In the world of education as in our larger culture, much lip service is paid to a belief in individuality. We are an individualistic society which tends to conflict with our ever-increasing numbers. In over-crowded school settings with large classrooms this means thinking in terms of groups rather than individuals.

Some of the ways children have been organized into groups are obvious, such as by age or gradations of subjects by topic or level of difficulty. Other group distinctions have been made according to intelligence or behavior. Such groups are organized using various methods such as tests or perceptions of behavior by teachers and others. As a consequence, children are given labels that designate the category in which they are placed.

The problem is that these categories often do not address individual differences in children which do not fit the label given. Yet such labeling sets children on certain educational tracks that may or may not be appropriate. Labeling of children that sets them apart from the mainstream is often disturbing to parents who may or may not have experienced with their children the issues identified in school. Diagnostic labels in particular are general and do not always speak to a given child. Parents go to the internet for clarification, which once again does not address a specific child.

A mother spoke to me after receiving a school report about her five-year-old son. She was told that he was extremely bright but was unable to interact with the other children or to follow the teacher’s directions in class. They reported their speculation that he was possibly autistic.

Recently it seems that any behavior in a child that seems atypical in some way is labeled autistic spectrum. The mother’s reaction to this label was not the upset response I expected. She said she understood all about labels and that is not what interests her. What she needs is help in knowing how to deal with her son. The label doesn’t help her or him.

She then spelled out the difficulties she was encountering, particularly in getting him to follow the necessary routines of life. He apparently loves to read and becomes impossible to interrupt saying, “Two more minutes.” The result is he is late for school and her husband finally takes him by taxi. Taking a taxi becomes a reward for his lack of compliance, which does not seem to her like a good thing to do.

I observed this child in an extra-curricular group and the problem he would present in a regular classroom was apparent. Although he removed himself physically from the group, he actually participated from afar in everything they were doing, following the teacher’s lead. He did so, however, in a way that would call attention to himself by the sound of his voice or exaggerated movements. However, when the children were taken by twos to engage in another activity he was constrained, focused on the teacher’s directions and was completely absorbed in the activity.

I well understand this mother’s feeling that a label is not helpful, but what would be? It appeared that this child is overstimulated in a large group but would do very well in a structured group of just a few children. At the same time, the mother needs help in developing strategies for dealing with the boy’s behavioral issues at home.

The problem is that the resources aren’t there to address these kinds of issues in the individualized way needed. We are left with the larger political question of our willingness as a society to allocate the funds required for the help needed by the individual child and family.

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