Anxiety Grows Thick Under the Labels

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As an expert on learning differences, as well as having worked with hundreds of clients over the years, I feel strongly about the need to address the topic of anxiety as it pertains to learning challenged children specifically.

First, you should know that my investment in education runs deep, both personally and professionally. I created School Shop LA in 2008 after taking a hiatus from my twenty-year career in education. As an educator and educational consultant, I have witnessed the very real struggles of parents whose children face learning challenges. I’ve also dealt with these battles personally, with my child, who we discovered early on, had some of her own learning challenges. Even with all my advanced knowledge, privilege, and access to care, my daughter suffered at the beginning as well, while we dealt with mislabeling and false diagnoses. She was moved around from class to class and to various schools within a school system which lacked any real understanding of how to treat the individual.  It was difficult but eventually she went on to college is a well-adjusted amazing woman today.

Turning My Pain to Purpose…

From then to now, my own biases aside, I turned my pain and my passion into purpose. I have an incredible track record of identifying schools where a child's individual strengths, emotional development, learning style and extra-curricular interests, are likely to be nourished and allowed to flourish. Over the years while helping these children, one of the things that continued to come up was the issue of lingering, pervasive anxiety. And sometimes, to help these kids and match them to the appropriate educational requirements, families might miss the problem or the child’s emotional needs would be unintentionally ignored. Some experts did and do notice that a child is dealing with severe anxiety, but what I saw often, was that they might recommend a pill without also addressing the root cause. Sometimes, in some cases, nothing at all was done. Why it is that the underlying cause is often neither addressed nor remediated in so many cases, is beyond me. However, if you look at the slow burn that is the journey of finding a child’s educational home, I think you will understand better at least how a child’s emotional needs can often get lost in the process.

It usually works something like this. A child is found to be falling behind early in school - elementary school or early middle school typically. Then parents and teams of “educators” begin addressing the need for action. There are usually a series of meetings on the child’s behalf, various discussions over behavior or grades, and sometimes arguments and fighting between parents on how to move forward. All the while, no one is noticing that the child is internalizing all the chaos that surrounds him or her. What is wrong with me? Why are my parents meeting my teachers? Why can’t I learn like other kids? Many times, that pain, that anxiety, gets buried over time. But the labels and the shame, well, that all stays at the forefront. At some point in the process, that child is told he will be in a “new” class because he has XYZ learning disability. Or maybe s/he simply needs “extra” help. But what child wants to be singled out in grade school or middle school? As adults, we understand the need for this action, but the child may not. Eventually these labels, and the anxiety that accompanies the “less-than” feelings that go with those labels, spill over. Am I good enough to go to college? Will I amount to anything? Why bother?

That Girl Is Me…

How do I know all of this? Well, besides working in this arena for the better part of my adult life and in addition to dealing first-hand with a child who experienced these types of learning challenges early on, I was that child. I often say that I stopped school in fifth grade.  I couldn’t learn the same as my peers; I fell behind very early; I felt stupid. By high school, I’d go in one door to start the day and out the other minutes later. I managed – that was all I was able to do. And I truly believe that my lack of motivation to be better, had less to do with the learning difficulty and more to do with the lies I told myself that stemmed from negative labels assigned to me so early on. I had been to so many schools. I knew I didn’t learn the same. I knew I was different. It felt crippling. After I finally made it out of high school, I thought the only way I’d amount to anything would be if I found someone to marry. I had great anxiety around the idea of how I was going to make it if I didn’t find a partner. The many emotional challenges that arose because of my early labeling and the scarring far superseded the early learning difficulties.

Now, as a leader in this field, I ask anyone that works with me to be extra cognizant of their language. I want to always be sensitive to a child’s inner monologue as opposed to only working on a solution for the learning programs and/or all that accompanies that challenge. Yes, it matters what school your child attends. Of course, you want to do everything you can to assure your child’s success. However, we must never forget, that even if we have solved the immediate problem, there is an underlying stigma that stays. Don’t ignore any signs of emotional insecurity or heightened anxiety in your child simply because the acute issue has been addressed. These children need extra assurance that they are worthy of living a bright life and that their anxiety and fears--- even if you feel they aren’t based in any accurate beliefs--- are very real.

Often as educators, we recognize that the parents will have some anxiety, normal parental fear that makes sense. But we rarely take a second look to fully identify the pervasive, insidious anxiety that can grow over time within a learning challenged child. Having been that girl with learning issues myself, I get it. Please pay attention to the signs; ask questions; make it a priority. As educators, parents and associates, we owe it to make a real and lasting difference in each child’s journey.

For more on School Shop L.A. contact me here.