It’s my label and I’ll wear it if I want to!

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

Yesterday I wrote a piece “When in doubt apply a label” in which I discussed the controversy that surrounds the categorisation of children. Within the article I mentioned Julian Elliott’s recent work published in his book The Dyslexia Debate. A couple of respondents from Canada, Ireland and India posted comments on this blog but I also received an interesting observation from a friend here in the UK. She was unaware of the blog until her daughter, a local teacher, drew her attention to yesterday’s piece. Having read what I wrote she felt obliged to telephone me and give me her perspective.

She began the conversation by telling me she thought I had overlooked an important point. She wasn’t angry, at least not with me, but she was disappointed by an education system that had failed her at school. She went on to tell me that at the age of twenty two, she was assessed and diagnosed as dyslexic. This diagnosis, she related came after having been labelled as a complete failure at school by many of her teachers and also by her father. Alice (not her real name) had finished school at age sixteen with virtually no qualifications and left only with a feeling of relief that her school days were behind her. As far as she was concerned she was finished with education which she saw as having provided her with little more than misery. She left school with a negative view of teachers and very few friends. Even worse, her father who was a successful business man, accused her of being lazy and wasting her educational opportunities.

Having left school Alice had a succession of jobs, none of which she found particularly satisfying until an opportunity arrived for her to work for a national chain of florists delivering flowers to individual customers and floral displays for corporate events. She enjoyed this work and at last found some satisfaction in her life. At about the same time she married and all was going well for her. Then fate took a hand in her life. After two years in her delivery job her boss approached her one day and offered her a promotion to work in the office. Alice says that she immediately panicked, knowing that she would not be able to cope with the demands of office work. Her boss was surprised when she turned the job down, he knew she was newly married and would probably appreciate the increased salary that came with an office job and he believed she had the right personality for the position. He pushed her to take the post and with great apprehension Alice agreed to give it a try for three months on the condition that she could return to delivery work if it didn’t work out.

Alice told me how after a week in the office she was in a complete panic. She found herself adopting the very same strategies that she had used in school to avoid demonstrating the difficulties she had with reading and mathematics. She spent a restless weekend after her first week in the office post and on the following Monday had resolved that she had to see her boss and give him the full truth about why she couldn’t do the job. She described to me how much courage it took for her to sit in the office and tell her boss that she had difficulties performing the required level of reading tasks and that she didn’t want to continue in the post. However, she had not expected the reaction that she got from the man sitting opposite her.

Her boss asked her about her experiences at school and she told him about her struggles with learning. He immediately sympathised and told her that his experiences had been similar, but that the school which he attended rather than seeing him as lazy or stupid decided to provide him with extra support. With the cooperation of his parents he was given additional structured lessons to assist him in overcoming his reading difficulties. He described how a teacher had built an entire reading programme for him built around Leicester City Football Club match programmes and other related materials knowing that was his area of interest. With time his reading improved and he managed to leave school having done reasonably well in his final examinations, but more importantly feeling confident in his own abilities.

Alice’s boss told her that he would not let her give up the office job as he thought she had the personality to make a success of the post. He wanted her to stay on in the office and would give her an assistant to help with the things she found difficult, but on one condition. He would arrange for Alice to have an assessment of her learning needs and the company would then pay to provide any additional training that she needed. At this point Alice told me she had dreadful visions of returning to the classroom, but her boss was both insistent and kind.

I listened to Alice’s story over the phone recognising that it was probably a bold decision that she had made to call me and tell me her story. I attended to what she had to say without interruption as she then carried on to recount how she had gone for an assessment with a very sympathetic lady. The assessment lasted nearly two hours after which she was asked, “has nobody ever suggested to you that you might be dyslexic?” Alice says that she had never heard the term until that point. The specialist who had conducted the assessment explained how the word dyslexia was being used and that with the right kind of support many of Alice’s difficulties could be addressed.

From that day on, Alice told me, I realised that I was not stupid and that there was a reason why I struggled so badly at school. “I read your article on the blog”, she told me “and I thought someone should tell you the other side of the story.” Following the assessment Alice returned to reading lessons and quickly learned strategies that had never been made available in school. She retained the office post and was in fact promoted further a couple of years later. She remains bitter (her word) about her school experiences describing these as lost years. She is convinced that had the label of dyslexia been applied to her early in her schooling she would have been more likely to receive the support she requires.

Alice may be right. There’s no way we can tell. I personally don’t believe that we should wait until a formal diagnosis has been given before we recognise that children need additional help with learning. I also believe that it should have been possible to provide the support Alice needs without applying the term dyslexia.

I sent this piece to Alice so that she could read it and give me consent to post it on this blog. She was happy to do this (as long as I changed her name) saying that maybe it would encourage others to think more about her experiences. We discussed my view that a label should not be necessary in order for a child to receive appropriate teaching. She tells me that she agrees but equally that she thinks me naïve and suspects that many more children will consider themselves to be failures and furthermore will believe it is their fault unless they are given the right messages. “For me,” she said, “knowing that I am dyslexic and not stupid or lazy, is important. It’s my right to wear this label if it helps me to feel better about myself ”.

