You can’t judge a book by its cover
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You can’t judge a book by its cover

In conversation with a father he used the old expression: ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’. He was referring to his daughter, who is profoundly deaf. The daughter is now 40 and running a successful business. However, in her childhood, she was grossly underestimated, because she was defined by her deafness.

This made me think about many young people that I’ve worked with, where immediate impressions or labels have been unhelpful. Naïve judgements are often made about a young person from the label given to them. For instance, in working with a secondary school running a Self Managed Learning programme for those called ‘gifted and talented’, it was quite evidence that such a generic label was unhelpful in working with the six individuals in the group. One girl, who was in year 9, could learn any academic subject to a very high level.  She was subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, encouraged by teachers to pick their subject as an option for her GCSE. The problem was that she had no idea about a career such that she could choose options. She quite reasonably complained that the school gave her no help in thinking about career options. Because she could learn any academic subject and was bound to get an A* at GCSE in it, she was highly stressed meeting the expectations of teachers and of living up to her gifted and talented label. All of this was not helpful for her thinking about a more rational basis for choosing options. In reality she was not very talented at making choices – an important ability.

Other labels come with initials these days, such as OCD, ADHD, and ASC. To take the latter example, of those on the autistic spectrum. The label autism for a child is just a generic label that does not define an individual. At our College, we’ve had a number of autistic students over the years who have been underestimated by their schools and yet gone on to successful careers. To take just one example. Charlie came to us from Year 10 having missed a large part of his secondary education due to bullying and the implications of his autism. With us he learned the social skills needed for him to go to further education college. His learning of subjects such as English was no problem but maths was a great struggle. Initially he failed maths at GCSE, but eventually passed while at further education college, and then went on to do a psychology degree, which he successfully completed. During his psychology degree he volunteered to work in our College with our students. He was very successful in getting on with young people and helping them in psychology, sociology and other areas. This blows away one myth with about autistic people, i.e. that they are not good socially  - and that this can’t be changed as autism is a lifelong condition.

After he graduated, and because he’d been popular with the students, we arranged for him to continue part-time with us. We found that he was also picking up support for students with maths. Remember that this was his worst GCSE subject and the assumption is that you need to be good at your subject to help others to learn it. What Charlie offers to students, who struggle like him, is an empathy with their struggles and a caring and patient way of working. Since our students have a totally free choice about which staff they use, his popularity is based on this free choice (we do have another member of staff who supports students with maths and who has an excellent academic track record, with a PhD, but he is also part-time, so the shared tutoring works really well.)

We have had a number of students with the label ADHD come to us. They come as school has not worked for them, because they did not cope with sitting still in a classroom for many hours during the day. Some years ago a boy out of Year Seven in school came to us because it just wasn’t working and he was ending up as with another label, namely, school refuser. He talked with a member staff about learning maths. He said just give me a worksheet and then tell me after 10 minutes and I’ll take a break and then go back to the worksheet. He didn’t like working at a desk, so he used to lie on the floor to complete the worksheet. Eventually he had no problem with learning maths and, indeed, any other subjects where we could accommodate the fact that he learned in quite short bursts and needed to be able to move around between bouts of academic learning.

I could repeat the stories over dozens of young people who come to us with labels. By spending time with each individual to find out who they really are and how they could best use their time with us, it becomes much easier to be helpful with their learning.

One example we had in our College was a boy who a school sent to us because he was a ‘selective mute’ (their label). He never spoke to anybody in the four years that he had been in secondary school nor had he ever done any school work at all. The school tried sending round tutors to his house, but he never ever responded to these lessons

We met with his mother and discovered that at his primary school the teacher had said to him, ‘you are stupid, Darren’. Darren decided, therefore, that it wasn’t much point in talking to these adults and became a selective mute. Darren was happy to speak to us as we didn’t start with trying to teach him anything but rather asked him about his life and what interested him.  We discovered that he was quite a practical boy, making things with his elder brother, for instance. He was naturally quite introverted but he was able to make a great deal of progress, just by us giving him the chance to be himself.

As was the school arrangement at the time, he had a statement of special educational needs so was required to attend a meeting at school after spending some months with us. The school staff were shocked when he spoke confidently to them about what he had been learning with us.

Labels might get extra resources for a child - but this happens less often these days. So the disadvantage of labels does tend to outweigh their advantages. Whilst we have to acknowledge the label that a student comes with, the key for us is spending time to find out who this person really is so that we can respond to that reality and not to some crass generalisation.

Dr Ian Cunningham, SML College