A simple, four-step diagnostic process that precludes the use of labels and leads to obvious, specific, built-in, remedial techniques.
by Bill Page
Regular contributor to the Gazette
November 1, 2008
I have never done anything to, for, or with a kid because s/he was labeled “mentally retarded” or “learning disabled.” As a teacher, I act because the kids are human beings, who have ways of responding to me, my role, and to the context in which we interact. If students’ manner of responding is a problem, I make changes in my teaching; the kids make changes in their responses.
On our farm, we stored our canned goods in the dark, damp cellar. But, even in the daylight it was impossible to tell raspberry jelly from blackberry or grape without labels. Labels have many important uses -- but not for kids. The value of any educational diagnosis is that it can lead to understanding, change, correction, prevention, or remediation. To diagnose just for the purpose of labeling, diagnosis for its own sake, or to diagnose using a jumble of meaningless jargon is a luxury that neither kids nor teachers can afford.
If the diagnosis is that she’s immature; the remediation would be to make her more mature. If the diagnosis is he has a low IQ, the remediation would be raise his IQ. If problem is premature birth…well… uh...apparently we need to determine what the problem is and deal with its causes. Specialized professionals have the responsibility for research, etiology, or preventive measures; I, the teacher, deal with the kids and their problems as they exist in the here and now, regardless of the history, causes, or reasons.
Labeling a kid as deprived, impoverished, disabled, or distractible can be an excuse for the teacher’s failure to teach, so the kid gets an F. When teachers diagnose a kid’s failure as the result of reasons such as “parents don’t help”, “the kid watches too much television”, “there is not sufficient time”, or “last year’s teacher didn’t teach him or her,” the diagnosis absolves the teacher of responsibility for the kid’s failure. And, until parents get involved, or the TV gets turned off, more time is found, or last year’s teacher tries again, the teacher can flunk the kid with impunity.
A teacher’s diagnosis must lead to changes within the teacher’s control or it is of no value to the kid and is a cop-out for the teacher. The crucial questions for using diagnoses to help kids rather than label them and help teachers succeed rather than excuse themselves, are these: “Does this diagnosis lead to decisions within my realm of responsibility? Does the diagnosis place blame on the kid, the parents, or excuse me from teaching? Does the diagnosis lead to remediation of the diagnosed problems? What is the purpose of the diagnosis? For whom is the diagnosis?
Labels Have a Place; But Not In Remediation
“Appendicitis” is a useful term for helping parents understand a child’s illness. It is also appropriate to use in explaining his/her absence to the school and his/her hospital stay to his grandmother. But to do something about “appendicitis” requires specific procedures, knowledge, skills, plans, medical expertise, and complex decisions. The label appendicitis is an effective way to communicate about a problem, but is not important for anyone making decisions and taking action to remedy the problem. Diagnosing a kid as “retarded,” “hyperactive” or “ADDH” can be useful to anyone who has a need to discuss the kid, compile data, transmit information, or screen for grouping or budgeting, but not for remediation purposes.
A Description In Lieu Of a Label
If I want to change or improve a kid’s behavior, the label is useless and may even be detrimental. In lieu of a label, however appropriately applied, what I need is an accurate, complete, detailed description of his/her behavior, in relation to me, my concerns, my specific teaching content, my responsibility, and accompanying conditions and context stated in language that is meaningful to me personally and to the teaching procedures and objectives.
I need to know how a kid responds to the specific material I teach and to the accompanying techniques and conditions. “S/he can’t remember…” must be followed by, “…this spelling word, …these spelling words I assign, the way I assign them, …the strategies I use in relation to the learning conditions, timing, and other circumstances within the teaching-learning context.”
To say “I am fat” is a label. To say, “I eat too much” is a description. To say, “I eat too much between meals” is more descriptive. To say, “I eat too much ice cream between meals and before bedtime” is still more descriptive and could be further described in terms of fat content, quantity, caloric and nutritional factors, and other circumstances. A detailed analysis such as this has obvious remediation objectives and procedures.
A Four-Step Remedial Procedure
The first step to a meaningful, useful diagnosis is an accurate description. This requires distinguishing between a label and a description. Using the word “is” probably makes the phrase a label; using an action verb such as does very likely makes it a description:
S/He is “lazy” is a label. S/He “sleeps in class” is a description.
S/He is “immature” is a label. S/He “cries often” is a description
S/He is disruptive is a label. S/he shoves and hits kids is a description.
The second step is to refine the description and determine the conditions under which the behavior occurs. S/He “sleeps in class every Monday morning,” or “S/He cries when I discuss his/her written class work.” The more accurate, detailed and complete the description, the more useful it can be in determining the remedial strategies.
The third step is to get the kid’s input; to find out how the kid sees the problem. I need to know about his/her attitude, concerns, and perspective. If the kid sees no problem, sees its solution as hopeless, doesn’t want to change, or doesn’t trust me to help, it would require a very different starting point. This is crucial in one-on-one tutoring and individualizing instruction. There is no need to tutor the kid if s/he doesn’t acknowledge the problem, request advice, and accept help.
