Labels

When children display behaviors that limit their ability to keep up in typical American classrooms they are often recommended for special testing. In a desire to figure out what holds them back from successfully completing tasks and appropriately handling emotions we have developed a litany of labels. The labels that have been created to describe these challenges can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on how they are used.

This is a call to be more conscious in the way we label and describe children. When labels are used with compassion and wisdom they can be used to create an individualized plan of cooperation between home and school, enabling a child to thrive in their unique way. Unfortunately they often create fear and distrust. When used with intellectual reasoning alone, the soul and psyche of the children may be forgotten and while the youngsters receive extra cognitive attention their inner worlds are left unattended. Many of these kids struggle not only with their original challenge but secondary layers of self-doubt and shame as well. We must always consider the whole child, not just the isolated ‘disability.’

Labels are a starting point, merely an entry into a portal of a complex inner world. As we offer tools to increase skills we want to be sure a child does not identify his sense of self by his deficit. It is vital to remind parents and teachers not to use the ‘special need’ as the overriding way we see and talk about these kids.

Hearing oneself described as dyslexic, bi-polar, having attention deficit disorder, etc. can become the fundamental way a developing mind meets the world.

Professional labels, while helpful in understanding a specific diagnosis, can also give the message that ‘something is wrong with me.’ We want to be mindful to give children opportunities to shine through their gifts as well as work diligently to strengthen their challenges.

Words like syndrome, disorder, disability, impairment and therapy can scare parents into avoiding the testing process. It is important that we take great care when ‘throwing out’ professional lingo. I suggest we use carefully thought out language when explaining the way the brain works so fear and judgment are softened.

When we use words like disorder we want to take care in explaining to parents about the way a particular body interprets an experience or input. Attention deficit disorder (ADD), sensory processing disorder (SPD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bi-polar or borderline personality disorder and auditory/visual processing disorders are all labels that can help to understand ‘where’ the disordering is occurring and what resources will support ‘re-ordering.’ The word disorder can trigger fear, judgment and shame for parent and child. As a result of this there is a movement to explain the unique ways brains are wired with the word ‘divergence’ instead of ‘disorder.’

Another area of concern is when professionals miss multiple layers of trauma mixed with pre-documented disabilities. Mis-behavior is usually the key to unlocking this complex inner world of the child.

Take the case of a third grader who has struggled with reading and writing since Kindergarten. While he is a great story-teller, filled with eager imagination and verbal detailed descriptions when sharing about a favorite character or personal experience, he has weakness when holding a pencil and gets frustrated writing a sentence. He has been tested several times and the experts come up with different results each time. Mostly they say that if he only applied himself more and stopped giving up so easily he would do better.

In this case the label associated with ‘dysgraphia’ would be extremely helpful. According to mom he has had problems tying shoes and zipping jackets. Teachers report that he does not write legibly and avoids fine motor activities. His strong verbal skills tend to compensate in many areas but he has said over and over again, “I’m stupid. I can’t read. I hate writing.” He experiences embarrassment and frustration on a daily basis.  These feelings have escalated into anger and because he has not been classified with a helpful label he is now thought of as having anger management issues. Instead of receiving help for his legitimate ‘disorder’ of dysgraphia he has become labeled with oppositional defiance disorder.

If the professionals looked a bit deeper they would find that he was born three weeks prematurely and spent several weeks in a hospital for corrective surgery. His mom is a single woman who has relied on day care from the time he was an infant. It is important to point out that this child has been compensating and adjusting to a variety of traumas as well as a not yet diagnosed legitimate disability. To merely label him with ODD is an injustice. 

While not every professional uses the same terms and language to describe and explain the causes for a child’s struggle, it is important for those in the field of special education to be clear and consistent when using medical and legal labels. It is equally important to approach parents with non-judgment and compassion so they feel most comfortable with finding the right coach, therapist or practitioner to support whatever tools are needed for the child or for the family.