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Are we over diagnosing our kids with learning disabilities?

Radnor has, like many independent secondary schools, recently completed its assessment process for entry into Year 7.

We were fortunate this year to have lots of really wonderful children apply but one thing I've witnessed more regularly in recent years is the child who says they struggle with something because they are...."dyslexic", "dyspraxic", "Asperger's" or "ADHD".  Whilst on the face of it we might applaud the child's honesty and openness in dealing with whatever affliction they might have I am, however, just slightly uncomfortable with how this information may have been internalised by the child.

I've written in the past about how each of us sits on a continuum of need and there is not a simple division between those with special educational needs (SEN) and those without.  If you peel back the layers you will find that each brain works in slightly different ways and processes information differently.  At some point a clinician steps in, often on the advice of school or a parent, and puts a label on the identified symptoms. 

Our understanding of cognition has improved markedly since the 1990s and teachers are far more knowledgeable about how the brain works and how best to achieve learning in a lesson than ever before.  My problem arises from the willingness of some educational psychologists to identify "mild dyslexia" simply because a child struggles with words and sentences.  Or how a parent can at times be too quick to find a medical justification like ADHD for normal childlike boisterousness. 

Of more concern however is the impact this readiness to diagnose is having on children and how the diagnosis itself creates a persona for the child and a justification for being unable to do something.  Which brings me back to our assessments for Year 7, children now regularly sit in an interview and say to me or other members of the interview panel, "I not very good at languages because I'm dyslexic".  Or, "I just can't sit still because I'm ADHD", I've had these exact words muttered at me on more than one occasion and have heard similar stories from other Heads.

My own view is that any learning need should be dealt with carefully.  Parents need to model the right behaviour and talk about it in the right way to avoid a fixed mindset establishing itself in the child.  In most cases children in mainstream schools should be encouraged to persevere with all aspects of school life and a SEN should not be used as an excuse or a crutch.  If anything, the child should be encouraged to pivot through 180-degrees and find a way of making the condition into a strength.  I always struggled reading fiction as a child (and still do now) but romped through an auto-biography of David Sole (former Scotland captain) when I was 13 and from that developed a life long love of non-fiction.  We all have areas of weakness but it's finding ways of overcoming them that really define successful people.

For further interesting thoughts on this topic,  check out the article by Dr Mike Shooter, Former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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