Too many adults assume that if a child is struggling there’s something wrong. It’s unhelpful and unfair to those with dyslexia, ADHD and other conditions
“You don’t want to be in 4J, you’ll get dyslexia.”
This has been the standing joke in our staffroom for years, owing to the teacher’s over-zealous approach to diagnosing any child not brilliant at reading as “dyslexic”. She’s a great teacher who is passionate about children and who gets good results (which could be why she needs to find a reason for anyone not making the grade under her watchful eye). However she is a labeller – one of the many idealistic adults who can’t bear to believe a child is less than perfect unless it’s because there’s something wrong with him or her that’s nobody’s fault.
The range of options available to the discerning child-labeller is growing: social issue, learning difficulty, behavioural need, obsessive tendency, food intolerance or – my all time favourite – being “on the spectrum”. As a teacher I find this immensely frustrating for a number of reasons. First, the diagnosis is often performed by someone with no skills, qualifications or expertise – a well-meaning colleague, an over-concerned parent, a kindly friend. The only requisite is that they have access to the internet or have seen a TV programme about the condition in question. Second, it is upsetting and insulting to people who battle with genuine problems that others casually assign themselves and most of all because we as teachers are increasingly forced to pander to them.
I am an experienced class teacher and special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco). I have a real passion for helping children with additional needs. I don’t profess to know everything and I constantly worry something may go unnoticed and a child won’t get the help required. In that respect I certainly don’t object to parents or professionals who raise concerns, research conditions, investigate options or seek professional opinions. But it’s not fair to those who genuinely struggle for others to use the label to disguise other issues.
Last term a parent informed me that their child had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reading a list from Google of the “symptoms”. It was difficult to persuade the parent to consider other possibilities. “Difficulty paying attention”, “hyperactive” and “impulsive” could at times describe most of the children in my school, yet I sincerely doubt they all have ADHD. But try to find a way to suggest a child is in need of attention, has a high-sugar diet or suffers from a lack of boundaries and you suddenly realise how much more appealing ADHD is. It can be nigh on impossible as a teacher to resolve these (often more obvious) issues until you’ve expended a great deal of time and effort ruling out the sought-after diagnosis.
Dyslexia is another favourite. When Professor Julian Elliott challenged the “dyslexia myth” in 2005, there was uproar. Waves of dyslexia-believers took their stance against his blasphemy, and it became more fashionable than ever before. At parents’ evenings, if I mention that any child is struggling to read or spell I know dyslexia will crop up. I’ve heard all sorts of reasoning (usually unrelated to assessing the child’s abilities and needs): “It runs in the family”, “our neighbour had it and he said Harry’s definitely got it”, “I’ve always thought her father was dyslexic” and, of course, “I’ve looked it up online and it’s definitely what he’s got”. I want a conversation about specific areas of concern and ways we can help, not dyslexia. Of course it may be dyslexia – let’s not rule that out – but by jumping to conclusions we could overlook other possible causes and deprive the child of more holistic support.
Food problems are another minefield and one that, as educators not medics, we have no sway in. I’ve experienced the agony of parents whose children have been hospitalised with near-fatal allergies or ravaged with cruel diseases like Crohn’sand coeliac. These experiences make it harder to swallow the fact that Jemima “can’t have bananas because they make her feel sick” or Alfie “can’t eat anything red unless it’s ketchup”. Last time I checked, it’s not possible to be allergic to a colour and yes, Alfie might be “on the spectrum” with his aversion to red foods, but I know Alfie, and I highly doubt it. Currently, our school kitchen caters for more than 30 “special diets” . Two of them are for religious reasons and five for medical, but the rest (in my unprofessional and totally controversial opinion) are dubious. Incidentally, I’m not convinced every child who gets short of breath after cross-country needs an inhaler, either, but we have a cupboard full just in case.
If everyone spent less time fretting about the many ways in which our children aren’t perfect and perceiving their natural variations as a defect in need of special treatment, our jobs would be much easier. The more we pander to it, the worse it seems to get: my school’s list of children’s individual needs gets longer every term, and we now have a slot in the weekly staff meeting to help us keep abreast of them all. Of course we need to enable all children to succeed, but part of that is teaching them to embrace their differences and adapt to different situations. We should teach them that it’s normal to be different, not that every version of “different” needs a label and prescription. Adults must model this attitude, otherwise children make up their own allergies because they think it sounds cool and, before you know it, the whole class is allergic to something or other.
For now, though, we have no choice. Suspect as some labels may appear, it generally does less harm to play out the charade – however indulgent it may feel – and provide the special coloured paper, the stress-ball or the alternative school lunch on a coloured plate, than it is to challenge the assumption and be wrong.