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What's In A Label?

By Joyce Herzog

This past season I was working with a teacher in a private Christian school. One of her students had been tested and she was waiting for the results. She described this child as one who read quite well, but had great difficulty with math and didn't always seem to understand what was going on in the classroom. He was slow to grasp new concepts and often the brunt of classroom teasing. Then the test results arrived. He was "educable mentally retarded". They didn't know how he was able to read so well, he "shouldn't be able to" according to his ability. She was advised to lower her expectations, readjust his curriculum to concentrate on essential life skills, and prepare him to be barely functional in society. I'm sure he'll live up to those expectations. In actuality, he'd probably to much better if she had continued adjusting for his needs on a daily basis and teach basic life skills to her whole class. (Don't they all need that?)

The label of learning disabilities is even worse. It doesn't tell you anything about what the child is-or what he can do. It only tells you what he isn't. He can't learn some things at the rate and in the way others do and it is not because of mental or physical handicaps, cultural or social deprivation, or lack of opportunity.

"Oh, I see. He can't learn because he is learning disabled!" Or is the cart dragging the horse? Perhaps it is that he is "learning disabled" because he is not learning in a classroom situation, on a classroom schedule, with a classroom approach. I've often wondered whether we would be able to enjoy Leonardo Da vinci's art today if he had been enrolled in our schools - or the wonderful contributions of Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein. They didn't learn on schedule or in the manner deemed appropriate by our school system either. They would have been labeled disabled, stuck in remedial classes, and frustrated to death with paper and pencil exercises in improve their ability to learn. When would they have ever had the time or desire to explore the vast area of their abilities to develop and expertise? How would their ability-to-believe-they-had-ability-at-all have survived? How could they have become what they did become if they'd been in school for twelve to fifteen years (they'd surely have failed at least one grade!) struggling to master the paper jungle?

Labeling goes on in other ways too. "Oh, yes. He's the quiet one and she's the bold one, always in there doing something." "John is my sensitive child, but Tim doesn't even see other people." Labels are generally destructive and limiting. If our goal is to help children learn, we must get beyond labeling.

Young children love to learn. Bring them a cocoon, a seed, or some rocks of various kinds. They love to learn, at least, until they find out that learning means sitting in a desk with paper and pencil, memorizing information, and trying to figure out the "right" answer. And then, as soon as they master that there is one right answer and the teacher knows what it is, we try to teach them to think for themselves and refuse to give them the "right" answer. Then we wonder why they are confused, frustrated, and have no initiative to learn. But is that really learning? And are you learning disabled if you learn through being totally involved up to your knees in activities, games, and vibrant discussions as well as (or instead of) reading and writing? Are you learning disabled if you only learn the things you understand and enjoy - the things which really affect your life?

It isn't much different from calling your kid "Hey you dummy!" or "Come here Stupid!" or "What's wrong with you?" Children tend to live up to (or down to) our expectations - at least to the limit of their abilities. We do a great disservice to our children when we label them and change our expectations as a result. What we need to change is our approach, our attitude, and the learning environment.

Our approach must be full of excitement, clearly defined goals, limited focus, and total evolvement.

1. Full of Excitement

Children with learning problems learn better when they are fully interested in and excited about what they are learning. If we can't get excited about it, how do we expect them to?

2. Clearly Defined Goals

It is not enough to say you will cover all "sixth grade material" this year. It is also unlikely. How about a more specific and more realistic set of expectations? For example: This year we will practice writing checks and balancing a checking account (thereby practicing useful addition and subtraction), read three books about and study the Middle Ages, and keep a journal of our learning activities. Continued Next Page

Our special children may not be able to tackle eight hours a day in a desk moving between topics every fifteen to fifty minutes. I believe they are learning twenty-four hours a day! But they need more practice in a variety of ways and they need more time on a topic. They also need time when they are apparently busy doing something which demands their body but not their mind, when they are really assimilating much information which was taught formally but not learned internally.

