by Diane Lilleberg

When a child is struggling academically, both parents and teachers want to know what is causing the problem and what can be done to fix it. It is normal for parents to want to know if there is a neurological basis for their child’s struggles. Parents in unusual and challenging settings overseas have special concerns, as they are aware that their children experience additional environmental challenges as they move between languages and must adjust to frequent transitions.

However, attaching a label or “diagnosis” to children who struggle academically is an activity fraught with hazards, with as much potential to create challenges as to diminish them. An educational or learning label tends to attach a pathology to a child, resulting in a predictable response. We want a cure. If a doctor examines you and gives you a long name for your problem and tells you there is no way to cure it, what good is the name? Most labels do not offer easy solutions along with the name.

There are few “therapy pills” you can offer to make learning challenges disappear. Rather than describing an acute problem such as an infection that a course of antibiotics will take care of, they describe a chronic problem like diabetes that will demand ongoing lifestyle and environmental adjustments.

Parents and teachers will need to help the child build healthy habits and attitudes towards existing challenges, including a tolerance for working harder than others might have to in academics, along with an appropriately optimistic understanding of other potentials and opportunities outside of academics.

Positive Outcomes

Having an educational team look at clusters of behaviors or struggles to determine if an appropriate label applies does provide a helpful structure that guides gathering information, seeking explanations or possible causes, assessing treatment strategies, and suggesting prognosis to aid in decisions and planning. This process can either rule out or indicate something more serious, with the degree of seriousness impacting a need to reevaluate family priorities and decisions, as well as educational priorities and decisions appropriate to the individual child. Once assigned, labels are useful in sharing information and successful treatment strategies, as well as offering support to realistic long-range planning that will not unnecessarily stress children with over-expectation in academic directions.

A label applied to something that might otherwise look like poor behavior or work habits can result in a change of strategy, since neurological research shows that these behaviors are better addressed by teaching rather than discipline. For instance, most children pick up or “catch” aspects of socialization, while children with some developmental challenges need to have social skills specifically taught and practiced. The teacher and parents must more actively try to employ strategies to both diminish distracting or inefficient responses and replace them by actively teaching and providing intentional practice in more effective alternatives.

In our settings and given major transitions in our lifestyle, it can be essential to have appropriate expectations and be aware enough of what might be coming in the future in order to make appropriate adjustments in both short and long-range planning. For children with significant developmental handicaps, an accurate labeling process that includes a history of treatment and therapy effectiveness can support getting therapy at times when it is most effective.

If a developmental handicap exists, parents often need to rethink their priorities related to post-school years and how that may impact more immediate decisions. For instance, some home-schooling time might need to focus more on social skills or study skills as a priority to allow future academic progress.

Finding Resources

The most positive reason for attaching labels, of course, is to find or hook up with resources that address specific issues. Parents dealing with challenges tend to gradually “get over” whatever reaction they might have to a label in order to benefit from resources, whether the child matches the label perfectly or not.

For instance, if a child has difficulty holding conversations, knowing which labels include this particular challenge will help you find resources that address recognizing facial expressions and interpreting them—something that seems as though it should just be obvious when it may not be obvious at all to a struggling child. Some children may also need to learn the give and take in conversation the way you or I need to be taught and practice the violin. While children with Asperger’s Syndrome have these challenges, a child doesn’t need to perfectly fit or qualify for an Asperger’s label in order to benefit from the strategies. Instead of just tolerating being a bit odd or appearing uncaring or selfish, there is now something to do about it and somewhere to look to see what others have done about it. Whether or not a child “fits” a label isn’t as important as finding resources that help address whatever needs to be addressed in overcoming day-to-day challenges.

Subtle Cautions

Improper understanding of labels, however, can result in problems. Attaching a label will change expectations in subtle ways that children pick up on. The label can become an excuse for reducing expectations, when that may not be the best therapeutic tactic. Acting as an explanation of a behavior or absence of a behavior, a label can dissolve the energy and intent we might otherwise invest in change. Our natural empathy as parents can work against progress, then, as we amend expectations and assume “can’t” when there is still potential for “won’t” that might need to be addressed.

In this subtle area of expectation, it is important that labels do not excuse hard work either for the student or for those who teach. For instance, a label does not excuse rudeness or insensitivity in children, even when life is harder and intent may be a smaller factor in the behavioral equation. On the adult end, a label should never be an excuse for a parent or teacher not owning the responsibility to take a child from wherever they are and move them to the next step, however difficult or complicated that may be.

When children struggle, parents can be too sensitive to the potential “can’t” and reinforce whatever “won’t” happens to be mixed in. It is much easier for those outside of the family to be empathetic but consistent about expectations. To push the boundaries, teachers can even intentionally err on the side of over-expectation knowing a child has parental support to come home to and to help monitor stress and reflect it back to them. While home schooling can eliminate some reasons for labels because of individualization and being able to adjust pacing and academic task design, it has its own set of challenges.

To Summarize

Care must be taken to avoid attaching a pathology to a child that may be inaccurate, may mask a better explanation or an explanation with a different prognosis, or may result in providing an excuse for behavior or the hard work that will help children reach their potential. If labels do not result in practical solutions, they are probably better left alone or at least better left to those with objectivity and more varied experiences with children with similar learning challenges.

A label should never reduce the motivation of those helping the child to keep trying different practical solutions. The energy adults spend in trying to find a label that fits perfectly will usually be better invested in addressing the specific challenges and when and how to teach to best overcome them. The significant thing to understand in supporting children with special challenges is that what we expect is less likely to be “caught” and must therefore be specifically “taught.” This often means teaching beyond academics and should include helping children find and own personal solutions to make their challenges more manageable with less support as they mature.

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