In Which I Confuse a Child Psychologist

Today, a tale from my past which I think illustrates some interesting social attitudes about “intelligence,” social expectations, and children.

When my father and I returned to the United States from Greece, he was informed that I would need to be assessed by a child psychologist before I could be placed in school. Although I had in fact attended school for two years in Greece, California’s education system was deeply suspect of school records in a language they couldn’t read. I later learned that all “immigrants” (by which they meant “people who may or may not speak English but definitely speak some other language”) were subjected to the same evaluation before being placed in an elementary school class, while the “American” (monolingual English speaking) children were not.

At any rate, off we went to the child psychologist’s office, where I was given various coloured blocks to play with and asked to draw things and interviewed. The psychologist asked me questions about my friends and what I liked to do, and I answered truthfully, talking about the time Yannis and I played a prank on the baker and how I liked go to Athens and look at the Parthenon and how we had just gone to Istanbul and seen a folk dancing performance (“but it was boring”) and how on Saturdays we went to the castle and poked around, and in the summers we would go to Xhios and look after Markos’ goats.

My English at that point was perfectly competent. I might have had a little bit of an accent and sometimes I said things in Greek because I didn’t know the English words for them. When I got excited, like while telling a story, I switched mostly to Greek, talking at high volume with excited gestures, like the Greeks do. I probably had equivalent English language skills to American children of the same age, and I had basic reading and writing skills which I could have demonstrated, if asked, mostly in shaky capitals, in both English and Greek.

The child psychologist nodded and noted things down and occasionally asked followup questions, and then I was sent into the waiting room to sit while my father talked to the psychologist. Years later, my father told me about the conversation.

“Well,” the psychologist said, “your daughter seems to have some communication problems, and she doesn’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality.”

“Oh,” said my father, not having observed either of these things. “What do you mean?”

“She makes up stories about people and places, and she uses a lot of nonsense words,” said the psychologist.

“What kind of stories,” my father said.

“Well, she told some story about going to the Parthenon, and then she babbled in nonsense words for a while,” the psychologist said.

“Are you aware that we’ve been living in Greece?”

“Oh, well, no,” the child psychologist said, shuffling his paperwork. “It’s mostly the Mexicans we get in here. [No, really, I am not making this up, this is exactly what he said, my father remembers it vividly.]”

“Well then,” my father said, “I think it’s you who has the communication problem.”

The psychologist looked offended.

“She speaks Greek,” my father said, “and you don’t. And you talked with her for an hour and somehow failed to elicit the fact that she had been living in Greece for several years.

And with that, my father left (and took me with him, of course!).

I ended up being placed in the “slow learners” group with the other “immigrants” (many of whom were also born and raised US citizens, but who just happened to be the wrong colour). We were mostly just left alone in the corner (no, really) and the other kids would chat with each other in Spanish while I looked at books and drew things. Eventually a teacher realized that I wasn’t just looking at the text, but actually reading it, and I was “rescued” and brought up to be with the rest of the class.

I couldn’t help but wonder, at the time, what would happen to all of my “immigrant” friends left to their own devices in the corner.

This is a pretty classic case in which differences in communication styles, in this case languages, are used to make judgments about “intelligence” which have far-reaching effects. It was assumed that no one in the “immigrant” group had any potential or anything to offer the class, so we were just ignored. This sort of thing happens all over the world, every day. Children aren’t “slipping through the cracks” because they communicate differently, they’re thrown into a pit and forgotten about, for the most part, unless someone puts out a little extra effort and attentiveness.

It shouldn’t have to be this way.

15 Comments

  1. Glad to see the site back!

    I am astouded at the obtuseness of the school psychologist. Glad your dad gave him that little lecture. Sheesh.

    My 12 yo son, who has communication difficulties that vary because of his Asperger’s syndrome, is judged as “less intelligent” sometimes. Just because he can’t spit words out at lightning speed does NOT mean he has nothing important to say. His intelligence is in the superior range, but since people don’t give him TIME, they assume within probably 30 seconds they assume the patient look of “let’s humor the kid with ISSUES”. Or else just turning away and ignoring him, and asking me.

