Labels: Words that Stick

Stephanie Rozzi was just like every other kid in her Kindergarten class – she enjoyed snacks, nap time and playing with toys. The only difference was that she communicated in her own unique way: she didn’t use words – at least not words that you’d find in the Oxford English Dictionary. That troubled her teacher. She was afraid Stephanie was ‘slow’ or ‘developmentally challenged’ and recommended she get evaluated by a professional.


“I would tug on her dress to ask to go to the bathroom. My friends understood me. I spoke but I had to supplement it with a lot of emotion,” says Stephanie, who is now in her mid-30s and shows no ill effects of being a late adapter to language.

Labelled as a slow learner, she was given intense speech therapy virtually every day until she was in Grade 3, often with ESL (English as a Second Language) students.

Getting professional assistance was a definite plus in helping her overcome her language barrier, but it was the support of her parents, particularly her mom, that helped her transform sounds, emotions and gestures into words and sentences.

“There was no doubt in my mom’s mind that I was a normal kid. She knew her child. She stood by me and gave me the help and support I needed. Mom knew there wasn’t anything wrong with me developmentally, and she never let it come into play when I was making choices about what to do or not to do. It wasn’t a barrier,” she says.


Stephanie’s communication as a young girl than Margaret, her older sister by two years. It was common for Stephanie to march into a room and say something like “Mak!” prompting the rest of the family to look to Margaret to see whether she wanted milk or was looking for her older brother, Marc.

Margaret, now a speech language pathologist in Calgary, says diagnosing a child with a label isn’t the dead end that it was a generation ago. Determining that a child is creative, a jock, a slow learner or a brainiac is the first step towards figuring out what can be done to help them be successful learners in school. That might include working with their teachers to make accommodations in the classroom to help the child. It’s also important to involve the parents, too, so they can understand what a label means.

“Schools are focusing more on family-centred care. Today, you’re not just treating the person or the condition, you’re treating the whole family. And you’re certainly not just bringing the kid to speech class once a week and treating it in isolation,” she says.

Learning disabilities can run in the family, and so many parents are afraid of their children being given a label due to their own negative experiences as a child.

Margaret says, “Under the old model, kids were given a label and put in special classrooms with no understanding of what that label meant. Parents may have struggled their entire lives with reading and they’re very scared for their kids. They see them struggling and it’s hard for them. They think, ‘Oh, no, is my kid going to have the same horrible experience I had’?”

Dr. Neal Anderson, a Winnipeg-based psychologist, says there are upsides and downsides to labels. If a child is good at sports or is especially creative, there’s no reason why those characteristics shouldn’t see the light of day. And if a child struggles in academics, sports or music, there’s a time and place to mention that, too. But to label someone repeatedly and without reference to their balancing qualities is a problem.

“If a child ends up identifying with, or seeing himself only through the lens of some quality others have foisted upon him, his view of himself is probably going to be fairly limited.”

The label often focuses on the weakest feature of a child. In Anderson’s practice, he sees kids every day with learning disabilities, ADHD or other issues. He tells them there’s a reason why they’re having certain problems and that there’s a name for it.

“I don’t see much point denying the elephant in the room. But then I shift to putting the challenge into context and working with parents, siblings and teachers to put the problem into perspective. A kid who is a poor reader might be better not to aim for a career as an English professor but a reading problem likely won’t get in the way of becoming an engineer.”

SOLVING PROBLEMS
Turn the weakness into a problem to be solved or accommodated:

• Use other strengths.
• Enlist the hard work of the kid and the parents.
• Avoid shame and passivity like a plague.

Stephanie says being slow to use her words may have benefitted her in the long run. “I’m an articulate and expressive person now. I rely on the tone I use, the expression on my face and the pitch of my voice. I probably learned a few other communication tools too,” she says. When she was growing up, her classmates didn’t treat her any differently, but if she had been put in remedial classes she would have known she was different.

“That wouldn’t have been good. Instead, I was just different and that was okay,” she says.

She doesn’t harbour any anger towards her teacher from all those years ago for labelling her as ‘slow’. “It sort of makes me giggle now. I’m a very sensitive person. It could have been detrimental to me if my mom hadn’t been proactive about me not getting stuck in a stereotype. I think it was nervy of that teacher to make that assumption. Parents need to trust their own judgment and sometimes question the education system.”

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