“Parents [or teachers] of a child with a memory for information deficit are often convinced the child is irresponsible, lazy or stubborn..." (Barbara Arrowsmith-Young)
We all respond and make decisions from belief systems often operating at the unconscious level. We look at situations in life through our belief systems, just like a pair of sunglasses. When we stop to examine the implications of this, it can be almost frightening. Where have I made assumptions or judgment calls unconsciously which have then clouded my future interactions with others? If we only look at behaviours, it’s easy to label a child with laziness, acting out, ignoring, bullying, fidgeting and distractibility as character traits. These labels do us and the child a great disservice by keeping us focused on the symptoms instead of looking for the root causes.
“Parents of a child with a ‘memory for information’ deficit are often convinced the child is irresponsible, lazy or stubborn because the child doesn’t do what they were asked to do and forgets to perform household chores or fails to follow a series of instructions. Parents may mistakenly believe that the child remembers only what they want to remember. The problem is in cognitive limitation, not emotional resistance. The understanding sets up a negative dynamic between parent and child.” (Barbara Arrowsmith-Young)
When we as parents or teachers assign a characteristic to a child based on their behavior, we will unconsciously carry that characteristic into our future interactions with the child. I have spent over 15,000 hours working with children and adults with learning disabilities and one of the biggest lessons I have learned is that behavior is a language, and it is our job to figure out what it is saying.
Let’s look at the scenario in the cartoon here. What attribute would we normally attribute to this student? Probably that he’s lazy. Unfortunately many children with learning challenges are labeled as lazy without looking at all of the possible reasons that may cause that particular behavior. So let’s look at some of the cognitive limitations that are often mistaken for laziness.
Weak visual processing will often result in ‘paper avoidance’ with the child often refusing to do paperwork or doing everything possible to avoid paperwork. This often is worse at night after a long day of visual strain.
Our brains all process information at different speeds, some faster, some slower. Brain speed however is not an indication of someone’s level of intelligence. It may, however, influence a person’s ability to express their intelligence in the way that society expects. It may take someone with a slow brain speed significantly longer to accomplish a task. They give the same level of effort; have the same level of intelligence, with just a slower pace.
Let’s get personal for a minute. I grew up with three learning disabilities which I’m sure will be discussed again on this blog in the future. For now I want to talk about laziness though. I was a smart kid, very verbal, read 750-800 words a minute and had an IQ in the 92nd percentile. However, the minute I had to write something, I appeared severely disabled. By Grade 10 I could only write about three sentences in one hour of hard work. Clearly something was not functioning. This was obviously an unpleasant experience for me and I used every avoidance behavior I could come up with to resist having to experience this humiliation. Even doing dishes was better than having to write!
For someone watching me as a child I can only imagine their thought process, or the characteristics they would have assigned to me, the belief systems and glasses they would have viewed me through. Certainly lazy, stubborn and a classroom behaviour issue would all come to mind. It turned out, however, to primarily be just one brain skill that was causing all of this grief. My ability to organize my thoughts was in the 3rd percentile. If you put 100 people in a room, my ability to organize my thoughts to get them into a written form was by far one of the lowest in the room. It turns out I wasn’t lazy or stubborn and my behavior issues were just my attempt to mask my struggles.
I am thankful for my mother’s determination to not except my behavior at face value. Through the tools that we use with our clients at Breakthroughs in Learning every day she targeted and developed the area of my brain responsible for organization of thought. I went on to be on the Deans Honour List at both Conestoga College and the University of Waterloo with no accommodations. Recently my 12 page paper on reading disabilities in a 3rd year Psychology class received a mark of 95%, and it only took 4 hours to write.
Some other children have not been so lucky and may even begin to internalize the labels placed on them. Nothing breaks my heart more than the child who said “I must be lazy, everyone says so.” This child was functioning 3 years behind grade level and struggling just to keep his head above water.
Recently I had a meeting with a father and his son to talk about the challenges he was facing in University. Upon sitting down, the father said “I don’t know why we’re here. My son doesn’t have learning problems. He’s just lazy!” I had to quickly stop myself from expressing my initial reaction of outrage and focus on educating this dad about why it looked that way.
We all label. It conserves mental energy by categorizing people and behavior. However I encourage you to re-examine the labels you have for your children or students and look for the root causes of their behaviours.
If I hear someone use a label, I try to take the opportunity for some ‘educating’, especially if they use the ‘L’ word. I encourage you to ‘educate’ those around you as well!
As a child who struggled to overcome learning disabilities himself Matthew always knew he wanted to help other children know they weren’t dumb. Having now logged over 15,000 hours working with children and adults with learning disabilities he shares his experience of what it’s like on both sides of learning disabilities. Matthew’s not quite sure what free time is, but when he finds it he enjoys spending time with his wife and two year old son and playing soccer.