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108 FEBRUARY 2008
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Old labels, new labels, and the difference between a “label” and a “noun for a disease”

Fritz Redl

This article, (this is part 2 of three parts. See part 1 and part 3) is a condensed version of the Keynote speech that Dr. Redl gave at the 1975 New England Kindergarten Conference sponsored by Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The talk was summarized in the Conference Proceedings which are currently out of print. Dr. Fritz Redl was at the time Adjunct Professor at Massachusetts State College, School of Education in North Adams, and Visiting Professor at the School for Criminal Justice at State University of New York at Albany.

It is clear that the whole Chapter 766 concept originated from a most desirable wish to avoid having children stuck where they should not be just because of linguistic rigidities or of insufficiencies of service institutions. Human frailty is such, unfortunately, that we don’t seem to be able to last long without oversimplifying life again, and appeasing our bad conscience for insufficient services at the same time, by starting a new label hunt. It didn’t take us long while we tried to get away from labels, the very term “766” has already been found beautifully useable for putting our consciences at peace. By now there are “766 children"; I even heard of “766 Child Parents"; and whole committees are working long stretches of time to find out whether Bobby is a “766.” In his case he obviously has some “special needs” which ought to be taken care of one way or another. The question, by the way, that we really need to take care of him has so far not received as much fiscal attention as the search for the specialness of his “needs.” Without any chance to do justice to the complexity of even the terminological problem, let’s at least remind ourselves of some of the differentiations we ought to be respectful of:

First, the concept of “basic needs” has been in the center of the attention of educators and psychologists for many decades. In the late 1930s, in fact, this theme was on the top of the list of conceptual priori ties. By “basic needs” we mean strivings and drives of individuals with out the gratification of which they would be seriously affected, get sick or even die. The need for oxygen in the physical area, for instance, would be a good example – even the most punitive institution has yet to come up with the suggestion that kids should be punished by being forbidden to breathe. The need for love and affection especially for the young child may be listed as another example for a few dozen more. For a while we were so hipped on the “need for security” that we missed the fact that during the developmental phase, between roughly 8 and 12 years, an equally strong need to take chances and prove one’s metal by taking risks may be equally basic though sometimes leading to problems in the course of its pursuit.

Second, linguistically we are haunted by another problem. Some drugstores have a sign that reads “Shaving Needs"; this is an entirely different use of the term. This is not a “need from within” but refers to the gadgets I have to have in order to get a job done. There is nothing wrong with listing “things we need” for good education (equipment, etc.), but we are now in an entirely different ball park and better remember it.

Third, in educational, psychological and clinical discussions in the 1930’s we also learned to be careful to differentiate between “needs” as defined by our study of humans, and “felt needs” as consciously experienced by the one who has them. Some of my customers in a camp for delinquents had a deep seated need for an affectionate relationship with some adult in a semi-parental role – but would rather die than admit it. In fact, they had to be so careful not to discover this dangerous need within them that they resorted to all sorts of overtly hostile behavior to disguise it.

Fourth, sometimes we mean by “basic needs” certain experiences which we have to provide for children to help their personal or cognitive development. Into this category would fall the many discussions of whether there is not a real need to have Latin as part of the curriculum, or to have a wide variety of constructive but also gratifying activity and recreational experience for children to help them develop properly.

Fifth (leaving out a lot of details), let me now land on one of the most serious confusions of our time: Some of what we mean when we talk about “special needs” are not special needs in the sense of the above mentioned categories; they are simply a polite disguise for admitting that a youngster has a special problem which needs to be repaired, or even a special disease or its psychological equivalent which needs to be taken care of. This is the point where the linguistic confusion hits us hardest. If Bobby has severe appendicitis and needs his appendix taken out, we had better state that clearly, and the word acute appendicitis is not a misty label; it is a name for a well known sickness. And if Bobby can’t sit still for even the usual minimal time expected for his age, he is hyperkinetic – never mind now for which reason. The term “hyperkinetic” is not a label, it is the name for a type of affliction which needs to be taken care of, especially if it has reached proportions of intensity that go beyond what we well know as the fringe of restlessness found in children of certain ages. In short, let us not forget that a whole child hangs off any noun we use. But some such nouns are not just “nasty labels,” they are relevant summaries of what they suffer from and what needs to be “cured.”

Sixth, for us as educators and clinicians there lurks another complexity to which we haven’t yet given enough attention. So far we can discover and describe many of the well known, especially the cognitive, disturbances which lead to the fact that a youngster will need special help because he has special “needs.” Fortunately, we already know what some of them need – dyslexia, for instance, which enjoys popular attention just now. But what if something went wrong with less well named functions in a child's development? I may inherit Mary in my classroom because of her “dyslexia,” but what if she also never learned how to play or be comfortable with other children? To help with her learning problem is one issue. To have a twelve-year old who is on the level of a four-year old as far as play and contact with other kids is concerned is a task of an entirely different nature, and my chance to do it in 6B, if I happen to be the home room teacher this year, depends on many other factors than the question of whether I can get the proper teaching or reading materials or even tutoring help. And what if Bobby, of our first illustration, could not diminish his restlessness in that class at all, but would be able to work with a “crisis teacher” or special tutor, to whom I can send him instead of adopting my original pencil sharpener arrangement? And what if I am given one extra teacher so that somebody else can take care of the equally justified basic needs of some of the children so I can spend time with Bobby when he needs me “instead of reducing the number of competent teachers and increasing the number of children per classroom?

In short, the area of “special needs” may have to extend not only to clearly cognitive or some of the by now often mentioned behavioral needs, it may also include the “making up” of developmental stretches without which a youngster cannot be expected to make it in any group of learners “no matter how well equipped we are in terms of instructional aids.

This feature:,_Special_Needs.html

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