|IKSWAL: Interesting Kids Saddled with
|by Thomas Armstrong
Imagine living in a world where everyone was a flower instead of a human being. In
such a floral society, it's likely that the psychiatrists would be roses. Now, imagine
that the psychiatrist calls in his first patient: a lily. "Hmm," says Rose.
"I can see that we might have a problem here!" He looks Lily over carefully
and then gives his diagnosis: "I'm sorry to inform you that you have PDD,
otherwise known as Petal Deficit Disorder." Lily leaves, saddened and anxious,
and the next patient, a bluet, comes through the door. Rose gets out his magnifying
glass, examines Bluet minutely, and then declares: "I believe that you have GD,
or Growing Disability. You really are much too small!" Bluet exits, feeling
punched down a few sizes. Finally, a giant sunflower comes through the door, and the
psychiatrist doesn't even have to conduct an examination: "This flower clearly
has Hugeism! Unfortunately, it's genetic, and there's not much we can do about
This story may seem silly, but it serves as a scary metaphor for how we are
treating students these days. Instead of celebrating the natural diversity of all our
students, we package many of their natural differences into neat little pathological
categories. We strip away their humanity by using lifeless words and phrases to talk
about them: "Judy has learning disabilities"; "Roy has ADHD"
(Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder); "Brian was just diagnosed with
autism"; "Billy has PDD" (pervasive Developmental Disorder); "Ed's
got Asperger's syndrome." By adopting these labels as the dominant descriptors of
a student's learning potential, we block ourselves off from understanding who these
children really are. In 1949, George Orwell's bleak futurist novel, 1984, showed how
words can manipulate, dominate, and repress authenticity. Unfortunately, in education,
we have not been vigilant enough to see that we have been similarly negating the
worlds of students through these sterile phrases.
|Let's look at some examples. Twelve-year-old Billy created Rube
Goldberg machines and described the way he thought as "a cross between music and
architecture" (Houston, 1982, p. 137). Nadia, 5, drew pictures that were on a par
with paintings by a mature adult artist (Self, 1977). Peter, 6, did arithmetic
problems by counting the dots on the ceiling tiles in his classroom. Ray, 12, played a
leading role in organizing a teacher's recycling center. High school student Chelsea
choreographed a dance to remember the elements of the periodic table. Stevie, 9, could
find anything that anyone had lost in the classroom or on the school grounds. Brian
won the national swim title for his age group in the breast stroke.
These students are just a small cross-section of the many students whom I have
worked with, read about, or heard about from other educators. All of them are IKSWAL
(Interesting Kids Saddled with Alienating Labels). Unfortunately, in any serious
school discussion about these students among teachers, administrators, and support
staff, what predominates is a discussion of Billy's learning disability, Nadia's
autism, Ray's emotional disturbance, Chelsea's ADHD, or Brian's dyslexia. In catching
hold of the diagnostic label, educators have lost sight of what makes each student a
What Brain Scans Reveal
Some may argue, "But these students really have these disorders! These
disorders have a neurological basis. This is the brain we're talking about!" Yes,
of course, each of these students has a brain - the most complex, mysterious, and
multifaceted organ in the universe. That fact in itself should be an argument in favor
of seeing students not in terms of a mere label but rather in far more complex and
rich terms. Out of trillions of brain connections, how many in each student's brain
are actually deficient? And who is to judge the deficiency? Psychiatrist Rose? Brain
Several brain scan studies have come out recently indicating what is considered a
clear neurological basis for the existence of ADHD (Fine, 2001). These studies - many
of them based on findings of abnormal frontal lobe functioning - have convinced most
people in education that ADHD is a biological disorder. Troubling issues, however,
remain, enough to suggest that giving a scientific stamp of authority to the labels
that we use in our schools may be premature and even ill-founded.
First, a recent review of brain-imaging studies indicated problems with many of
them, including relatively small and often heterogeneous samples and difficulties in
establishing accurate and appropriate diagnoses (Hendren, DeBacker, & Pandina,
Second, the causes of abnormalities in the brain scans of children labeled with
ADHD may be environmental rather than inborn. Brain scan images change as a result of
specific therapeutic interventions (Schwartz, Stoessel, Baxter, Martin, & Phelps,
1996). Moreover, such environmental conditions as stress and trauma may negatively
affect neurological patterns, including prefrontal cortical function in children (perry
& Pollard, 1998). One plausible hypothesis is that some children diagnosed with
ADHD have abnormal prefrontal lobe patterns because of environmental trauma (Amsten,
||Third, and most important, many of the so-called abnormalities seen in
brain scans may actually point more toward differences than abnormalities. In one
brain scan study (Schweitzer et al., 2000), individuals labeled as having ADHD showed
more activity in the region of the brain linked with visual-spatial processing than
did so-called normal individuals, who showed more anterior or frontal lobe activity.
The ADHD-identified subjects reported that while they were doing the required task
during the brain scanning procedure, they pictured images in their heads. In other
words, these scans may not be diagnosing ADHD as much as they are identifying
individuals who process information through pictures and images more than through
sounds and words - individuals who might be expected to have more difficulty in
classroom environments where sounds and words, rather than visualizations, predominate
as teaching techniques.