Thank you Alice for sharing your story. I do hope that others might contribute to this discussion.

9 thoughts on “It’s my label and I’ll wear it if I want to!

  1. Hi Richard- Everyone has different perspectives and each is valid in its own way, but I fully agree when you say that “I personally don’t believe that we should wait until a formal diagnosis has been given before we recognise that children need additional help with learning. I also believe that it should have been possible to provide the support Alice needs without applying the term dyslexia.” Certainly we do not have a perfect or often even an adequate system, but I dont think labels have helped to improve things over the years as a general rule. Time for a fresh approach.

  2. Hi Richard., I had a similar experience to Alice’s. Before my son was diagnosed , the teachers who were supporting him were teaching in a way they would teach all pupils.It was only after his diagnosis that he started getting appropriate help. Here, teachers aren’t skilled or trained to teach different learners. Many of them are also unaware that children learn differently. If a child isn’t performing, he’s labled lazy, careless, etc or if he has behaviour issues than his parents and family are labled too. In my case, the diagnostic label has helped to find the appropriate help for my son and also guided me as a parent. Had the disgnostic label not come at the time it did, I would’ve wasted precious time in providing the right support and right hands for my son. I see having diagnostic label as scientific n essential as getting a diagnosis of diabetes and hypertension. I also realise its negative connotations but believe that it all boils down to the attitude in which you take it.

  3. Dear Richard,
    I wholeheartedly agree that you should not wait for a diagnosis before intervening. It is a sad state of affairs that Alice was not supported in her schooling. I think the RTI model in the US is an option worth exploring. I get so angry and frustrated when I hear teachers and parents describe a child as being lazy. I tell them think about why a child is reluctant to read or write. Be cause it is not yet a pleasureable and effortless experience. None of us particularly like to do things that we think we are not good at and find difficult to do.

  4. Hi Everyone,
    Thanks for your responses. I think they indicate quite clearly the conflicting experiences and situations that we all face in education. It is a sad fact that a label can result in the gaining of resources, reassurance for some parents and students and a greater empathy with a child’s needs. It is equally true to say that waiting for a diagnosis is likely to lead to lost time in respect of intervention. I think we need to explore this matter further and ensure that we all try to see the whole range of perspectives that are out there.
    I’m sure you thoughts on these matters are at least as important as those that I have posted so far.

  5. I am not sure that the “label” has really helped my son – it makes him feel different in a situation where he would prefer not to stand out. Since his “diagnosis” I am overwhelmed with the number of people I meet who have dyslexia in one form or another (mostly in the creative industry!). We all learn differently and many of the strategies for dealing with dyslexia would benefit other children and mainstream teaching should (& often does) include these aspects, however I was shocked at how many of his teachers were unaware my son had this problem and had just assumed that he was poor at English despite being brilliant at Maths & Science.
    There is so much more to Dyslexia than reading problems and I understand that specialist help can make a huge difference. Sadly to justify this help you need to give it a title and Dyslexia sounds so much more acceptable than Special Needs.

    • Hi Louisa,
      The fact that, as you rightly say, we all learn differently, is key here. Unfortunately there are still some teachers who find it difficult to adjust their teaching in a way that addresses a diverse range of learning needs. Perhaps we should apply labels to the conveyors of learning rather than those in receipt. I will be returning to your point about having to have a label in order to receive support. Thanks for contributing to our thinking here.

      • On a tangent I remember meeting a gent who was “diagnosed” with aspergers in his 50s. He was greatly relieved that there were others who felt and behaved in the same way as he did, and wished the diagnosis could have come earlier in his life – it would have saved him a lot on angst.

  6. Today, I met a couple and their daughter who is 6 years old. They have applied for admission to Pramiti’s elementary programme. The child goes to a much reputed mainstream school in Bangalore. The little girl with her finger on her lip looked at me as I spoke to the parents and also with her. She was very shy. Her parents showed me her books and she had scored full marks and close to full marks in all subjects at grade 1 and had starts and good, excellent in all the pages. Yet, they wanted to move her out. Why? They felt over pressured and the child felt over pressured. If the child got a 47 out of 50 even once the teachers would tell her that she is losing focus and that she can do far better. This has been going on for some time. The pressure of being the best or one of the top scorers. So, what label do we have for this child? What do we have to say about our system that does not allow a 6 year old to learn in peace? The parents are moving the child now to Pramiti. The father just said – we want our child to share, explore, learn in joy and we believe you will give her opportunities for that.

  7. I can think of an appropriate label for a school that creates such pressure! However, I suspect that this is not so much the fault of the teacher as of the system in which she/he operates. We have created education as a competition rather than an experience for the development of tolerance, understanding and a desire for learning. Take the child into Pramiti, I’m sure she will benefit greatly.

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