The fourth step is determining, “So what?” What is my real concern about the behavior? If a kid habitually comes to class late, my way of dealing with his/her lateness would be quite different if the problem were the work he misses, his responsibility for following rules, the disruption to instruction, disturbance of classmates, the principal’s interest about my class control, the example to other students, or my curiosity about what s/he is doing while not in class. In order to deal with it I must decide the specific problem I need to address.
Ms. Alexander, who teaches third-grade, was telling me about one of her students. She said quite simply, “Tony is clumsy.” That, of course, is a label, so I asked her to give me some details. With my help, she went through the four steps of the diagnostic process.
The description: “He stumbles over his own feet.” “He trips when there is nothing to trip on.”
A specific description: “He frequently bumps into kid’s desks just walking up the aisle.” “He hits one foot into the other anytime he walks more than a few steps.”
The kid’s input: Tony says, “I don’t want to do it. I just can’t help falling or hitting into desks. I don’t like the kids laughing at me, either.”
So What: What is Ms. Alexander’s specific problem with Tony’s stumbling? She said, “I am concerned that he bumps into the desks disturbing not only the kid in the seat but creating a general disturbance and distracting the entire class.” We included concern for Tony’s embarrassment at being laughed at in our consideration.
The approach to the resolution of the problem would have been an entirely different matter if Ms. Alexander had expressed a concern for potential physical injury, coordination problems for the “clumsiness” being considered symptomatic of other problems; for its interference with her lessons; for her liability, or for her responsibility to notify his parents.
The Solution to Tony’s “Clumsy” Label
This diagnostic process led to these considerations:
Move Tony to a front row seat so he doesn’t have to walk up the aisle.
Widen the aisle.
Put him in the row next to the wall with the chalk-board ledge to hang on to.
Go to Tony instead of having him come up the aisle.
Let him be the last one out as the class leaves the room.
Place “small marks” or tape on the floor to assist him with foot placement.
Mix the desks or rearrange the room so there is no aisle.
Have a friend “guide” him or get things for him.
There might be many other considerations including proper shoe fit, restrictive clothing, habit, attention getting, vision problems, or even brain damage.
A discussion with Tony led to the mutually determined decision that he would “be more careful” and he would “try harder” – his words. We accepted this as a beginning point, or a trial, figuring that if it didn’t work, Tony would be more amenable to a more drastic step. We added the dimension of slowing down and taking more deliberate steps.
If “being careful” didn’t work, Ms. Alexander’s next choice would be to move him to a front seat even though he was fairly tall. She also discussed ways she and Tony could get his classmates to help, especially in accepting his effort to improve and refraining from laughing at him.
With Tony’s problem, the solution worked because the effort was at a more conscious level, and the reduced frequency of the bumping with the lessening of the impact on those occasions when he did stumble, reduced the problem significantly. Too often, the fourth step, “So What?” of the procedure listed above is omitted or taken for granted. Even worse, teachers sometimes feel they have to deal with all of the possible solutions rather than to narrow it to a specific, manageable problem directly related to their responsibility.
Bill Page is the author of the book, At-Risk Students: Feeling Their Pain, Understanding Their Plight and Accepting Their Defensive Ploys. Insights into kids who can’t, don’t, or won’t try, cooperate, or behave.
This article is adapted from one of the 31 chapters in, At-Risk Students. The groundbreaking book is currently in its Second Printing; November 2008, 280 pages, $24.95, Educational Dynamics Publishers, Nashville, TN, Satisfaction Guaranteed. Visit http://www.TeacherTeacher.com for information, preview, and orders. At-Risk Students is also available from Amazon, Abebooks, and RLD, Publications.
Bill Page, a farm boy, graduated from a one-room school. He forged a career in the classroom teaching middle school “troublemakers.” For the past 26 years, in addition to his classroom duties, he has taught teachers across the nation to teach the lowest achieving students successfully with his proven premise, “Failure is the choice and fault of schools, not the students.”
Bill Page is a classroom teacher. For 46 years, he has patrolled the halls, responded to the bells, and struggled with innovations. He has had his share of lunchroom duty, bus duty, and playground duty. For the past four years, Bill, who is now in his 50th year as a teacher, is also a full time writer. His book, At-Risk Students is available on Abebooks, Amazon, R.D. Dunn Publishing, and on Bill’s web site: http://www.teacherteacher.com/
In At-Risk Students, Page discusses problems facing failing students, “who can’t, don’t and won’t learn or cooperate.” “The solution,” he states, “is for teachers to recognize and accept student misbehavior as defense mechanisms used to hide embarrassment and incompetence, and to deal with causes rather than symptoms. By entering into a democratic, participatory relationship, where students assume responsibility for their own learning.” Through 30 vignettes, the book helps teachers see failing students through his eyes as a fellow teacher, whose classroom success with at-risk students made him a premier teacher-speaker in school districts across America.