I’ve been in teaching a lot of years, which is long enough for me to be familiar with many children and the labels that seek to define them. And though I truly believe that there is no one way to be normal, I’ve taught enough children to recognize one who is not managing well in the classroom, a child overwhelmed by what his or her classmates consider mundane.

I have spent most of my teaching years in preschool. Often children that I teach have yet to be diagnosed with this or that label. Mom has yet to cry. Maybe I am the first person to make her cry. Perhaps I am the one to tell her that the child she thought was so perfect might not be considered perfect by the rest of the world, that the possibility exists for her child to be the recipient of a dreaded label.

People are for and against labels, for varied and sometimes valid reasons. Some people want children labeled as if the label in and of itself would help the child. A parent fights against a label if he or she thinks it’s going to hurt the child. A parent fights for the label if he or she thinks it might help his or her child. I’ve even overheard my own children’s pediatrician wonder aloud at how a certain label will affect insurance benefits.

Autism, sensory integration disorder, dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar–the label options have multiplied considerably since I was a child. But each child with autism and each child with ADD has an individual story; each of them is a unique and wonderful person, a miracle really, just like anyone else.

So what does the label really mean? In my mind the best labels are only this: a toolbox. They give the teacher, the parent, and ideally the child a new set of tools, a way to cope with the world around them that they didn’t have before. The label says to the child, the parent, the teacher, “Here is your toolbox. Here are ways other children have successfully coped with some of your same struggles. Maybe one of these tools will help you, too. Maybe then your days can be a little easier, a little less traumatic, a little more even keeled.”

In an ideal world, a label would also give the parents, the teachers and the child support. The toolbox would also say, “Here’s your support! Here is somebody to help you operate in class because you might have missed the oral instructions. She might walk with you in line in the hallway too, because that seems like a rough time for you. Here Mom, here Dad, here is a nanny because we know that you had to go to therapy today instead of cooking that dinner you really wanted. And here Mom, here Dad, here teacher, here is someone to help you fill out the paperwork. Because all labels produce lots and lots of paperwork.”

That would be ideal. But it’s not what we have. Most of what we have these days are strategies, sometimes medication, and very, very little in the way of support. We have leftover stigma from days gone by. We have preconceptions and plenty of frustration.

I say all this not to say “poor teacher” or “poor parent” or even “poor child”.

The reason I am writing this is to explain that there are not “sides” and this is not a battle.

Your child’s teacher may be beaten down by a decrepit, overworked system. Or she may be fresh out of college and full of ideals. Your child’s teacher may love children. She may be exhausted at the end of the day and dread grading papers at night. She may have taught for 30 years. She might be tired. Or your child’s teacher may be 70 years old and still a spring chicken. Your child’s teacher may be teaching a grade level she doesn’t like or subject she’s not comfortable with.

She enjoys summer and winter break to be sure, or she moonlights during vacations. But your child’s teacher most certainly went into teaching not for the winter break and not even for the summer break, but because she loved children, had something to offer children, and had a good rapport with children.

And if your child’s teacher has to tell you that your child’s behavior is not typical of the peer group, it’s not because she doesn’t like your child. And it’s not because her job is too hard and the expectations are so high (although they are). It’s definitely not because she wants more paperwork.

I can only speak for myself, but if I have taught your child, I have loved your child. I have loved your child regardless of whether he or she had special needs, struggled, or soared immediately upon entering the classroom. And if I have asked you whether you have considered this or that screening, whether you have questioned your child’s pediatrician about a certain behavior or lack thereof, whether you would mind if an outside observer spent time in our classroom, it is for this reason and this reason alone: I want your child to soar too.

Jill Morgenstern is a teacher, wife, and mother. She writes about her family and the ridiculous at http://DoTryThisAtHome.net


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  1. Labels can also be wrong, which is my current struggle. We were okay with labels, for all the reasons listed here. But on a whim, I went to the doctor first.

    Turns out my kid has epilepsy. A label, for sure, but with radically different treatment than the ADD that we had suspected.

    Thanks for writing this. I think it is true for most teachers.

    • It’s SO hard to tell, isn’t it Kristy? It’s great that you got it figured out! I think that it’s just so important to keep the lines of communication open, because once they’ve been closed off for whatever reason, it’s only that much harder to find what’s best for the child.

  2. With Aspergers in the family (my husband and our 7 year old), I understand the value of labels.

    Great teachers help, though, no matter what. 🙂

    • Thanks Marie! They really CAN be key when we need strategies and/or treatment, I think. But it’s also understandable that people will be afraid. I think it’s just so important to find out what’s right for the child as best one can, and if teachers and parents can be on the same team…we can head into the scary territory with a partner.

  3. I’ve dealt with labels, too. With a 3 year-old who couldn’t talk…a son with epilepsy…

    Yes, labels are a tool. They help us to better understand the child and help him. Wonderful article.

  4. I really appreciate teachers and this article. Teachers spend all day with our children and I would always want to know if my child’s teacher felt there was something different happening in my child’s brain. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Thank you Megan! I think, you know, that teachers are just able to provide one more perspective – a bonus set of eyes. But the thing is it’s a set of eyes that sees the child in a VERY different environment than where mom, dad, or pediatrician sees the child.

  6. love what you said about labels being a toolbox! That’s exactly how they should be viewed and should help the child to figure out how they learn. Sadly many times this isn’t the case and some children are diagnosed and medicated for simply being children.

  7. This topic is near and dear to my heart. Both my dad and my and my brother have been diagnosed with ADHD for as long as I can remember. There have been wonderful teachers and mentors who have worked with them and helped them to push the boundaries of what they were able to do. There have also unfortunately been teachers and mentors who have written them off before they even stepped through the classroom or office door.

    I wish so much for them to be understood and for people to have compassion whether or not they have a label. I have the stigma surrounding the labels and do my best to calmy explain any time someone mentions something derogatory about ADD, ADHD, or any other label. Thanks for bringing some light on the situation!

    • Thank you Megan! I think that we’ve come such a long way in one generation – it was so much different when I was a kid! Hopefully things will keep improving so that one day we can look back at the stigma and difficult times with disbelief!

  8. “…if I have taught your child, I have loved your child.” I find this true of most teachers who sincerely want the best for their students. Good stuff, Jill.

  9. I really admire today’s teachers with all of the extra pressures and paperwork. As a former classroom teacher, I know that it’s more than I could handle (along with raising a family). This is a great reminder that parents and teachers are on the same team!

    • That’s what I wish we all would remember Melissa. It’s so strange to me how all anyone really wants is the very, very best for the child. And yet, we seem to get so caught up in being defensive or who is right and who is wrong that sometimes the fact that we’re on the exact same team can get lost in the shuffle.

  10. Such an important post. I think as parents we tend to get defensive when a “label” is put on our child but in reality, it opens the door for opportunities to understand and as you say, “it’s a toolbox”.

  11. This is an interesting perspective. We found that something is off with our 7 year old son. He tests 3 years behind in some areas like reading and fine motor skills. He is homeschooled, so he gets a lot of one on one work.

  12. Good for you! There is a good point regarding the actual use of labels/diagnosis – They are not meant to hold a child back but provide guidance to the professional. The problem is, as you stated, many parents have the misconception their baby is perfect because imperfection might be labeled as bad parenting. Even with the perfect environment a child will never be perfect. They must grow and develop and learn how to make their own choices in their best interest. I think it is important for parents to realize that parenting is not about the child and family and community.

    I often wonder if teachers realize that they are more than just an educator in the life of a child; they are a member of that child’s village that is raising them. Sounds like you “get it” and I appreciate that.

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