Summary: Screening of children is increasing,
including public school programs to screen as many preschoolers as possible,
regardless of whether there are any indications of problems in their
development. But do screenings
help children develop in healthy ways? Or do they cause more problems than they
solve? What are the risks of
screening? What alternatives are available to parents who do not what to have
their children screened and what are the benefits of these alternatives? How
can families minimize the damage screening can do?
Your newborn undergoes routine screening before leaving
the hospital. A letter arrives saying that preschool screening is required by
law and announcing the date your four year old should report. A health care
provider begins asking non-medical questions such as “Where does your baby
sleep?” “Does your two and a half year old cling to you more than you expect?”
“Do they seem too friendly with strangers?” and “About how many close friends
does your 15 year old have?” A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision favors school
districts over parents in controversies over special education. It's all part
of the increase in screening of children and challenges to parents' rights.
Widespread assessments are a recent phenomenon. In 1972,
only one state required standardized testing of public school students. But by 1989, all 50 did. Today assessments are
no longer confined to schools. Children are assessed from birth on. The federal
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is used to justify many
screenings, even though the law only requires that officials make screenings
available; it does not require that parents have their children screened.
However, officials eager to expand the reach of schools and increase their
budgets have used preschool screening to enlarge IDEA even though it is a
program supposedly designed for children with serious disabilities. In
addition, screenings are being conducted by many professionals, including
health care providers, social workers, teachers, physicians, and counselors.
Drug companies and others are pushing for increased mental health screening.
(See: “Increased Mental Health Screening? Are You Crazy!?!” in WPA Newsletter
#82, December, 2004, page 10ff.)
Children who supposedly do not do well on screenings are subjected to
more extensive evaluations by a multidisciplinary team of "experts"
to determine whether they need special education or other treatment.
Problems with Screening
Reports from screenings are often misleading and
inaccurate. Inaccuracies arise from several sources. Any test or assessment
inevitably reflects the values, background, and experience of its creators.
Members of ethnic minorities and people who have chosen values different from
the dominant culture are unfairly handicapped when assessed by mainstream
standards. Is it really fair or accurate to say that children who don't do well
on tests biased in favor of white middle-class boys are abnormal?
Most people do not
do their best in stressful situations. Young children who are appropriately shy
around strangers and in unfamiliar settings often fail to perform tasks during
preschool screening that they frequently do at home, leading assessors to
underestimate their abilities.
To make matters worse, inaccurate assessments can become
self-fulfilling prophecies when children conclude they are “dumb.”
Many evaluators are biased, sometimes unintentionally.
They focus on finding problems, not on identifying the few children who need
and would benefit from available help and encouraging the rest of the families
to continue what they are doing. Evaluators' training, mindset, and worldview
tend to be dominated by the notion that many, many children need the help that
their profession can offer. In addition, evaluators' prestige, salary, and job
security depend on their finding new clients.
Screening can result in legal difficulties. Parents who
allow screening surrender a great deal of control. It is often harder to
prevent additional screening once a child has been screened. Schools and other
agencies may claim the initial screening shows that formal evaluations are
necessary as a follow-up to the screening. Labels such as “learning disabled”
(LD) and “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD) give schools legal
authority they don't have if children have not been labeled. School officials
can report families to social services. For example, if children appear to do
poorly on part of a preschool screening, social services may be notified that
the children's home needs to be investigated.
parents who really want to have their children screened should seriously
consider whether the information from public school screening is worth the risk
of legal difficulty. It is less risky to pay for a private assessment and
consider the expense a relatively small price to pay for maintaining privacy
and control of their lives and minimizing the risk of intervention by the
state. However, parents must select private evaluators carefully to ensure that
they will not submit results of the screening to the state, as some evaluators
now do. And, of course, the basic risks of screening, such as inaccurate
results and loss of confidence, apply to private assessments as well as public
children's confidence. It is a search for weaknesses, not strengths, and a vote
of no confidence. To enable assessors to rank and label children, screenings
include questions and tasks that few if any children will be able to handle in
the time allowed. This increases some children's sense that “something must be
wrong with me,” that they have failed or at least done poorly.
Screening undermines parents' confidence in their
children, themselves, and their ability to raise children. It says that parents
are not competent and that “experts” are needed to assess children and tell
parents what to do. In addition, parents know more about their children than
people conducting screenings do. When parents are intimidated by screenings and
give up on their own ideas and observations, we lose a very valuable resource
for helping children grow and learn.
Screening interferes with children's learning and
development. Each of us learns best at our own pace, quickly in some areas,
more slowly in others. Learning happens much more easily and effectively when
we discover things for ourselves instead of trying to follow a teacher's
explanations that may not make sense or that we aren't ready to understand. But
screening imposes arbitrary, one-size-fits-all standards that really don't fit
anyone. Attempts to correct supposed deficiencies often make the situation
worse. Supporters of screening often argue that “early detection” is necessary
so problems can be corrected promptly. This leads to children being diagnosed
with “problems” they would have outgrown given more time.
