A mother of a highly sensitive child (HSC) who had just started primary school told of how her child was struggling in the classroom, resulting in tantrums and tears at home.
The teacher was being less than understanding about her daughter’s need for quiet time to recharge, and failed to grasp just how overwhelming the school environment is for her daughter.
I asked whether she had talked to the school prior to her daughter’s first day about her being highly sensitive, and the impact starting school might have on her. She told me she hadn’t. In fact, she said she had deliberately avoided such a discussion because she hadn’t wanted to label her child before she had even set foot in the classroom. It’s a standpoint I understand.
The journey with my HSC has been a bumpy one, involving a child psychologist who needed to stick a giant fluorescent label on my son’s head, in order to help him further.
As a mother who knew what the (non) issue was (highly sensitive) watching a specialist going down her own route doing autism and intelligence tests on him was annoying and frustrating, as well as hard hitting on the wallet. She had to rule out behavioural labels such as ADHD, ADD and the idea of him being highly gifted before we could move forward. It took months of painstaking appointments and tests when we were already at the end of our tether. The end result was that all other labels were deemed ‘unstickable’ on my son and we were left with ‘highly sensitive’. And we were eventually referred to a specialist in highly sensitive children. The long way round for sure.
My son’s first school didn’t like the idea of ‘highly sensitive’, seemingly thinking it meant a world of tree hugging and clairvoyants judging by comments we had. The teachers couldn’t see past the label to the little boy underneath and his needs.
So I know about labels. And I understand why sticking one on your own child feels uncomfortable. Why it feels risky. And so when we approached his new school we were determined to approach the issue differently and found there was a whole new way to see it.
Instead of seeing myself sticking a label on my child’s forehead, I envisioned myself presenting an instruction manual to the teachers of my child.
We don’t think twice to inform a school of dietary or medical requirements for the wellbeing of our children and we shouldn’t be afraid either to share the less tangible needs of our children with those that care for them, that spend so much time with them.
Letting my son’s new teacher know that he regularly needs time out in a quiet place so he can recharge (or empty his bucket as we put it) helped her form a picture of how he reacts to the classroom environment.
We told her that he can be overwhelmed or distracted by noise or busy activity around him, or thrown by a break in the normal routine. We explained that he is emotionally tuned in to others so could become inexplicably upset by a classmate falling and hurting herself, or emotionally unsettled by a new classmate who is feeling unsure and upset about his new surroundings. We made her aware of how he may behave and why, without throwing the entire ‘highly sensitive’ book at her. We concentrated on the specifics and not the general.
His teacher was then able to suggest ways she could work with my son to ensure he gets the time out he needs. She suggested headphones and gave proper thought to where he sits in the classroom. She’s aware that if they have had a busy morning, or undertaken an activity that differs from the norm, he may be more tired than normal and he will need the time and space to settle himself. In short, he has her full support in the classroom without having a ‘highly sensitive’ label stuck on his head.
Highly sensitive children are individuals too, with different traits and different needs. Under each so-called label there is an individual child with needs that differ to that of another child with the same label. And so presenting your child’s needs or behaviour triggers doesn’t have to feel like using a label if you keep the information relevant and unique to your child in the form of a personal, individual instruction manual.
In the same way we read the instruction manual for a new electronic device to understand how it works, it is important for those that care for our children to have some idea how to get our children to ‘operate’ at their best and this shouldn’t be sacrificed because of a wariness of labels.
There has been lots of discussion about labelling our children. Negative labels feed negative behaviour. Negative labels damage our children. Parenting books tell us how to turn negative labels into positive ones. It’s a nest of vipers for many parents and we have become wary of stereotypes. The truth is that in some cases a label is a fact of life. To get professional help, for example, a label needs to be established. It’s a necessary evil. But it doesn’t mean as a parent that you have to use the label if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
Maybe if we concentrate on sharing the uniqueness of our children, sharing what makes them who they are, explaining how our own child experiences the world around them, we can avoid the stigma of a label, and present our teachers and caregivers instead with a helpful, individual instruction manual that helps them do their job, and ultimately get the best out of our children.