Diagnosis Can Blind Us to Leadership Opportunities

by Rick on March 24, 2016

After one of my workshops on “Finding Your Genius” at a school last year, the mother of fourth-grader Maya told me of the struggle Maya had with social anxiety.
In first grade, she would freeze when it was her turn to speak to the class. The very thought of doing a book report in front of her classmates would cause a panic attack. Sometimes, she would be so terrified that the teacher would have her sit outside the circle or in her own corner.

It was a topic at parent-teacher conferences, of course. Often, teachers would suggest plans for how to help her, like inviting small groups of best friends to their home, or not looking at her classmates when she spoke in class, or various kinds of behavior modification. No matter what they tried, however, nothing helped; in fact, it seemed to get worse. If she were required to speak in front of her class, she would panic. It was agreed: she had “Social Anxiety Disorder.”

reading in front of a class - Google SearchThen, in fourth grade, Maya wrote a great story. Her teacher praised her for a great piece of work and, also, showed it to her former first grade teacher. They decided that the first grade teacher should ask Maya if she would like to read it to the first graders.

She did, and Maya agreed, flattered to have been asked. As the day of her presentation approached, Maya showed no signs of her normal anxiety. On the day of her presentation, she walked proudly into the room like an actress, sat in the speaker’s chair with twenty-two first-graders at her feet and read her story with great articulation and even flare.

She was so successful at this that Maya’s teacher arranged for other speaking engagements, and Maya even performed at an all-school assembly with no signs of stage fright. Yet, Maya still panicked before making a presentation to her class.


To help someone, we need to listen to the details of their experience and think creatively.


It is, unfortunately, standard procedure for parents and teachers to treat school problems like medical problems. Listening to them talk about students who are experiencing challenges you would think there are only a handful of diseases: Dyslexia, ADHD, Sensory Motor Integration, Social Anxiety Disorder, Executive Function Disorder, and “On the Spectrum” (formerly Asperger’s). Adults have a hard time seeing school from the child’s point of view, and rarely ask.

When parents and teachers diagnose children, they often ignore five obvious things about us humans:

  1. We are unique
  2. We are complex
  3. We know things about our own problems
  4. Our brains are working on them on their own
  5. We are not the same person today that we were yesterday

What we ignore is critical. To say that Maya has “social anxiety disorder” is about as helpful a diagnosis as giving a person who has a hot forehead and can’t get out of bed a diagnosis of “Fever.” Naming a problem usually begs the question of what to do about it. In the end, what worked for Maya was teachers noticing the details of Maya’s experience in school and thinking creatively about it.

Their trial-and-error approach led the adults in Maya’s life to a new thought; i.e. that Maya’s difficulty speaking in groups is her own unique version of one of the challenges of being human: how to be your imperfect self in a group and avoid embarrassment at the same time.

It might be a reasonable working hypothesis that Maya has high standards for herself, judges herself harshly, and imagines that all of her classmates will judge her as harshly as she judges herself. Since being humiliated in front of her friends is an even higher disaster for her than not measuring up to her standards, she is forced into the uncomfortable position of shutting down in a group, in order not to reveal her embarrassingly sorry self to her peers.

A diagnosis can blind us to the very thing that would lead to a great moment.


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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Iseult Catherine O'Brien March 25, 2016 at 5:43 am

Good day ~

I have a personal anecdote which I think exemplifies your thoughts nicely. My cousin, Feargal, did not speak. He obviously understood everything that went on around him, and his hearing was checked and found to be fine. This was many years ago, before people jumped to look for a “spectrum” to tag onto a child. Of all the family, he was the fastidious one. He was the household alarm clock, and had tea made and toast on for the family when they arose. He dressed in a bow tie for his first day of school. At the age of four-and-a-half, Feargal began to speak in full, correct, sentences. In retrospect, his parents took the view that as he always liked things to be “just so” he had decided not to speak until he knew he had mastered it. His parents never stressed him, or pushed him, they were confident he would come to himself in his own time. Nowadays, they might be reported to a Child Welfare Department, but almost thirty years ago, Feargal was allowed to find his unique voice in his own time.