  2. I love this post. The story is wonderful (in a horrifying sort of way), and it really got to me. Unfortunately, things don’t seem to have changed too much. I work for a program that helps students like your “immigrant” friends to graduate from high school and go on to college. These students are mainly Mexican immigrants or children of immigrants, and they have pretty much been “thrown down a pit and forgotten about” as you said. But we’re trying to help them, and to start getting to the kids earlier so that they can grow up hearing that they are smart and capable and wanted no matter what country they are from or what language they speak at home.

    If only there weren’t psychologists like the one you saw, or counselors like some at my school who routinely tell Latino students that they have no chance at going to college.

  3. The fact that so many people believe that intelligence only exists when it can be expressed in a way they understand is is extremely frustrating- and sadly far, far to common.

    But of course, it isn’t questioned by the majority, because it is such a nifty excuse for ignoring (at best) or actively harming (often in the name of “help”) so many people that society loves to push aside anyway. Immigrants, people with disabilities that affect their communication, people who are so traumatized that they can not talk about it, people whith a social and cultural background that taught them to speak in a way that differs from the one considered “right” and “normal”.

  4. Haha! Amusing how he thinks he knows everything about the child’s life without even consulting the parent. This is just flat-out stupidity, and it makes me happy to see that someone was able to stick it to him.

    I used to tutor the ESL students at my high school. I know for a fact that they were slipping through the cracks. While the rest of the class were writing 5-page essays, they were writing 5-paragraph essays. If they somehow were allowed to graduate with such a poor education, they would be way behind their peers at mastery of life skills. It’s almost as if they were being groomed to be blue-collar workers deliberately. The class discrimination was obvious, and I don’t know that anyone of them (or their parents) had the power to end it.
    .-= The Nerd´s last blog .."It’s just normal childhood!" =-.

  5. Great piece. Definitely the reality. Some of these “gatekeepers” are so jaded and cynical and bored and incompetent that the decisions they make – life-affecting decisions for students) are just frightening. What really bugs me, too, is that you were still placed in a “slow” class despite your father’s explanation. Did the psychologist just completely ignore your father? The mind boggles.

  6. Another thing:

    This brought back memories of my gran. She became hard of hearing in her fifties and her hearing worsened over the decades. But for most of her life, we were able to all communicate well (if with occasional misunderstandings). But towards the end of her life, when her overall health worsened, she stopped wanting to use her hearing aid, and often couldn’t understand us even with the aid. We made do with writing things down, since sadly none of us, my gran included, had ever learned to use sign language. But eventuall, that no longer worked either.

    There are always people who treat the elderly as if they were suddenly children again. It is a horrible practice, and I hated seeing onee of my aunts do the same to my mom. And I am sure that their lack of communication contributed a great deal to this. After all, it is so much easier to assume that someone has become “childlike” when that person can no longer take part in “adult” convcersation. My gran could still let us know what she wanted or didn’t want, but to my aunt, it was as if not being able to hear us was the same as not being able to undrstand us.

  7. My sister got a similar reaction when she told the psychologist that she “lived past Jupiter.” Jupiter was the name of a street, and the psychologist thought she meant the planet and apparently didn’t think to clarify.

    My parents had brought her in for assessment autonomously, though, so it didn’t impact her education. I don’t even want to think about how many children may have been held back due to that psychologist’s poor communication skills and judgey attitude.

  8. Eek. I’m embarrassed for my profession.

    My grad school cohort was brought up better, possibly because our Dean was originally from Cuba, we had a professor who was Egyptian but raised in Saudi, two Black profs and a gay man. With some diversity both in administration and faculty, no way were we (who were also pretty diverse!) going to be allowed to remain ignorant. Because of my own experiences, I tend to assume that other psychologists are equally well-versed in cross-cultural issues. I about lose my cookies when I read stuff like this.

    Bravo for your father. So many parents don’t feel they can stand up to The Doctor. My Mom was a bit like your Dad. When I came back from a school year in the hospital & at home recuperating from polio, the school system wanted to place me at “the CP (cerebral palsy) School.” I’m sure it had a real name, but nobody was using it with my Mom. She checked it out and determined that it was a variation on Meloukhia’s sitting-in-the-corner experience and said no way, no how was I going anywhere but back to the regular classroom with my friends.

