Interesting Kids Saddled with Alienating Labels

By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.

(Originally published in Educational Leadership, Vol. 59, No. 3, November 2001, pp. 38-41).

Imagine living in a world where everyone was a flower instead of a human being. In such a floral society, it’s likely that the psychia­trists would be roses. Now, imagine that the psychiatrist calls in his first patient: a lily. “Hmm,” says Rose. “I can see that we might have a problem here!” He looks Lily over carefully and then gives his diagnosis: “I’m sorry to inform you that you have PDD, other­wise known as Petal Deficit Disorder.” Lily leaves, saddened and anxious, and the next patient, a bluet, comes through the door. Rose gets out his magnifying glass, examines Bluet minutely, and then declares: “I believe that you have GD, or Growing Disability. You really are much too small!” Bluet exits, feeling punched down a few sizes. Finally, a giant sunflower comes through the door, and the psychiatrist doesn’t even have to conduct an examination: “This flower clearly has Hugeism! Unfortu­nately, it’s genetic, and there’s not much we can do about it.”

This story may seem silly, but it serves as a scary metaphor for how we are treating students these days. Instead of celebrating the natural diversity of all our students, we package many of their natural differences into neat little patho­logical categories. We strip away their humanity by using lifeless words and phrases to talk about them: “Judy has learning disabilities”; “Roy has ADHD” (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder); “Brian was just diagnosed with autism”; “Billy has PDD” (pervasive Developmental Disorder); “Ed’s got Asperger’s syndrome.” By adopting these labels as the dominant descriptors of a student’s learning potential, we block ourselves off from understanding who these children really are. In 1949, George Orwell’s bleak futurist novel, 1984, showed how words can manipu­late, dominate, and repress authenticity. Unfortunately, in education, we have not been vigilant enough to see that we have been similarly negating the worlds of students through these sterile phrases.

Let’s look at some examples of chil­dren. Twelve-year-old Billy created Rube Goldberg machines and described the way he thought as “a cross between music and architecture” (Houston, 1982, p. 137). Nadia, 5, drew pictures that were on a par with paintings by a mature adult artist (Self, 1977). Peter, 6, did arithmetic problems by counting the dots on the ceiling tiles in his classroom. Ray, 12, played a leading role in orga­nizing a teacher’s recycling center. High school student Chelsea choreographed a dance to remember the elements of the periodic table. Stevie, 9, could find anything that anyone had lost in the classroom or on the school grounds. Brian won the national swim title for his age group in the breast stroke.

These students are just a small cross ­section of the many students whom I have worked with, read about, or heard about from other educators. All of them are IKSWAL (Interesting Kids Saddled with Alienating Labels). Unfortunately, in any serious school discussion about these students among teachers, adminis­trators, and support staff, what pre­dominates is a discussion of Billy’s learning disability, Nadia’s autism, Ray’s emotional disturbance, Chelsea’s ADHD, or Brian’s dyslexia. In catching hold of the diagnostic label, educators have lost sight of what makes each student a fascinating person.

What Brain Scans Reveal

Some may argue, “But these students really have these disorders! These dis­orders have a neurological basis. This is the brain we’re talking about!” Yes, of course, each of these students has a brain -the most complex, mysterious, and multifaceted organ in the universe. That fact in itself should be an argu­ment in favor of seeing students not in terms of a mere label but rather in far more complex and rich terms. Out of trillions of brain connections, how many in each student’s brain are actu­ally deficient? And who is to judge the deficiency?  Psychiatrist Rose? Brain researcher Orchid?

Several brain scan studies have come out recently indicating what is consid­ered a clear neurological basis for the existence of ADHD (Fine, 2001). These studies-many of them based on find­ings of abnormal frontal lobe func­tioning-have convinced most people in education that ADHD is a biological disorder.  Troubling issues, however, remain.  Eenough to suggest that giving a scien­tific stamp of authority to the labels that we use in our schools may be prema­ture and even ill-founded.

First, a recent review of brain-imaging studies indi­cated problems with many of them, including relatively small and often heterogeneous samples and difficulties in establishing accurate and appropriate diagnoses (Hendren, DeBacker, & Pandina, 2000).

Second, the causes of abnormalities in the brain scans of children labeled with ADHD may be environmental rather than inborn. Brain scan images change as a result of specific thera­peutic interventions (Schwartz, Stoessel, Baxter, Martin, & Phelps, 1996). More­over, such environmental conditions as stress and trauma may negatively affect neurological patterns, including prefrontal cortical function in children (Perry & Pollard, 1998). One plausible hypothesis is that some children diag­nosed with ADHD have abnormal prefrontal lobe patterns because of envi­ronmental trauma (Amsten, 1999).

