Labels: Do They Really Matter?

Whilst I understand that there are those that worry that too much labelling is a bad thing, for me labels matter. They matter a lot.

I understand that in principle the education system works on need, not diagnosis. I also understand that a label travels with a child into adulthood, and that that in itself can have implications.

Both of those factors should be considered.

And I am not by any means suggesting that we should label everyone.

A diagnostic process is essential to ensure that the right children receive labels at the right time. It’s also essential to ensure that those areas of development in which a child is struggling, can’t with intervention be resolved.

However, when, as a professional, looking at a child, you can beyond reasonable doubt identify that they have a condition, they and their family have a right to be be told.

We should not play God. We should not withhold information. And we should not decide that they don’t need to know this information at a given point.

Labels matter to a child and their family for a multitude of reasons.

As an undiagnosed Dyslexic until I was fifteen. I know firsthand the feelings of inadequacy, of frustration, of feeling as though I was a failure. I could not understand why no matter how hard I tried my spelling was atrocious and my handwriting worse. My teenage brain simply thought I was stupid because homework took me so much longer than my peers.

A diagnosis did not change the support I got in school. It did however change the way I viewed myself. Overnight I had a tribe. A clan. I researched strategies, but more than anything I became less frustrated. Three years later I passed A Level English at Grade A, before going onto read English at Cambridge University.

Without a diagnosis, I’m not sure I would have believed in myself enough to apply. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the confidence to argue with such passion in my interview. I went from being someone, who has always believed they couldn’t, to someone who believed they could.

Not knowing was far more painful than knowing.

As a parent a label means that you are not going mad, and that you are not alone. They also mean you have a battering ram with which to get others to listen (which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t).

In the early days, before the Bear’s diagnosis, her nursery’s very limited (read non-existent) knowledge of Autism in girls meant that they were insistent that her difficulties were because she was an only child. And perhaps with hindsight to some degree siblings would have helped. They would have softened some of the edges, she may have been more used to hustle and bustle. But being an only child was not the cause of her meltdowns, nor was it at the cause of her anxiety.

She has never qualified for additional help at school. But I know her diagnosis has affected both the strategies we use at home to tackle problems and the strategies her excellent teachers have used too.

Without a diagnosis, I would have been working in the dark, especially in the early days.

She was too young for CAMHs and ‘too able’ for SEND groups. She was an anomaly, mostly because most girls are diagnosed far later. Books and the internet became my sources, The only way I had to help her. Without a diagnosis, and the early intervention that meant I could give her, our lives would look very different.

At the very least I would have spent more time stumbling around, and worried. The Bear much more anxious that people wouldn’t understand her.

As a teacher, labels continue to matter to me.

They matter because whilst in theory the system works on need, it works a whole lot faster with diagnostic evidence to back up that need.

But even more importantly, they act as a signpost. When I walk into a new class, I instantly know that x is likely to find change difficult or that y will struggle to sit through a whole lesson. Labels make me more patient and less frustrated.

They make me a better teacher. And in a world where everything, especially in education, moves fast they make me a more efficient one.

They mean I know where to start looking for strategies. And although for most students those strategies will need to be altered and adjusted for them as an individual, it gives me a base to work from. In areas I’m not a specialist in that matters.

Especially today where a lack of resources can often mean access to specialist teachers and educational psychologists is minimal, that’s important.

So if you are a teacher sitting on the fence about bringing up a potential diagnosis with a parent I urge you to do so. And if you are a parent wondering whether your child needs to know about their diagnosis I beg you to be open about it.

If you’ve never been different and not known why, you’ll never fully understand how important it is. But believe me it is. Explained in the right way it can be a positive.

It may not be an easy conversation, but it may just be the greatest gift you will ever give.

The gift of understanding. The gift of a tribe.

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