Friday, September 30, 2011

Should you get your child "labelled?"

I was speaking yesterday to a mother whose child in Grade 1 is acting up in school. The kid can’t sit still so runs around the classroom. He interrupts the teacher when she’s reading to the kids. He’s throwing stones in the playground, at both teachers and students.

“They want to do some testing on him, but I’m afraid of getting him labeled,” the mother said to me.

Whoa! Did that set off a trip down memory lane for me. “I don’t want to get him labeled,” kept resonating through my brain after she said it.

I was thinking, “Huh? You don’t want to get him labeled?  You actually think he’s not ALREADY labeled? Take it from me. He’s labeled. He’s the "bad kid.”

Though I was not close with this woman and didn’t know her child personally, I decided to share thoughts about my own situation with our son when he was in Grade 1. I’m usually loathe to extrapolate my own personal experiences onto others, yet I felt this was too important to let go. I decided to  speak up. The mother would of course make her own decision about her son, but I wanted her to have another perspective on the situation.

When my son Michael entered Grade 1 after several successful pre-school and kindergarten small classroom experiences in a Montessori school, everything started falling apart. Like this woman’s son, he was disruptive, couldn’t sit still, was throwing stones in the playground during recess, didn’t play well with the other children.Though I knew part of the problem was a large classroom and less personal attention, that couldn't be the only issue.

I spent umpteen hours meeting with his new teacher and the principal trying to come up with ways to help Michael adjust to a 30-kid classroom, without demanding too much of the teacher’s time. Why should my kid eat up the time of a teacher who has so many other children to take care of?

But the teacher, who was new to teaching, basically didn’t try any of the accommodations we came up with. She saw my son as a serious behavioural problem. He was a kid who “acted-up.” And in fact, he WAS all that she said he was. The problem was, she wasn’t interested in why or trying to do something about it.

My son was suffering terribly from all the reprimands and disdain from other kids. They started bullying him, calling him names. They liked seeing him get into trouble and purposely triggered his anger  to see him act up. Michael became more isolated and unhappy. His behaviour was getting worse. He didn’t want to go to school anymore.

My husband and I decided it was time to get a psycho-educational assessment. Our family doctor, who had always thought of our son as just a “busy, active” boy who would outgrow his restlessness, agreed it was time. He was getting into too much trouble.

We got an appointment at the Child Development Clinic at the Hospital for Sick Children here in Toronto.

It was time. Michael was about to be expelled. When they let him back in the following semester, the plan was to put him straight into a classroom for children with behavioural problems. They didn't even consider the classroom for children with learning disabilities. Nor did we. We didn't know if he had any.

When I told my friends about the appointment for an assessment, several were shocked, and said so. “You’ll get him labeled.”  “A label will follow him the rest of his life.”  “Teachers will just see him as a label.”  “He’s just a busy, creative guy. The teachers don’t appreciate how smart and creative he is.”  “They might want to give Michael drugs.”  “Michael’s just his own person. Don’t let anyone put a label on him because he’s a little different.”

I was pretty shocked myself. With them. Why were they so adamant? What was so bad about a label? What if Michael had a learning disability or other, perhaps physical problem that affected his ability to learn and get along with other children in school?  If we understood the problem, we could get help for him. Intervene. He was suffering with the status quo. Do kids act up and get in trouble for no reason?

I began thinking that perhaps people’s stridency against testing and possible use of medication  reflected an ideology more than it did actual concern for the well-being for my son. Teachers are bad. Psychologists are bad. Labels are bad. Drugs are bad. Maybe, but not necessarily. I’m smart enough to know when I’m getting bad information or advice. No one knows my kid better than I do.  I’m not going to let anyone put my kid on a drug without thoroughly assessing the situation. Why should knowledge or input from other people be a bad thing?

Back to the original issue. Afraid to get the kid labeled?  He’s already labeled.
He’s bad.

In our case, after an extremely thorough assessment of tests, exams and interviews, Michael was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS),  brain damage caused by the alcohol his birth mother drank during her pregnancy with him. Michael’s FASD  (as they now call it) manifested itself in several ways. Severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Learning disabilities. Mild Asperger’s Syndrome-like tendencies as well as mild Obsessive Compulsive symptoms (amongst others). I learned that children with such symptoms, particularly learning disabilities, often exhibit behavioural problems because of their difficulties communicating, understanding social cues, and constant failure in the classroom. They're acting out of desperation. I would too.

Though it was, to put it mildly, disturbing to get the diagnosis, we had come out of the dark. We knew what was wrong with Michael and had some direction how to go about helping him. There were of course no easy answers about “fixing him,” but we knew Michael was no longer bad. It also helped us feel less guilty. Bad parenting wasn't at the root of Michael's problems, as we often feared.

Sure, Michael got another label to replace the old 'bad kid' one, but his diagnosis engendered compassion and empathy from other people. Not scorn and disdain. Once Michael was diagnosed, the Toronto District School Board then actually "labelled" him using the term  LD (learning disablity) as opposed to "Behavioural,"  their designation for two types of children with special needs in the classroom. He was placed in an LD class, rather than the other.

I often worried about the kids labelled "Behavioural" and sent to those classes,. How many may have had problems, whether physical, psychological, emotional or environmenal that hadn't been diagnosed and were interfering with their ability to function in the classroom.

Yes, it’s true. Michael's new FASD diagnosis has followed him all his life (Michael is now 24). But along with it has come with a roadmap. A roadmap to help us, and other people not only help him, but understand him.

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