Dealing With the “Risks” of Refusing to Have Your
Some parents may say, “What if we don't have our
children screened and we miss a problem that could have been corrected? If the
kids are normal, the screening will confirm this, right?” Wrong. The likelihood
that screening will turn up a serious but previously unidentified problem is
slim and has to be weighed against the much greater chance that the screening
will damage a child's natural development. Parents know a lot about their
children, especially when they take responsibility for their children and don't
turn them over to experts. Screenings, on the other hand, can be inaccurate and
often claim to identify “problems” that children would naturally outgrow given
Alternatives to Screening
Parents who want to do the best they can for their
children, including protecting them from the risks of screening, can do a lot
to understand, support, and encourage their children's development without
subjecting them to screening. Among the possibilities:
• Many parents spend
a lot of time with their children, simply because they love them and enjoy
being with them. In the process, parents learn a great deal about their
children's strengths, talents, interests, and abilities. They provide a
supportive environment that makes learning easier.
• Parents learn a lot from talking with other parents,
observing children from other families, and reading carefully selected books.
"doing," on activity and hand-on experiences rather than on
“teaching” gives children opportunities to learn more easily and at their own
pace. (See John Holt's Learning All the Time,
listed in Resources below.)
• Parents who
suspect a problem with hearing, vision, etc., take their children to a
specialist. Dealing with specialists can still cause difficulties, but it's
usually less risky than taking children to a general screening.
• Many parents who are
concerned about some aspect of their children's development choose to solve the
problem themselves rather than turning to screenings. Parents can identify and
focus on the child's strengths, whether physical skills, mechanical ability,
creativity, academics, ability to work with people, or whatever. They can apply
the “tincture of time” and give children the opportunity to outgrow a problem.
They can keep informal records or journals to show their children's progress.
By noting when specific problems arise, they can see if a difficulty is
connected to a particular time of day, food, stress, etc. They can share their
concerns with supportive, experienced parents whose principles and beliefs are
similar to their own. They can consult books and websites for more information,
fresh perspectives, and support. They can consult alternative health care
providers. Such approaches are almost always more effective than turning
children over to “experts” for screening. They also strengthen the family.
How We Can Minimize the Damage That Screening Does
• We can know our rights. Screenings are almost always
voluntary, and we can avoid some of them by not taking our children to be
screened, even when we get letters telling us when to report for preschool and
other screenings. However, we have to be alert to prevent our children from
being informally screened by health care providers, public school officials,
and others. We can insist on being with our children during medical procedures
(unless there is a compelling medical reason why we cannot be present) and
encounters with school officials and social service workers, and stop them if
they start asking inappropriate questions. Sometimes we can put our refusal to
have our children screened in writing.
• When an official claims that a screening or other
assessment is required by law, we can insist on seeing a copy of the statute(s)
that the official is referring to. (We can also refuse to provide vital data
about our children, such as their social security numbers, unless officials can
show us statutes that require that we give them such information.) We can
educate officials who are uninformed or misinformed and think that screenings
or other assessments are required when actually they are not.
• We can refuse to allow evaluations of our children
that would then give school officials the authority to decide if they need
special education. Many children have had negative experiences in special
education programs; many parents want to avoid it. Permitting evaluations
reduces our authority and increases school officials' authority. To make
matters worse, in November, 2005, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that when
parents and school officials disagree on whether a child's Individualized
Education Program (IEP) is appropriate for that child or is working well, the
parents and not the school district bear the burden of proof and must show that
the IEP needs to be changed.
If we refuse to
consent to an evaluation, school officials may apply pressure, including
threatening to initiate a hearing. We can respond by asking officials to show
us the statute that requires that parents agree to evaluations and by citing
books and case histories that question the validity of diagnostic techniques,
labels, and treatments associated with special education. (See Resources below
for helpful books.)
• If our children have been evaluated and are being
governed by an IEP that we realize is not what they need or is harmful to them,
we can withdraw our children from public school and enroll them in a private
school, including a homeschool.
• We can inform
other parents about their rights and the problems with preschool screening and
other assessments of children. Many people assume preschool screening is both
required and safe. We can tell them it is voluntary and risky. The more people
who question and refuse to participate in preschool screening, and the more
people who know their rights and act on them, the greater the likelihood that
we will maintain the rights we now have.
Screenings are risky. They are sometimes inaccurate,
undermine parents' and children's confidence, can get families into legal
difficulties and cause other problems. Generally speaking, children learn and
develop better when they are supported by loving parents who take responsibility
for them and spend time with them than when they are turned over to screenings
that can cause problems and that very seldom identify real problems that
parents haven't already recognized.
• Armstrong, Thomas. In Their Own Way: Discovering and
Encouraging Your Child's Personal Learning Style. Criticisms of
special education by a former teacher of "learning disabled"
children. Outstanding suggestions for helping children learn.
• Cole, Gerald. The Learning Mystique.
Somewhat challenging reading but extremely helpful information for bolstering
parents' confidence and countering “experts.”
• Granger, Lori and Bill Granger. The
Magic Feather. One family's story. Easy-to-read, very moving
information on the risks of screening and special education.
• Holt, John. Learning All the Time.
Excellent information about how children
learn and how adults can help them.
Parents Association Newsletter
#87 February 2006 pp. 11-13