Lessons From an African-American Mother: Be Wary of the “Disruptive” Label

Written by Tamara Shockley | January 10, 2014

When my son was 3 years old I was called down to the Board of Education to discuss his behavior in preschool. Being a novice mother I had no idea what the discussion would be about. As my son sat on the floor playing with his toy trains, the school administrator proceeded to tell me that my son had “behavior” problems. According to the administrator, he could not sit still in class, which was disturbing the other students. (Were the other students all sitting still at that age?, I wondered.) I was told not to bring my son back to the class for 4-year-olds in the fall. Crestfallen, I took my son home and began to look for other schools. I also began to look at him differently. Prior to that event, I had no inclination that my son was different. He played with the neighborhood children, he was healthy—which was my priority at the age of 3—and he seemed to me to be a normal child.

So began my son’s journey through the special education and school discipline system. At the time, I did not know it, but his journey was not unique. Here’s a sobering statistic drawn from government data:

Nearly one in six African-American students was suspended from school during the 2009–10 academic year, more than three times the rate of their white peers… For black children with disabilities, the rate was even higher: One in four such students was suspended at least once that year.

As my son grew up, I would see statistics like this threaten to play out in his life. When my son was 5, I was called into the administrator’s office to talk about his behavior. The principal, teacher and school guidance counselor were in the office to attend the meeting. The guidance counselor stated, “I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but your child has ‘oppositional defiant disorder.’” They all nodded in agreement.

I had never even heard of this disorder. My son was not defiant to me beyond the typical not wanting to go to bed. He was never violent or angry and usually listened not only to me but to other members of the family. Yet here was a school guidance counselor informing me that my 5-year-old had a violent mental disorder. Just as in the preschool meeting two years earlier, I was unprepared. I had misgivings, but I ended up accepting what they said. Only afterwards did I learn that oppositional defiant disorder should not be diagnosed until the teenage years. I made the mistake of too quickly accepting a label for my child as an explanation for his behavior.

Parents should be wary of labels. Stereotypes about students of color being “disruptive” are not just in your imagination. Many times the stereotypes are not even intentional. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education just released school discipline guidelines that confirms the presence of unintended bias by school personnel:

An equitable and fair response is without regard to a student’s personal characteristics, including race, color, national origin, religion, disability… To help ensure fairness and equity, schools may choose to explore the use of cultural competence training to enhance staff awareness of their implicit or unconscious biases.

If after you have gathered evidence and received independent evaluations, you agree that your son has ADHD, learning disabilities or anything else, fine. But do not let others define or label your child without doing your homework.

After these incidents, I had my son evaluated. The results confirmed that he does not have oppositional defiant disorder. However, he does have ADHD and also an above-average IQ. He was misbehaving in school, but it turns out that his behavior issues were most often caused by boredom and by not being challenged enough. Once he was given more advanced material in class and expected to do more, his behaviour improved. So be wary of labels. Be prepared, do your homework. Your child’s education depends on it.

Tamara Shockley is an Administrative Law Specialist with UNICEF. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.