Many students labeled with learning, attention, and behavioral disorders may have
brains that are not necessarily abnormal but, rather, different. When we value only
restricted ways of learning, behaving, and attending - especially high-stakes-tests
learning, sit-down-in-your-seat-and-look-at-the-blackboard behaving, and focuson-the-vocabulary-word
attending, then we ignore, stifle, or repress the other marvelous things that a
student's brain might be capable of doing. Worksheets, lectures, tests, and labels
are bulldozers that are mowing down our students' rich and diverse "brain
forests," and we should be concerned. Unfortunately, calling these kids
"learning different" is not going to help, for the term has become a
euphemism for learning disabled and many other negative labels that we are using in
our schools today.
What We Can Do
We must be radical and creative in how we think about and describe the learning
potentials of students. We can begin by discarding the medical and scientific
terminology that we have used to label students; it is too sterile to describe the
richness of a student's world as a learner.
Let us bring humanism back into education by employing the wisdom and vocabulary of
literature. For example, the wide range of characters from Shakespeare can serve as a
template of human variation for describing learning differences in students. We might
say for one student, "She is a bit like Puck!"; for another, "He broods
like Hamlet"; while for still another, "He's got the spirit of
Hotspur!" This approach would require educators, of course, to steep themselves
in the great literary tradition of Shakespeare, which some might view as highly
impractical. After all, there's a huge epidemic of SADD, or Shakespeare Attention
Deficit Disorder, a crippling cultural disability sweeping across the land.
The biographies of great individuals could also serve as an organizing framework
for understanding students' special gifts. In speaking of a student labeled with a
behavior disorder, we might say, "He's a regular Churchill, that kid!"; for
a student diagnosed as dyslexic, "He's got that Hans Christian Andersen
storytelling quality in him"; or for a student who writes with semantic force but
is identified with dysorthographia (the inability to spell correctly), "There's
an Agatha Christie in her bursting to get out!" Several disability organizations
have a disconcerting tendency to use such wellknown figures as examples of
"famous people with disabilities." Rather than dragging these great
individuals down to the level of these sterile disability categories, we should lift
up the students weighed down by these labels to something more resembling the rich
complexity of human greatness.
Finally, we should discard the scientific tools of standardized test measures that
have been used for making labels and instead explore other assessment tools borrowed
from phenomenology, hermeneutics, anthropology, and other qualitative methodologies
(Armstrong, 1988; Carini, 1982; Henry, 1963; Nylund, 2000; Sacks, 1996). The test-and-Iabel
approach that dominates the special education landscape today serves only to lure
educators away from the depths and complexities of real students' lives. Let us
nurture all varieties of students' ways of learning - not just as an expression of
hope, but as a matter of daily commitment and practice.
Armstrong, T. L. (1988). Describing strengths in children identified as "learning
disabled" using Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences as an organizing
framework. Dissertation Abstracts International, 48(8A),2038-2039.
Arnsten, A. F. T. (1999). Development of the cerebral cortex: XIV. Stress impairs
prefrontal cortical function. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent
Carini, P. (1982). The school lives of seven children. Grand Forks: Center for
Teaching and Learning, University of North Dakota.
Fine, L. (2001, May 9). Paying attention: Scientists scrutinize the brain for biological
clues to the mysteries of ADHD. Education Week, 20(34), 26-29.
Hendren, R. L., DeBacker, I., & Pandina, G. J. (2000, July). Review of neuroimaging
studies of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders from the past 10 years. Journal of the American
Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 39(1), 815-828.
Henry, J. (1963). Culture against man. New York: Random House.
Houston, J. (1982). The possible human. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
Nylund, D. (2000). Treating Huckleberry Finn: A new narrative approach to working with
kids diagnosed ADD/ADHD. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Perry, B. D., & Pollard, R. (1998). Homeostasis, stress, and adaptation: A
neurodevelopmental view of childhood trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of
North America, 7(1), 33-51.
Sacks, O. (1996). An anthropologist on Mars: Seven paradoxical tales. New York:
Schwartz, J. M., Stoessel, P. W., Baxter, L. R., Jr., Martin, K. M., & Phelps, M. E.
(1996, February). Systematic changes in cerebral glucose metabolic rate after successful
behavior modification treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Archives of General
Psychiatry, 53, 109-113.
Schweitzer, J. B., Faber, T. L., Grafton, S. T., Tune, L. E., Hoffman, J. M., & Kilts,
C. D. (2000). Alterations in the functional anatomy of working memory in adult attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder. American journal of Psychiatry, 157(2), 278-280.
Self, L. (1977). Nadia: A case of extraordinary drawing ability in an autistic child.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
This article was originally published in Educational Leadership, Vol. 59, No. 3, November
2001, pp. 38-41. Reprinted with permission by the author.
Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is a psychologist and educator, and the author of 12 books,
Their Own Way, 7 Kinds of Smart, The Myth
of the A.D.D. Child: 50 Ways to Improve Your Child's Behavior and Attention Span without
Drugs, Labels, or Coercion and The Power
of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain. For
more about his work, visit www.thomasarmstrong.com.
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