|IKSWAL: Interesting Kids Saddled with Alienating Labels
|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 it."
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 fascinating person.
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 researcher Orchid?
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, 2000).
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, 1999).
||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 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
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Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences as an organizing framework. Dissertation Abstracts
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Carini, P. (1982). The school lives of seven children. Grand Forks: Center for Teaching and Learning,
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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 &
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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: Vintage.
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).
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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, including In 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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