Labels, are they always the answer?

I wrote a blog last week entitled ‘Behaviour Matters‘, in which I attempted to illustrate part of a typical working day at the PRU I teach at. A section of this blog featured the following observation, regarding the labelling of children:

‘This academic year, in particular, I have felt that certain pupils really believe that they are more powerful than the teachers and other staff that they are, ostensibly, in the charge of. These pupils are, after all, at the more extreme end of the market. They are excluded from school, know most of the tricks, and the threat of exclusion no longer applies. Also, – sometimes usefully for them – they have often had a label such as ADHD, Dyslexia or Autism applied. This they can then wield, like a shrunken head, whenever an authority figure challenges their conduct (“I can’t help it, I’ve got ADHD and I forgot my medication, right?!” etc).’

 

Several people were openly critical of these remarks. Here are a small selection of the comments made on Twitter over the last few days:

‘…it doesn’t read as a piece fighting for children to succeed to me…’

and,

‘If you’re seeing the behaviour, you’re probably not managing the autism…’
(@SENcollusion)

‘I wonder how much autism training the person has who talks ‘excuses”
(@ERA_tweet)

‘It’s a PRU. You will get behaviour like that. Need appropriate management…’
(@suzy001)

I will say from the outset, that I can see how what I said could potentially be misconstrued. Maybe my remarks could be misinterpreted as demonstrating an unfeeling attitude towards children with diagnosed conditions. It seems that some also suspect that I may be ignorant of how to best deal with these children.

It’s not my goal to alienate people, I’m really only seeking to comment and make observations. I certainly didn’t write the above with the aim of trivialising or dismissing Autism. Similarly, I would never seek to belittle pupils who genuinely struggle with their reading and writing. I also recognise that not everyone will agree with every word that I write all of the time. (I must also stress that I have also received many positive comments regarding this blog.)

With all that in mind, I decided I would write a new blog attempting to explain myself perhaps a bit more clearly.

 

I have worked extensively with adults and children with Autism, indeed, I wrote my dissertation on the subject. I also spent a considerable amount of time teaching at a ‘moderate learning difficulties’ school. Here I encountered a number of pupils who really did have certain very specific diagnosed conditions.

I must emphasise once more that a some of the pupils we encounter at the PRU do also have a specific diagnosed condition. But I believe that this applies to only a small minority, and it’s here where I take issue with the whole labelling culture.

Many of the young people I work with have led extremely traumatic lives. Some are (or have been) in local authority care. Most live in deprived areas where they may have been exposed to criminal activity, and some are involved with gangs. Many pupils have siblings who demonstrate similar behaviour. Weekly, we see parents who openly admit that they are struggling to cope. In several cases, there are drug and/or alcohol issues within the family. Some of the children are dirty and/or underfed. Some of the parents are illiterate.

When the young people (above) begin to demonstrate extreme or inappropriately disruptive behaviour, the onus is on the local authority to try to find out why. Once there is a ‘reason’ for this behaviour, then targeted help and support can be provided. In order to diagnose what condition a child has, teams of Educational Psychologists and doctors will usually swing into action – although it is tempting to suggest there is a financial motive for their actions, I do believe that most of these professionals are acting in good faith. The question they are trying to answer is ‘What is WRONG with this child?’ Because there must be SOMETHING wrong with them. In order to establish this, the health professionals have a variety of tests and diagnostic tools at their disposal. When the child ticks enough of the boxes, a diagnosis can be made. For example, if the child is struggling with reading and writing, they may get labelled with Dyslexia. If a child is struggling with extreme behaviour and hyper-activity, they could have ‘ADHD’. If a child is withdrawn and demonstrates little empathy, they may gain the label of ‘autistic’.

I know the autistic spectrum is wide, but having written on the subject, worked previously with autistic kids and read extensively on the subject, I can count on one hand the number of these PRU pupils who have demonstrated many of the typifying symptoms. Likewise, we see a number of young people who are behind their peers and below-average in reading and writing; but I have hardly come across a single child who couldn’t make at least some progress. Never have I seen a child who struggled to decode letters on a page – yet I have worked with many who have been labelled with dyslexia. ADHD is the biggest anomaly of all, I think. If (IF!) this condition really does exist, there is no doubt in my mind that it is over-diagnosed. Most worryingly, children with ADHD are usually prescribed drugs. As I hinted at in my previous blog, these drugs can then cause a further set of complications. I’ve seen kids become utterly docile – doped. I’ve also worked with kids who seem to become even wilder than they originally were. There is no doubt that dosage of these drugs is difficult to get right.

 

So, who, and with what purpose, do labels serve?

