Always Read The Label?

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Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools....
Read more about Helen Woodley

Are labels ever helpful?

For a long time in the world of SEN, we have relied upon labels as a means of classifying learners. Going back to the start of my career I was a Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD) and Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD) teacher and I had to quickly get to terms with a variety of syndromes and conditions that had really specific needs for each pupil. Yet, as the weeks went by, the labels began to fade in importance. It didn’t matter that Sophie had Angelman Syndrome as what was important was that I developed a relationship with her and learnt when she was truly happy and not when she was smiling because of the condition she had.

Jump forward a decade and the education world became obsessive with diagnosing dyslexia in particular. In a previous post. we have asked whether dyslexia even exists.

Classrooms resounded with cries of, ‘I think Sam is definitely dyslexic’ and SENCOs began using precious educational psychology time to get a set in stone answers and diagnosis. But what about Sam? On the day that the assessment concluded he had dyslexia, did the world suddenly change? Did his teachers appear in lessons with radically different teaching methods and resources from a box only for him? No. They taught and approached his needs in the same way they always had with maybe a few extra pointers.

Labels and Fables?

Sometimes I think that giving a label hinders teachers from being empowered to meet the differing needs of their class through their own professionalism. It’s like they become frozen and only act in a reactionary way once told they must. Surely good teaching is about meeting those needs regardless of a label? Are we living in a world all too ready to medicalise children? Or should we see education as a broad spectrum where we have learners dotted all over the place?

Yet, I am on the fence. Some labels are needed. Sophie needed hers as it led to a radically different way of approaching her needs; it helped me to understand her. Even then the label took second place to the person. I can also see the frustration of adults who get late diagnoses of ASC or dyslexia and their frustrations that no one understood their needs properly at school. Acquiring a label even well into adulthood means the world to them and can be beneficial for helping their work colleagues to understand their needs.

Always Read The Label

So, what am I arguing for?

Firstly, for teachers to use Quality First Teaching to meet the needs of pupils regardless of a diagnosis; if learners benefit from using coloured highlighters and small chunks of text, they should have them even if they are not ‘dyslexic’.

Secondly, I would like to see labels being used appropriately; we can be too quick to dish them out and sometimes they stick unnecessarily and become part of that learners story.

Thirdly, I would like educators and professional colleagues from other backgrounds to look at the impact that labels have; is the label beneficial to the young person? Does it bring tangible benefits or is it box ticking?

Finally, I would like to see the importance of pupil/teacher classroom relationships raised for it is at this level that the most personalised and effective support can be given regardless of labels.

The Writing Is On The Wall

We will never be in a world without labels. Naming things are part of being human and we seem to have an inbuilt need to do so. But can we have an educational world of appropriate labelling where the label doesn’t replace the person it is attached to? Sophie was Sophie, Angelman Syndrome aside. Sam is Sam, irrespective of dyslexia.

Next time you are describing a young person to a colleague, I challenge you to note how many labels you use. Were they needed? Where did they come from? Who told you that was the label to use?

Maybe, just maybe, you might feel empowered to drop some of them. Maybe not …

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