Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Let's embrace the labels....

A few years ago Robyn*, the daughter of a close friend was diagnosed with a severe allergy to nuts. She was 'anaphylactic'. With this diagnosis, came the implementation of a management plan should Robyn have a reaction to nuts. Epi-pens were purchased, teachers were alerted and classmates were kindly requested to keep their peanut butter sandwiches as an after school treat. Robyn has anaphylaxis, she was now one of 'those' kids. However, for Robyn's family it was peace of mind. They knew exactly what had made their child unwell on previous occasions and they were able to inform their community networks of the diagnosis. Sometimes, I hosted Robyn in my house after school until her mum finished work. I was very careful to check everything I offered Robyn, her brother and my own children as I didn't want to risk making Robyn unwell. Yes, it took a little extra effort. Yes, I occasionally had to change the food I fed my own children on those days. Yes, it was my absolute pleasure to demonstrate my love for Robyn and her family by ensuring I didn't give anyone food containing nuts. Rather than making things harder, Robyn's diagnosis made it easier to know exactly what I could and couldn't feed her. What a relief!

Many years ago, I taught Foundation (Prep). I loved teaching little people how to conduct themselves at school and introduce them to the formal disciplines of literacy and numeracy. However, this was also the time when I had to sit down with some parents and raise the possibility that their child didn't find the experience of school as easy as their peers did. Perhaps their child didn't come back to the classroom when the bell rang, perhaps they were the ones who wouldn't let go of their parents EVERY morning, perhaps they were the one who were so withdrawn they wouldn't speak to me, perhaps they were eating chalk when they thought I wasn't looking, perhaps they were incredible at mathematics but couldn't hold a pencil properly in order to write their name legibly. The list went on and on.

I loved every child I taught, but for some students, I needed more information so that I could truly cater to their needs and ensure that they received the support they needed in order to thrive. I wanted a label! Now before you all get angry at me for wanting to label children, hear me out.....I don't want children to get diagnosed with something just so I can pop them into a box labelled 'different'. I want children to receive a diagnosis so that I can use research-proven, evidence-based methods to teach the child in a way that will work for them. I want to love that child and their family by getting to the heart of what will allow them to thrive.

If you tell me that a child has trouble with expressive language (they find it hard to communicate their ideas), then I won't expect them to sit down and write a two page story in a 1.5 hour lesson. Instead, I will give them time to draw a picture of their story idea. I will allow them to talk with other children about their ideas. I will celebrate the fact that they managed to write the opening paragraph and communicate the setting of the story whilst their peers are being asked to edit their completed two page stories. When I know a child is learning with the added impact of a recognised learning difficulty, I will change the rules and move the goal posts so that my students still experience success.

What about children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder? When a parent tells me their child has received this diagnosis, I set out on a little mission to discover what does and doesn't work for that child. I will watch their body language all the more closely to make sure that they are feeling comfortable and safe within my classroom. A child cannot learn if they are always on edge, trying to cope with the constant changes and interruptions that naturally occur in the classroom. If I find the child huddling under my desk after lunch, I won't demand they come out and act 'sensibly', because at that moment, hiding under the desk is the best thing they can do to calm themselves down. However, if one of my other students, who do not live with the added pressure of a learning difficulty, thinks he can go hiding under my desk for a bit of fun......he will be promptly asked to get out from under my desk and get on with what he is meant to be doing.

Learning that your child has a diagnosed condition does not limit your child. It actually gives your child the opportunity to be understood and appreciated for who they truly are. It allows educators to tailor their teaching in a way that will actually work for your child. It prevents your child for being punished for not doing things that they are actually not yet able to do and it prevents your child for being disciplined for engaging in behaviours that they need to engage in in order to calm themselves down and feel safe. If a teacher asks you to investigate whether your child has a learning difficulty, embrace the opportunity to explore your child's strengths and weaknesses. Finding a label may actually be the most liberating thing you can do for your child.

*Not her real name

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