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Labels and Learning Disabilities @ Atheneum School

Labels and Learning Disabilities


Learning Disabilities and Labels: Helpful and Harmful? In the attempts to help educators identify difficulties in student learning, many new labels are coming into use. Learning disabilities or "disorders" such as Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, auditory and visual processing disorders, and nonverbal learning disorders etc. are all widely talked about and can be confusing for parents. To further complicate matters, some are demanding serious medications. How much do these labels benefit and how much might they do harm? My worry is that the understanding between teacher and student that comes from direct experience and meaningful dialogue gets clouded or confused by these diagnosed "disorders." I also often wonder where these diagnoses come from. Can parents, teachers, counselors, or psychologists accurately diagnose these disorders? In my personal experience as a teacher the student often does not fit these labels and their performance completely outstrips their diagnosed potential. I don't think I am alone in this observation. Other teachers and parents have spoken about their frustrations with these labels and categories that can determine a student's future. Our nationally standardized school system has a very narrow way of measuring intelligence. If your child does not fit that narrow system, and does not do well in it, he or she is likely to be judged with learning disabilities or disorders. It is unfortunate that the children are being seen as limited rather than the school system where the real limitations lie. What is even sadder is that children tend to accept these labels as parts of their personal identity. It is bad enough that parents, teachers, peers, and society in general accept these labels as disorders in learning or limitations to the student's intellectual potential. Worse yet is the lack of confidence or mistaken view the students have of themselves! We need to reverse this trend and see that the system of education is limited, full of disorders, and is failing to recognize or meet the needs of creative learners. Of course we want our youth to be successful in the school system, and they can be by changing not only the role of the teacher but also what can be a cruel and dehumanizing system of education. At Atheneum School, we emphasize "paideia", a Greek word for  “leading out or drawing out" the student's ideas. This emphasis encourages teachers to ask questions as much as give answers, and carefully lets students exchange their own ideas and opinions in dialogue with each other and the teacher. The teacher actually learns with the students in this approach. The traditional school system emphasizes the opposite approach in which teachers pass information to the students who absorb it and give it back on a test. The teacher plays the role of the expert and students are essentially passive.  At Atheneum our emphasis helps see potential beyond the labels and creates an interactive atmosphere for growth and exploration. While initially searching for solutions to a student's difficulty, it is easy to take things lightly and experiment a bit. I have decided to practice keeping these labels in the background rather than upfront. I believe it is important to discover the student's potential without limits first. Is this not the way we should greet people in general? Then one can see the creative mind and/or ways of thinking that may be very effective but not fitting the categories created and measured by a standardized, artificial system. To the student who says," I can't do this, I only do that" or I don't like that, I only like this..." what is the proper response? The labels can reinforce being stuck in "because I have Dysgraphia, I can't write... or I don't like writing..." then add a whole array of labels and wonder why the student feels hopeless! We need to challenge the idea and the label and instead pursue ways of genuinely seeking true potential. In our 25 years of work in education in rural and urban Alaska, we have had students break out of so many labels. For example, one student previously diagnosed with learning disabilities became a PHD and teaches at a college level. Others thought that they were terrible at mathematics and always would be because they were diagnosed with Dyscalculia. After graduation, some have become engineers or math teachers in universities! If they had stayed with the labels that were so misleading that they might never have achieved these careers!  Entrepreneurship is within many students’ potential, but most are so ingrained in the system and stuck in the labels, that they will work for someone else. Proof of this potential lies in the students who start their own businesses before they even graduate from high school! Let's try to greet our students human to human and leave the potential open as much as possible and listen for progress. Everyone has special needs when it comes to learning; everyone has special ways of thinking and solving problems. Rather than impose our way by force or labels, let's find out what students are really capable of.
Atheneum School is a non-profit 501c3 Corporation. All donations are tax-deductible. Atheneum School admits qualified students & staff members of any gender, race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, color and national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs administered by the school.