What’s in a Name?

A recent conversation with the mother of a middle school child brought up a familiar theme.  Her child was not having any specific problems in school and was doing o.k. but  seemed not focused – or unable to focus – on school work.  Actually, that was the mother’s question, is the child just not attending as she should or does she have some difficulty that is keeping her from focusing on her work?

In a way, this is the question parents frequently struggle with throughout children’s development when they seem not to be functioning in accordance with parents’ wishes or expectations.  Is the child simply not doing what he or she should be doing or does the behavior in question signify a problem of some kind.  Looking at an issue as “misbehavior” often leads to thoughts of discipline, while seeing a “problem” suggests the need for some kind of help.  How can the question be answered?

In this tech age often parents turn to Google for the answer.  What are they looking for and what do they hope to find?  Usually, they are looking for a name to give the collection of non-specific behaviors about which they are concerned, and hoping the name will lead to an explanation of what it is and what to do about it.  The other frequent thought is that perhaps the child should be evaluated by a professional expert who will give them a name and a solution.

We all seem to have been educated into the medical model which is first you find out what is wrong – the diagnosis – and that then will tell you what to do about it.  This makes a great deal of sense for many diseases.  If someone has a fever you may give them an aspirin but basically you want to find out the cause of the fever in order to treat the cause rather than the symptom.

Unfortunately, this approach does not work so well when dealing with behaviors rather than fevers.  It is true that children’s behavior is often what tells us that something is physically amiss.  They may become listless, cranky, have no appetite or show other changes in their behavior.  The explanation for the symptoms then can usually be found in a physical examination or blood tests.

But behavior such as that of the child described by the mother earlier cannot be explained through the same method.  Much of the time, neither what the problem is nor its cause can be explained to anyone’s satisfaction.  Frustrating as it may be, it seems to be human nature to want a name for something and an explanation for what brought it about.  If none is given us we often arrive at our own explanations which don’t really offer any help in the situation.

Some variation of difficulty focusing or paying attention in school is a common concern of parents and teachers these days.  There are many reasons this is happening.  Children have always been restless in school, some more than others.  But schools now, even in the early years, have less tolerance for a developmental spectrum.  What this means is, children develop in different ways at different ages and do not all function the same way at the same time.  These differences need to be addressed educationally.

Over-crowded schools and larger classes make it harder to meet individual needs.  Also, greater numbers of children are behind expectations and the effort in education now is to bring everyone up to a certain standard.  The result is the demand for a greater degree of conformity in meeting those standards, which in turn has resulted in greater demands made of children’s behavior – in other words, less tolerance for any lapses in focus or attention. 

Added to this mix is the fact that schools have allowed less or little time for physical activity because of the contemporary pressure on academics.  And finally, attitudes toward authority have changed in the culture at large.  This is reflected in child rearing as well, which at this time essentially is non-authoritarian.  Parents want children to be respectful but children are accustomed to speaking out and that doesn’t always work in an “orderly” classroom.

The point is that all of these factors have led to children being labeled too quickly, the implication being that the problem is in the child.  At times, that might be the case but it should be the last things to consider rather than the first.  The focus needs to be on helping the child in the specific situation rather than on naming the problem.  Giving it a name doesn’t help anything.

A recent newspaper article about consumer demand for listing food ingredients in various products had the headline, “Many Labels, Little Clarity.”  This seemed to be a perfect description of the current rush to label children’s behavior without understanding all the factors involved.