As a kindergarten teacher I’ve seen a lot of children with disabilities. At least one or more of my students each year has a labeled disability- something recognized, tested, and monitored. Professionals from the special education department meet with the parents and with me and sometimes with other outside providers to discuss student progress, changing needs, testing, etc. We work as a team to make sure the student is receiving all the help they need to reach their potential. I might have to accommodate the student with extra tutoring or a front row seat or extra homework or no homework or any number of minor or major changes. One year I had a student who required, and greatly benefitted from, a squeeze ball! He kept it in one hand while writing with the other. It made a vast difference in his behavior and his work. I’m all for that!
One thing I have noticed over the years is that children with labeled disabilities have a distinct disadvantage that few people seem to discuss. That disadvantage is the label itself.
Testing and labeling a child is wonderful on the one hand. It gives you that “aha” moment-“Okay, now we know what is wrong and we can proceed with a plan to help this child.” On the other hand, once the label is attached, everyone seems to forget that there is a child underneath the label. Parents are especially prone to see everything their child does as somehow related to the disability. I’ve had parents assume that their ADD child is doing “xyz” because they have ADD, when in fact their child and every other child in my class is doing “xyz” because they are five. But once that label is on, it is often difficult to see ordinary behavior.
Another thing that the label does is require frequent testing and monitoring. This means that a parent will now know more about their child than they would have if the child was “normal”. They will have a whole folder of scores and charts and information about their child’s strengths and weaknesses in whatever areas are affected by the disability. However, it is always the weaknesses that they show me first. It is the weaknesses that concern them. My usual reaction is “have you seen my math scores?” Sometimes they get my point, sometimes they don’t.
My point is this- we ALL have strengths and weaknesses! Every student in my class has a whole range of high and low scores in different areas. None of us is perfect or even balanced in strengths and weaknesses, yet that seems to be what we are trying to achieve with these labeled children. We try to make the charts and graphs and scores come out even. We try to make these children achieve in every area of their lives. We seem to think that because they are blind or hearing impaired or hyperactive it would be a further burden if they couldn’t do algebra. Well, I’m here to tell you that I’ve led a full life without it!
Yes, I want my children with labeled speech problems to be more articulate, use better vocabulary, and have more confidence. However, half my class needs to be more articulate, use better vocabulary, and have more confidence! Yes, I want my ADD kids to be able to concentrate on lessons and listen to me attentively. But I wish their non-ADD classmates would do the same!
I suppose I am the person most “removed” from the disability and my heart and ego are the least affected. So sometimes I can be blunt. Sometimes I just look at parents and say “She’s five. This isn’t about her disability. This isn’t about her test scores. She’s five. This is about figuring out who she is and what she is doing and how to do it. She’s not going to be good at everything. No one is good at everything. We just don’t know all the things the normal kids are struggling with because they haven’t been tested and scrutinized.”
Which brings me to that term “normal”- What is normal and who among us qualifies? I guarantee you that if every one of us was subjected to the detailed testing that some of these children go through we would be amazed at the results. If every child in my classroom was given the battery of tests that my disabled children are given we would probably label ALL of them with something.
I try my best to teach each child, and not their disability. I try to connect with their personality and their learning style. I try to be firm, but friendly. I strive to help each child be successful . If they have a label, I try not to let it get in our way.