In February 2001, the New York Times published a memorable article about a scientific study by a group of psychologists. The group claimed to have done an "exhaustive" review of Winnie-the-Pooh literature and then catalogued and diagnosed a range of clinical, personality, and psychological disorders among the major characters in the Winnie-the-Pooh books. Their study, called the Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective on A. A. Milne, was one in which the authors describe the various deficiencies of each character. Pooh, for example, has impulsivity issues signaling ADHD, which is compounded by his addiction to honey. For him, they prescribe Ritalin and adherence to the Zone diet. Piglet, they contend, is beset by generalized anxiety disorder and may benefit from a low dose of paroxetine. Owl, though bright, is dyslexic; no drugs are able to help him. Christopher Robin spends too much time playing "make-believe," perhaps signaling some future malfunction, and the scientists noted the total lack of adult supervision in the Hundred Acre Wood.
The study was a great joke, highlighting our increasing tendency to label each other and focus on weaknesses rather than strengths. An amazing number of people didn't get it. They complained research "shouldn't be used for stuff like this." Other people got it but didn't think it was funny. "These things are much too serious to be joked about," they said. The joke
is in the madness of it all. We have created in real life a storybook world that is as crazy as the study done on the Hundred Acre Wood.
Most of the labels we ascribe to children overlook what is right about children. We prefer to concentrate on labeling weaknesses. Teachers and parents must begin to change the focus from labeling weakness to proclaiming strengths. I am not suggesting that the students who are labeled LD do not struggle -- they clearly do, and suffer as a result. And I am all for helping kids catch up and learn what they need to know to get ahead in life, but the way in which we do
that -- with a sole focus on the weakness of the students -- is only half the equation. If we are going to remediate weaknesses, we must have an equal commitment to building strengths. We don't help children succeed when we place all the blame for the learning problems on them. We assume that the struggle in school is all the student's fault when there are many factors that can contribute to a child having difficulty in school:
- If an adolescent is left home alone most afternoons, with no one to talk to her or help her solve problems or learn how to interact, the child may become delayed in social or intellectual development.
- If teachers have a learning style that is at odds with the child's style (such as a highly visually oriented adult and an energetic child who learns by doing, not by seeing), the mismatch may appear to be a learning disability in the child.
- If a child is fed a constant diet of junk food and gets little exercise, he may be unable to concentrate in school. If early instruction in reading and math was poor, a student who cannot catch up may become so frustrated that he gives up.
People will have to learn to rely on different types of evidence that measure individual achievement and satisfaction. This is going to require a major paradigm shift, but just like every other important shift in outdated, conventional thinking, the process begins with the individual. We can make things better for future generations, and for our own futures, if we begin to see past the learning disability paradigm and come to realize that we all learn differently.