Third, and most impor­tant, many of the so-called abnormalities seen in brain scans may actually point more toward differences than abnormalities. In one brain scan study (Schweitzer et al., 2000), individuals labeled as having ADHD showed more activity in the region of the brain linked with visual­ spatial processing than did  so-called normal individuals, who showed more anterior  or frontal lobe activity. The ADHD-identified subjects reported that while they were doing the required task during the brain scan­ning procedure, they pictured images in their heads. In other words, these scans may not be diagnosing ADHD as much as they are identifying individuals who process information through pictures and images more than through sounds and words – individuals who might be expected to have more difficulty in classroom environments where sounds and words, rather than visualizations, predominate as teaching techniques.

Many students labeled with learning, attention, and behavioral dis­orders may have brains that are not necessarily abnormal but,  rather,  different. When we value only restricted ways of learning, behaving, and attending – especially high-stakes-tests learning, sit-down-in-your-seat-and-look-­at-the-blackboard behaving, and focus­-on-the-vocabulary-word attending, ­then we ignore, stifle, or repress the other marvelous things that a student’s brain might be capable of doing. Work­sheets, lectures, tests, and labels are bulldozers that are mowing down our students’ rich and diverse “brain forests,” and we should be concerned. Unfortunately, calling these kids learning different is not going to help, for the term has become a euphemism for learning disabled and many other negative labels that we are using in our schools today.

What We Can Do

We must be radical and creative in how we think about and describe the learning potentials of students. We can begin by discarding the medical and scientific terminology that we have used to label students; it is too sterile to describe the richness of a student’s world as a learner.

Let us bring humanism back into education by employing the wisdom and vocabulary of literature. For example, the wide range of characters from Shake­speare can serve as a template of human variation for describing learning differ­ences in students. We might say for one student, “She is a bit like Puck!”; for another, “He broods like Hamlet”; while for still another, “He’s got the spirit of Hotspur!” This approach would require educators, of course, to steep them­selves in the great literary tradition of Shakespeare, which some might view as highly impractical. After all, there’s a huge epidemic of SADD, or Shakespeare Attention Deficit Disorder, a crippling cultural disability sweeping across the land.

The biographies of great individuals could also serve as an organizing frame­work for understanding students’ special gifts. In speaking of a student labeled with a behavior disorder, we might say, “He’s a regular Churchill, that kid!”; for a student diagnosed as dyslexic, “He’s got that Hans Christian­ Andersen storytelling quality in him”; or for a student who writes with semantic force but is identified with dysorthographia (the inability to spell correctly), “There’s an Agatha Christie in her bursting to get out!” Several disability organizations have a discon­certing tendency to use such well­known figures as examples of “famous people with disabilities.” Rather than dragging these great individuals down to the level of these sterile disability categories, we should lift up the students weighed down by these labels to something more resembling the rich complexity of human greatness.

Finally, we should discard the scien­tific tools of standardized test measures that have been used for making labels and instead explore other assessment tools borrowed from phenomenology, hermeneutics, anthropology, and other qualitative methodologies (Armstrong, 1988; Carini, 1982; Henry, 1963; Nylund, 2000; Sacks, 1996). The test-and-Iabel approach that dominates the special education landscape today serves only to lure educators away from the depths and complexities of real students’ lives. Let us nurture all varieties of students’ ways of learning – not just as an expression of hope, but as a matter of daily commit­ment and practice.


Armstrong, T. L. (1988). Describing strengths in children identified as “learning disabled” using Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as an organizing framework. Dissertation Abstracts International, 48(8A),2038-2039.

Arnsten, A. F. T. (1999). Development of the cerebral cortex: XIV. Stress impairs prefrontal cortical function. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(2),220-222.

Carini, P. (1982). The school lives of seven children. Grand Forks: Center for Teaching and Learning, University of North Dakota.

Fine, L. (2001, May 9). Paying attention: Scientists scrutinize the brain for biolog­ical clues to the mysteries of ADHD. Education Week, 20(34), 26-29.

Hendren, R. L., DeBacker, I., & Pandina, G. J. (2000, July). Review of neuroimaging studies of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders from the past 10 years. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 39(1), 815-828.

Henry, J. (1963). Culture against man. New York: Random House.

Houston, J. (1982). The possible human. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Nylund, D. (2000). Treating Huckleberry Finn: A new narrative approach to working with kids diagnosed ADD/ADHD. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, B. D., & Pollard, R. (1998). Homeostasis, stress, and adaptation: A neurodevelopmental view of childhood trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7(1), 33-51.

Sacks, O. (1996). An anthropologist on Mars: Seven paradoxical tales. New York: Vintage.

Schwartz, J. M., Stoessel, P. W., Baxter, L. R., Jr., Martin, K. M., & Phelps, M. E. (1996, February). Systematic changes in cerebral glucose metabolic rate after successful behavior modification treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 53, 109-113.

Schweitzer, J. B., Faber, T. L., Grafton,  S. T., Tune, L. E., Hoffman, J. M., & Kilts, C. D. (2000). Alterations in the functional anatomy of working memory in adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. American journal of Psychiatry, 157(2), 278-280.

Self, L. (1977). Nadia: A case of extraordinary drawing ability in an autistic child. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

For more information, see my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom:  Strength-Based Strategies to Help SNeurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life


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