When anyone is presented with a potentially difficult new scenario, it’s understandable for them to want as much information as possible from someone who has encountered this situation before.
Certainly, for teachers meeting a new pupil for the first time, any information about them is bound to be gratefully received, especially if the young person in question has been diagnosed with a special educational need.
However, as education professionals we must always be careful about how we respond to information we are given about students.
If you have a pupil who has a diagnosis of dyslexia, for example, then knowing what colour overlays work best for that child is crucial.
But in some cases, having a list of conditions and symptoms (whether stored in the traditional buff manila folder or within a super-modern digital data management system) can actually hinder effective teaching.
It’s all too easy for teachers to fall into the trap of teaching to the label, rather than working to understand the individual sitting in front of them – so here is a list of common pitfalls teachers should try to avoid after discovering the special educational needs of a young person:
1 | Don’t mistake the information you have on a pupil as a solution
You wouldn’t wear a dirty shirt simply because you know you’ve read the washing instructions. Similarly you can’t go into a classroom knowing that a pupil has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and then just observe the pupil acting out without intervening, while noting they are conforming to their condition. Studies show that all students respond to their teachers’ expectations; if they know their teacher assumes they will be well behaved, they are less likely to misbehave.
2 | Don’t use pupils’ ‘labels’ as an excuse not to teach them
In a busy classroom with 29 other learners demanding the teacher’s attention, a student with a diagnosis such as persistent demand avoidance is at risk of being ignored. Subconsciously the teacher might not push that child to reach his potential; the label says he won’t do as he is told so why try teaching him?
3 | Don’t let a student use a label as an excuse not to learn
It is only human nature to make excuses to avoid doing work when we don’t feel like it. And some youngsters can use a medical diagnosis as a get-out-of-work card; which teachers, sensitive to their condition, don’t want to challenge. I taught one pupil who seemed to want to collect labels as a badge of honour, disbarring him from working, ever. If he wasn’t leaving the classroom because of his weak bladder, he needed time out to cope with his anxiety and couldn’t be pushed in class as it would affect his low self-esteem, not to mention his dyslexia and ASD. He left school with no qualifications. Teacher collusion in avoidance tactics doesn’t help children learn and sometimes some gentle (and not so gentle) prodding can get that kid on the right track
4 | The original diagnosis a young person brings with them might not be relevant when they are in a different environment
Another pupil I taught with a diagnosis of autism had notes from primary school warning staff not to talk about anything connected with France when she was in the classroom, especially not the Eiffel Tower, as this could trigger an episode. After months of her teachers consciously avoiding mentioning such things as Paris, croissants or berets, she was asked to name her favourite food, and replied: “French toast.” As the pupil had moved on from primary to secondary school, she had adapted to a different environment and was better able to cope with concepts which previously acted as a trigger. Away from familiar surroundings young people can adapt their behaviour and will mature, just as other, label-less pupils mature.
5 | A label can cause the teacher to respond to their preconceived idea about what a child with that condition might be like
For example, a teacher expecting every autistic stereotype from a child who has been diagnosed as such. The reality is that while someone with an ASD may have a few behaviours associated with the condition, he or she won’t necessarily always act ‘autistically’. In fact for a large part of the day their behaviour could be described as just like a ‘normal’ teenager – if such a thing exists. If you teach to how you would stereotypically expect a person with autism to behave, the pupil may well respond by acting within the repertoire of the condition.
6 | Be aware that it can be very difficult to become ‘unlabelled’
A pupil in your class might have been given a diagnosis of ADHD while still at nursery. It is possible that someone will have been misdiagnosed at such a young age or develop out of the condition as they grow, yet the label will remain on their records as they continue on through school.
7 | At parents’ evenings it can be too easy to accept parental expectations
While you will only see their child a few hours every week, families of children who have been diagnosed with a condition will be acutely aware of the disability as they live with it every day and will probably have had to push an Education Authority very hard to get all of the necessary support their child needs. I have told incredulous mums and dads at parents’ nights how well their charge is doing in class and what their next steps are. It is not that the parents don’t want their child to do well, but after bracing themselves for another difficult interview, it can be hard for them to hear something that contradicts their accepted view. If you are able to shape and stretch parents’ expectations, children are likely to hear more positive affirmation at home.
...And here’s what actually works
Teach to the pupil sitting in front of you, not what you know about their condition.
Have the same expectations as you would for any other pupil in the room; it is how you respond when the expectation is not met that can be modified.
Treat the information you have on the pupil as a guide rather than as an instruction manual.
Always remember, labels only gives us a vocabulary to describe, not prescribe.
Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. He also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications.
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