I’m sort of surrounded by standardized and norm-referenced testing, between being a teacher and being Diva & LM’s mom. Those are the tests that come with scores and age references. Your child has the social-emotional skills of a 6 month old. Your child’s standard score is 45 in the motor skills domain. These tests are bad enough, but they only show up every couple of years — usually when someone, somewhere, is trying to decide whether your child can qualify for services. For me, we are the problem, even more than the tests. We let the scores linger. We bring them up when we decide whether a child can access literacy instruction or the general education environment. We bring them up to explain someone’s behavior — “Oh, he’s being two.” We use the scores to dictate our expectations and limitations. We let the scores (real ones or the imaginary ones we hold in our heads) decide what toys and shows and music our children can access. We talk about how “he’s like an infant” or “she’s mastering the 3 year old milestones” or so on…
And there are so, so, sooooo many problems with this… Most obviously, test scores tend to be notoriously unreliable for our kids. The environment is different. The context is missing. The social environment is all wrong. This is true of both standardized tests and “test questions” — all those times we try to test whether our children REALLY KNOW that thing, or if it was just “an accident”. Example: insisting a child wave to us on demand, sitting at a table, so that we can see if they really know how to wave (versus observing them waving good-bye to their friends as they get on the bus). I always ask myself — if Stephen Hawking was without his assistive technology, what would happen? And how can we say for sure that this is not our kids, who are going through the world without access to robust communication?
I used to just say that it was disrespectful. And it is. Do we label ourselves this way? Our typically developing children? Sometimes, I’m three years old, such as when I find myself wrapped in a power struggle with my son, all logic out the window. At other times, I’m totally thirteen. I stomp down the hall and slam my feet. What does this mean for me? When I’m acting three, will I get time out? Will I lose a toy? Will I be told that I cannot yet work on writing or reading, because I’m busy being three? When I’m acting thirteen, will I have my television time or cell phone taken from me? Be kept from getting my driver’s license? Going to college or work? What about the fact that I still idolize Disney films and saw Frozen 3-4 times in theaters? Does that mean that I’m developmentally six or seven?
But, more than that — it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to say that Diva is three. It doesn’t capture anything about her. It misses out on her love for pop music, for pink clothes, for fashionable sneakers and socks. It doesn’t capture the reasons that she loves bright-colored and young shows, such as Diego — which accommodate her vision and auditory processing far more than any of the “age appropriate shows”. It doesn’t tell us that she thinks it’s hilarious to listen to “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer” or that she has perfect pitch. I don’t know how she communicates or for what purposes. I don’t know how she interacts with songs, with books, with writing, with letters. I don’t know who her friends are or how her family supports her. Saying that Diva is developmentally three has done virtually nothing except establish a (fairly demeaning) box for her to fit in.
Besides, there’s another component that these tests and labels don’t measure — us. What are we doing to support Diva’s communicative competence? Are we responding to her communicative attempts? How long did it take before we gave her access to a robust communication system? Are we noticing the ways she shows us what she knows? What opportunities have we created for her to be an active, engaged learner in her world? Is it fair to assess her comprehension of books when our instruction in reading has been sorely lacking? How can we assess her against the general education standards when she has never had access to the general education curriculum?
There are other ways to talk about our kids. Diva is an emergent learner. She is learning both how to learn and why learning can be magical. She is communicating, reading, and writing at the emergent level. For her, this means that she is beginning to communicate for different reasons — requesting things, requesting attention, and sharing opinions. She needs us to model the ways that she can use her words instead of her screams. She needs us to respect her words when she uses them. She is very resistant to anything that seems like “work”. For her, “work” has been repetitive and boring. It has been the work of three year olds, because people believe that she is three. “Work” has been meaningless, or even painful. She is well-known in her school community. People say hello to her everywhere that she goes, and she seems to enjoy reading most when peers are reading with her.
See — there’s no test for this information. There’s no phrase that can quickly capture her. That’s how it should be. She’s Diva, just Diva.