Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How Labels Can Hurt Kids

I think it's important to teach kids how to work.  I think hard workers stand out.  I think God designed us to get great satisfaction from a job well done.

When Ashley first came she was not a hard worker.  Actually, she wasn't a worker at all.  For so long she had been told she couldn't do anything.  And she believed it.  Worse yet, they made it so she didn't have to do anything.  And she got used to it.

If I had a nickel for every time she told me she couldn't do something I'd be rich.  If I had a nickel for every time she told me she didn't have to do something, um, I'd be richer.

The truth:  She was ten years old.  There was plenty she could do.  

The problem:  She needed to start from the beginning.

Because of Ashley's crazy past, she has some hearing issues.  She does.  Whether or not they could have been avoided doesn't matter.  What matters is that she has learned to live with how it is.  I admire her for that.  There are no what ifs with Ashley, only what is.  It's just her personality.  A gift from God, if you ask me.

With all of her learning difficulties and behavior issues, Ashley got labeled.  Those labels followed her everywhere.  Her labels said she had limitations.  Her labels said she couldn't do what other kids her age could.  Her labels were liars.  

Everyone around her listened to those labels, teachers, foster parents, caseworkers, psychologists, doctors, even Ashley.  And her first ten years slipped by.

Ashley moved into our home on December 27, 2008.  We lived in a two-story then.  By that evening she had fallen down the stairs 6 times.  Something was wrong with this kid.  I mean, besides the screaming fits and throwing things.  

I took her to the doctor.  That changed everything.  Our local doctor was the one who diagnosed Ashley's ear problems.  You mean her difficulty is more than we thought?  You mean there are reasons she hasn't learned?  You mean there is a problem that has a solution?  Yes.  That's exactly what he meant.

So it began.  Medical treatment for her ear issues.  That was the easy part.  The hard part?  Starting from ground zero in the academics department.  Imagine spending ten years listening to muffled speech, not being able to filter background noise and not recognizing when someone was speaking to you.  It's amazing she was as functional as she was.

Ashley was convinced that she couldn't do anything and was even more convinced that she didn't have to.  We started with animals and their sounds.  I'm not kidding.  If you have never been taught anything, you really know very little.  We learned how to write letters and numbers.  We started with Kindergarten curriculum and trudged forward.  

The beginning was hard.  The resistance was strong.  The attitudes were sour.

But onward we marched.  Through addition and subtraction, through writing and spelling, through first grade readers that took two hours to read.  It was brutal and hard and I wanted to give up.  So did she.  But we didn't.

This year Ashley will be a freshman in high school.  She will take preAlgebra and Biology, World History and Spanish.  Her math skills are amazing, she loves science, but history is not her favorite.  That's just her personality.  She is better than all of us at grammar, easily determining between adjective and adverb prepositional phrases.  I'm terrible at that.

I say all this to say, don't believe everything you hear about kids in the system.  Don't take all of their labels as truth.  Sometimes those labels are based on the opinions of the adults around them.  

Sometimes those labels are wrong.  Let's just say I've adopted three that each had several labels.  Not one label was right.  I don't have a girl on a single medication.  Combined they came on thirteen different kinds.  Thirteen medications for thirteen problems, not one of which actually exists in our life right now.  

You can label them all these things while they are in the system, while their life is in complete turmoil.  But is that really the problem?  Maybe the problem is the turmoil.  Maybe it's not having someone to hold them accountable.  Maybe it's someone allowing behavior that is out of control and then medicating for it.  Whatever the reason, the labels were wrong.  Thirteen times.  Three different kids.

Kids in the system have problems.  Most of those problems come from being in the system.  Those problems aren't permanent.  Those problems can be overcome.  Don't let your fear of labels keep you from helping a child stuck in a hard place.  Get them out of the hard place and you'll be surprised how temporary those problems really are.  

It's not easy.  Be prepared for a lot of work.  And when you're watching Ashley complete her algebra homework, it will all be worth it.  Did I mention she's my hardest worker?  Yes, that's the same kid.

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