Rick March 27, 2016 at 10:37 am

Thank you, Iseult. Great story. Reminds me of two brothers at my first school in Kansas City, one four-years-old and one five. After six weeks of school their teachers (they were in two different Montessori classrooms) came to my office to tell me they were concerned about both boys. “For six weeks they have done nothing but wander around the classroom. I think we should get them tested.”
I was open to the idea, but said, “give it another week, then go ahead and set up two separate parent-teacher conferences.”
One week later the teachers were back in my office: “It’s amazing! The day after we met with you, both of them began to work with the materials, and one week later they have zoomed past their peers in the amount of work they have done. It’s like a miracle.”
Of course, it wasn’t a miracle. It’s more like Feargal. It’s as if they spent the first six weeks learning by watching not wanting to do something until they knew they could do it right. Wonderful “syndrome.” Sometimes I wish I had it. Maybe there is a pill for it.

Christine Drew March 28, 2016 at 7:33 am

I watched my oldest child wait and watch before he would leap. He was not a “try and try again” or a “fail early” kind of child. He was easily frustrated by failure. Often, however, he seemed to know how to do something at a high level of performance “all at once.” One of his early teachers said to me, “Some children seem to have a building block kind of brain…they are mentally creating the experiences thro observation that others actually physically do. So it appears that they learned something “all at once.”
I am increasingly concerned that early labels limit our observations of children with early “diagnosis.” Child development is not as lock step as we think. Even walking at 7 months to 14 months is “normal.” I would think that before fourth grade is too early to tell much except in profound cases. and…once labelled…always so. A self fulfilling prophecy that we could do without in some / many cases.

Larry Arnstein March 28, 2016 at 12:15 pm

Great post, Rick.

Our kids went to a private school in Santa Monica, California, which was what was once called “progressive.” I think maybe that term is not used much today, but it was a school where teachers understood that children learn on their own schedules. Parents who wanted their kids to go to this school had this explained to them, and then they visited classrooms where they could see it. Still, when their kid didn’t learn how to read on the parents’ expected schedule, they panicked. “What’s wrong? Why is my child not learning how to read? Other children are learning, is there something wrong with our child?” I think you must know, having been the guy parents went to with complaints over many years at many different schools, that you have to explain to parents over and over again that their children learn on their own schedules. It must be a little frustrating. Since our kids were five years apart, we attended many parent meetings over many years where parents would demand to know why their children weren’t learning to read as fast as someone else’s child. Our head of school would invariably turn to them and say something like, “That’s an excellent question. I’m so glad you brought this up.” Then he would repeat the same thing he had already explained to them and all other parents innumerable times before. I’m sure he hated this, but he always put on a good show of being intrigued by this question.

Mark Herman March 28, 2016 at 1:28 pm


This is me, for nearly all of my 60+ years until recently, and my son until now (in 7th grade) when his teachers backed off from comments like, “We wish Gabriel would participate more in class since he has so much to offer……” or, “We always know when Gabriel has something to say but holds back so we are encouraging him to participate more.”

After we suggested the teachers view the matter differently and try other strategies, he is coming into his own at his own pace and without the panic.

You should know he is an A student by their measure but is in a highly competitive class with many boys whose hands are always waiving for attention.
The irony is that he is a magnet among his peers – the go to guy, often with the right answer, the means to settle disputes, rouse the team and more. He simply displays his strengths in other ways.


Paul Greenwood March 29, 2016 at 6:46 am

Hey Rick,

Interesting and timely post. As my own children go through their daily metamorphosis, my wife and I often wonder what we ‘should do about our children.’ But your post reminds me that the best thing we can do is observe, embrace, and enjoy the journey, all the while maintaining faith that, as they learn to find their way in the world, experience may be the best teacher.

Marty Dutcher March 29, 2016 at 5:18 pm

These five things are so important – this is a great list, and I so agree. All the previous comments point to the value of understanding this – you have a wonderful community following you! Our human diversity is so grand that no one strategy or answer for virtually any individual issue will work for others.

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