3. Limited focus and Total Involvement

Tiny pieces of eight subjects a day is a strange way for some of us to learn. When I am writing something, I may spend twelve to sixteen hours, twenty days in a row on little else except for total breaks from everything for a trip to the beach or the woods or even a night of movies. Someone once told me I should spend an hour a day writing and do it consistently. Writing doesn't come that way. Neither does learning for some children who learn differently. They may need to be immersed in activities related to the Middle Ages for a week or a month (recreate a jousting tournament and a feast without utensils, listen to Knights of the Round Table, build a miniature castle, look through a book of costumes, and watch a film about St. Francis or King Arthur) to begin to get a taste of the period. Wow, sounds like fun and a real learning experience for any learner! And indeed most materials and methods and strategies for the learning disabled work wonderfully well with normal and gifted children who are allowed to progress at their own pace!

Our attitude must be one of "I'm on your side." "We're in this together." "We'll conquer this."

Far too often I see mothers and teachers demanding compliance. They may get it on the outside, but there is much resentment building up inside. Once your student has gotten the impression that teachers don't understand and just make impossible demands, that attitude must be reversed before you can begin to teach! In some cases building the relationship may be the main focus for a few months or even a year or two. Learning during that time may consist of reading aloud, trips to nature centers, and teaching some musical, artistic, mechanical, or carpentry skills. By the way, if you (Mom) are working with a resistant boy, he may need some male role model (maybe Dad!?)

The Learning Environment must be positive, structured, involved and limited.


Struggling , reluctant learners have a negative attitude which affects their ability to understand and retain. A positive, cheerful, gentle attitude and environment go a long way toward increasing learning potential. I often found it possible to ease ( in a gentle, silly, loving way) a child toward learning when demands would have met with resistance.


We need structure within unstructure. How do I begin to define what I mean by this? Chaos does not produce learning. For some children, neither do straight rows of sterile desks. We must be structured in our focus, organized to the point of having materials readily available yet not distracting.

and have some idea of where we are going. Yet we must be ready to jump into a teachable moment when it presents itself, ready to listen to the heart of the learner when he's just not "with it", and ready to move to the woods to learn about a frog's habitat or get out the clay to make the concept of cylinder come alive.

* Involved

What does totally involved mean? I think it is more than multi-sensory which is getting a lot of hype these days. Multi-sensory means involving two or more of the senses (hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling) at once. That is helpful - but not enough. The senses are what God has given us to take in information from the physical world around us, but we are more than physical beings. I think part of the problem with our world is that we have been too long interested only in the physical and mental growth of our children. We are a spirit and soul living within a mortal body. Our soul is also of three aspects:intellect, will and emotions. For too many years school has been directed at training the intellect, absorbing information, piling up "facts". I believe that it is essential that we reach out to the whole person. How can we expect our learners to soak up meaningless pieces of information with the belief that "some day" they'll be important? Let's replace multi-sensory with "multi-facetted" learning. Involve the body, the mind, the emotions, the will, and especially the spirit of a child, and they will learn more faster than you thought possible. That is why a child can recite the batting averages of all the major leagues when he can't seem to learn 3 times 4. He is totally interested and cares. We've got to find ways to make them totally interested - to make them care - about the things that are truly important and then to center all their learning around them.


The learning environment must have some limits. We can't expect children to memorize, at the same time, bits of unrelated information about science, history, math, grammar, music and art. We must keep information relevant to the learner and to the other information happening in his life as much as possible. Once again, immerse him in a topic, how it's relevant to all aspects of life, and he is more likely to be interested in and affected by it.

We learn what is important to us, what is interesting to us, what we believe we have a need for. So do the learning disabled. It is not that they cannot learn, only that they need to be more involved, need more time to practice and assimilate, need to see relevance to their actual life, and need to learn chunks of information in progressive steps. They need to learn in an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and encouragement. They need to learn a few things at a time, with much relevant practice in a fun environment. And they need time and space to wonder, to try, to explore, to create, to think, and to internalize. Provide a learning rich environment full of books and supplies, get involved with them in projects that are of interest to both of you, play learning games with them, and involve them in real-life activities. Enable them to believe that they are worthwhile individuals with useful skills in real life. Find ways for them to build success upon success. Teach them that they are loved and needed creations of a loving Creator. Live life with them and in the process, in the fullness of time, teach them the skills they need to become what God would have them to be!