Friday, July 29, 2011

Labeling Children (and making it work)

Autism. Learning disability. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. In my days as a school psychologist, it was my job to categorize children according to their disabilities. Now it's not my job, but I still think labels are useful. Labeling a child helps others know how to respond to challenging behavior.

The problem with labels is people get lazy. A label should be one way to describe a child, not the only way. When children's disabilities are labeled, though, many people assume they know everything about the child. They don't take time to learn a child's personality or preferences. They assume, for example, that Hayley (who has AD/HD) cannot pay attention and never try to include her in soccer drills that require concentration. They never learn that she loves to play goalie and wants to learn more about the game. They assume Mike (who has autism) hates loud noises and prefers to be left alone. They never learn that he loves competition and is a role model of sportsmanship.

Can you tell who has a disability? She's not the one staring into space. J

If you work with children, you will eventually work with a child who has a disability. Here are some tips to improve the experience for you and the child.

* Learn about common symptoms. The child won't necessarily display any of these during his time with you, but if they appear, you'll know which are related to his disability.

* Ask about useful accommodations. Older kids can self-advocate, for younger kids, ask their parents. A child may need time away from a group, regular snacks, directions simplified, or other accommodations. If these can be easily incorporated into your setting, do it! Being fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same thing. Being fair means everyone gets what he needs.

* Remember a disability is an explanation, not an excuse. Hayley used to frequently interrupt while I was giving directions. I would put a hand on her shoulder or verbally remind her to pay attention and continue talking. I didn't allow her behavior to go unchecked and frustrate other kids, but I didn't scold her either. A child should not be punished for behavior stemming from her disability, but she should be held accountable.

* Have fun. This is a child! He has favorite foods and books and hobbies. Sometimes he's in a good mood, sometimes not. He likes to test limits now and then, like other kids. Not everything is related to his disability.

* Use gentle discipline. Sarcasm, yelling, ridicule, gossip, and teasing do not belong in discipline. Period.

* Remember the following: 
  • Patience is a virtue.
  • You are the adult; don’t allow yourself to be manipulated into anger.
  • Children want to be loved and praised.
  • Relationship building is the best way to manage behavior.
  • This child is going home soon. J


  1. "Being fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same thing. Being fair means everyone gets what he needs."

    So, so true! I work at a homeschooling academy and I had a student who I think had some kind of LD (and it sounded like mom and dad refused to get her tested). I was talking to the director of the school about my concerns and how I thought that the student might need more time on her tests and that I was willing to work with that. The director went on to say that "it's not fair to the other kids" if this student were to be given more time to take the test. I had to carefully chose my words, but I tried to make it clear that, in fact, it was unfair to the student with the possible LD to be required to take a test in a time frame that was much too short for her to be able to let me know that she actually knew and understood the material that I had taught her. It was very frustrating - and heartbreaking.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear the director was unresponsive -- especially at a homeschooling academy. Good for you for trying to do the right thing. Were you able to work out any alternate assessments, like giving all the kids the option to take a timed test or write a paper, for example?

  3. the next test was part take home and part in class and she did better on it than she did on any of the other tests in the class (it was part take home for everyone). they aren't coming back to the school next year. part of the problem was that mom and dad were not as involved in their schooling as they should have been for having homeschooled children. their (the girl i mentioned and her younger sister)homework assignments quite often were incomplete or incorrect - mom was NOT looking over them before they were turned it. most of the time they didn't even follow the written directions. i think they will actually be better served in a more structured environment like a public or private full-time school.

  4. Well, at least it seems like the parents recognized that the academy wasn't a good fit for their family. Hopefully next year is more successful for her.

  5. some of this information sounds awfully familiar ;)

  6. Shhh! No one has to know I wrote this originally as a hand-out for camp counselors. ;-)