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The "Label" Debate

I witnessed something beautiful a few weeks ago in the vendor hall at a convention. While speaking with a homeschool dad at my booth, I gazed in awe as his six children, ages 11 and under, bounded joyfully across the convention hall with thrilled expressions of “Daddy! “Daddy! Daddy!” Each of them raced to their father and crashed into his arms, excited to be with him. As Mom approached, I said, “Wow! I’m so blessed to see all this love!”

Then their young daughter looked me in the eyes and confessed, “Sometimes Mommy gets mad at Daddy.” Next, her brother proudly showed me his elbow and announced, “I have eczema!” Finally, another daughter emerged from the family love fest, beaming to tell me, “I have a sensory processing disorder!”

Once I regained my non-giggling, thoroughly-enjoying-this-moment composure, I shared with the (embarrassed) mom how wonderful it was to experience such loving, happy, authentic, well-loved personalities. Mommy’s emotions, eczema, and a processing disorder were not holding back these kids' affection and uncontainable joy.

I surmise those things aren’t holding back their education or their relationships either.

Many parents believe that diagnosing a child (thereby assigning a “label”) carries a stigma that will impact their child negatively. To this I say, “au contraire, mon frère.”

Rather than putting your child in the proverbial box, diagnosing (and “labeling” her) enables her to fly.

Several years ago I was teaching a middle school writing course (yes, PowerHouse Writing) in which an 11-year-old boy, “Matt,” was as miserable as he could be. Mom had warned me that he was the worst of all worsts (“worsts” being a made-up word here) when it came to school and especially writing. She said she was sick of fighting with him and was hoping this class would turn him around.

Usually when students showed up to the first writing class, they hid their negative attitudes and at least tolerated the lesson out of sheer curiosity until at last, they discovered they were having fun. Not Matt. He wore a consistent “I hate this” face, even with live earthworms, delicious gummy worms, and color-coded index cards making sentences that had the rest of the class giggling and guffawing with delight. No matter how much I tried to engage him, he had none of it.

By the second class, Matt painstakingly managed to write one sentence, allowing himself to unfold his crossed arms only for the length of time it took to write it (which was a while!). I praised him for his efforts and the rest of us continued to have fun (even the reluctant writers) while Matt decided to stay in his funk.

Later when I looked at his sentence, I knew instantly. Matt’s sentence-writing revealed a severe case of dyslexia. No wonder he was constantly frustrated with school! Mom had no idea.

I spent two summers teaching this course at a reading clinic for students with dyslexia, so I knew Matt could become a successful, confident writer too. Encouraged, I decided to call his mom and suggest she get him tested so she could be supported in meeting his learning needs. I was excited to share with her that with a few adaptations and an understanding of how his incredibly intelligent, adaptable brain functions, the sky was the limit for him!

Mom called me first.

She wanted to inform me that he would no longer be coming to the class because he didn’t like it. I assured her that yes, she could get a refund and told her about my discovery. This discovery had the potential to reshape Matt’s outlook about school (and himself!) and equip him with the tools he needed in order to achieve whatever he set his mind to. I could refer her to a wonderful, trusted place to get him tested and supported. Would she like the contact info?

She would have none of it. (Like mother, like son?) She didn’t want her son labeled, thank you very much. He just needed to change his attitude. End of discussion.

I wish I could insert a resolution here, but the truth is, I never heard from her again. She didn’t reach out to the place I had recommended (I checked) and she never replied to my follow-up email. I can only hope that in time, Matt was diagnosed and given the right tools to move him forward with his education and his life. He deserved the chance to become successful and encouraged, as do all students.

The good news: out of a thousand writing students (many of whom also had dyslexia), Matt was the only one who dropped out and his mother was the only one to refuse this suggestion for her son. (Oh, the wonderful student-success stories I could tell!)

As a teacher, I welcome labels. If a student has dyslexia, I know how to ensure she is getting what she needs to be successful. If I know a student has aspergers, dysgraphia, an auditory processing disorder, dyscalculia, or any other host of labels, this empowers me as a teacher of multiple grades and multiple subjects to adapt for that student - to meet her right where she is - and to bring her to the next academic level.

In trying to keep children outside the label box, parents are effectively preventing them from breaking out of the very thing holding them back.

Perhaps some parents simply need a perspective shift. Their child does not become their label. Others outside their child’s educational impact realm don’t even need to know about it. A “label” is not a name-brand label, defining a child the way a brand name defines apparel or cars or other material objects. (Dyslexia was never meant to become Matt’s identity.) Rather, it is a care label, communicating how to best serve that child for maximum learning and maximum life experience.

Matt’s mom ran away from something (in denial and fear) that could have set him up for success in life. The family in the convention hall accepted all of it and ran to each other (in love).

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