1. For the mainstream school: they are helpful as schools can then (legitimately) claim that they ‘can no longer meet the needs’ of a particular pupil. This makes permanent exclusion less of a worry.

2. For the local authority, they can then show that they have done their bit in seeking to establish root causes for conduct. They can then draft in some support to further appease.

3. For the parents, they can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that none of the issues are their fault.

4. For the pupil, they have a cast-iron ‘reason’ that they cannot improve, modify or help their conduct or the situation they find themselves in. Once the child is permanently excluded, from one school, the label makes it extremely difficult to secure a new school (see 1.) and so on..

 

None of this does very much to tackle the (real?) underlying issues that are at play here. Schools can’t do much about society and family problems. What they can do is encourage high standards and help all kids to achieve their full potential. For many of these kids, a good education really is their very best hope in life. Being in receipt of a label can often magnify the negative aspects of a child’s personality, and have a tragically stultifying effect on progress. As a teacher it is more than saddening to hear a child say, “I can’t read that because I’m dyslexic”, or, “I couldn’t help breaking that because of my ADHD”. In my experience, these labels can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of low-achievement and negative consequences, which is the polar opposite to the effect we are aiming for. As teachers, and other professionals working with children, surely our aim is to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive? The question is, in the pursuit of this aim, can labels sometimes do more harm than good?

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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11 Responses to Labels, are they always the answer?

  1. Pingback: The 5th Echo Chamber Blogpost of the Week (as featured in the Chalk Talk Podcast) | The Echo Chamber

  2. Thanks for explaining your take on labels in more detail.

    I completely agree that labels can be unhelpful and counterproductive. Dyslexia, ADHD and autism all started life as useful descriptive shorthand terms, but over the decades have become reified into supposed medical disorders, for the reasons you cite. The main reason being the requirement for medical insurance companies in the US to have a formal diagnosis prior to agreeing to fund treatment.

    But what concerned me about this post and your previous one, is that you do appear to be making an implicit assumption that the kids in question *don’t* have a medical disorder. I don’t think you are saying that, but that’s how it comes across to me.

    For example, you refer to ‘the (real?) underlying issues that are at play here’ and then cite ‘society and family problems’ but blame the children’s labels for preventing them getting the decent education that will be their best escape route. Now, unless I’m very much mistaken, mainstream teachers have never, in the 150 years of the English state education system, had proper training in special needs education as part of their ITT. That means that if you have difficulties with learning, for whatever reason, it’s quite likely that you won’t get suitable support in school whether you have a label or not. It’s clear these children haven’t or they wouldn’t be in a PRU. And in your previous post, you said that the cause of the problem was that the children didn’t know who was in charge.

    Obviously, the children’s lives would improve if they did as they were told at school and made the most of their opportunities, but that clearly hasn’t happened, and doesn’t look as if it’s likely to, so it might be worth asking the kids why. Their answers might provide some insights into the best way forward.

    • cazzypot2013 says:

      I agree with you that more SEN training for ALL teachers would be helpful. I’m also pleased that you agree that many of the labels can be unhelpful.
      I do try to stress (in both blogs) that some of the kids almost certainly do have genuine conditions…perhaps I’m not putting that across strongly enough?
      Thank you for commenting again.

  3. You express yourself very clearly and sensitively – and I am sure there are many people who understand exactly the points you are endeavouring to make.

    Well done – and don’t be fearful – don’t tread on egg shells.

    Just carry on describing your thoughts and findings so well.

    The points you are raising are hugely important.

    X

  4. I just wanted to comment on this: ” Many pupils have siblings who demonstrate similar behaviour. Weekly, we see parents who openly admit that they are struggling to cope. In several cases, there are drug and/or alcohol issues within the family. Some of the children are dirty and/or underfed. Some of the parents are illiterate.”

    As so many neurodevelopmental disorders have a genetic predisposition, wouldn’t the above point to not just the child being affected, but also the parents and siblings? Could it be that the families are struggling to cope because they too have similar conditions to their children which have never been formally diagnosed. If some of the parents are illiterate then it stands to reason that they will have had the same difficulty in school when they were children as their own children are having now.

    It seems to me that rather than looking at labels as being over used, assessment and diagnosis in these families is actually being underused.

    • cazzypot2013 says:

      It could certainly be the case, yes. As I say in my blog(s), there is no doubt that some of these children do have very specific conditions. These conditions could indeed be hereditary, it’s true. However, I still do strongly suspect that many are being ‘labelled’ incorrectly. It’s such a complex area and It’s very interesting to read what others think. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  5. Pingback: Discussing @Cazzypot’s Blog: Labels, are they always the answer? | cherrylkd

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