    Which of course was not handicap accessible, but that’s another story for another time.

    Again, bravo for your Dad, and my apologies for the ass-hattery of some of my colleagues.

  9. This rings so true in my own experience. At my elementary school, the advanced classes were full of white kids from upper-middle class backgrounds. I don’t think there was a single black kid in the advanced classes. And this school had a significant minority population.

    Then there was their refusal to test kids for learning disabilities unless the parents were really pushy. My parents were pushy thankfully. But then, we were a white, upper-middle class family of English speakers, so it was easier for my parents to be pushy and get me tested.

    The school also refused to make real accommodations for my LDs (their solution was an hour a day in the special ed room where I colored or played on the computer, learning nothing.) Again, my parents had to push and eventually sent me to a school for kids with LDs. It was a private school though and very small. If my parents weren’t educated and white and middle class, then I would likely not have gotten the help at all, because they had to use their social privilege to get me the help I needed. It shouldn’t be that way.

  10. Good on your dad!

    And I can echo the tales of it happening here.

    My mom worked in a “special ed” class (the *sigh* “high-functioning” one) and there was a girl in there with no disability whatsoever, unless one considers speaking Chinese and having immigrant parents a disability.

    I bet the thinking was, eh, ESL’s broke*, throw her in there, she’ll pick up something. Plus the parents don’t care! (Or because we don’t speak their language, and they’re not proficient in ours… we don’t care!)

    *If something is messed up within a public school, various *isms are at play but most often it comes down to the lack of money. (Of course, how that money is used reveals blinkered thinking…)

  11. One of my cousins was put into speech therapy in school when his family moved to California. The school said that he couldn’t pronounce the letter R. They neglected to realize that he’d just moved to California from Massachusetts, and what they heard as a speech problem was what anybody else would call a New England accent.

  12. Ruchama: I had a similar issue when I started school, which was most likely related to my bilingualism (why I didn’t retain it is a rant for another day…). I had never really picked up the ‘th’ sound in English–I couldn’t tell the difference between that and an F or D. Looking back, I don’t know if the therapy really helped or if I just needed to spend more time with anglophones.

  13. Reading this makes me realise how class privilege prevented this from happening to me. Because my family moved from Germany to the US when I was five and my brother was seven, but as we were an academic family in an upper-middle class neighbourhood my brother and I got put into one of the standard classes for our age group. There was an ESL group (which rather confusingly contained a British girl), but I think it was something extra and not something we missed class for – and even that was only for the first year.

    The kicker? At this time neither my brother nor I spoke any English whatsoever.

    But I agree muchly on the communication thing. It’s only recently occurred to me how much I willfully ignore the signs of people paying less attention to me and/or dismissing me because of my speech disorder because I just don’t want to know how much it happens and with whom – I can already guess that the answers are “rather a lot” and “even with people who know me quite well” but I don’t want to have that confirmed. 🙁

  14. Kaz — heh, I was almost 4 when my family moved from Germany to the US, and I barely had a 500 word vocabulary at the time. (Severe hearing impairment resulted in significant language delay.) When I started school, it slowly became apparent that they had no idea what to do with a gifted kid with a significant disability! My speech therapist had to be told I could read – even though my first-grade teacher knew I was reading well above grade level, becase she’d also been my kindergarten teacher. Unfortunately, it took them till sixth grade to recognize the connection between language delay and social-skills delay. Uhm, a HoH kid who can’t hear isn’t going to pick up the social cues that kids with normal hearing pick up by .. well.. hearing. How difficult a concept is that to grasp?! Nevermind some of the other issues we had to deal with, which my parents at least had class and skin privilege they could use to browbeat the administrators into admitting a problem existed, nevermind coming up with ways to address it! Suffice to say that my public-school education was… not a postive experience for me. Probably the only useful thing I got out of it was learning how to do self-advocacy, because I sure wan’t getting much advocacy from anyone outside my family.

  15. When my Dad was applying for his PhD in education in the mid 90’s, he had to take the General GRE. When he earned a perfect score, the school refused to accept it because a “foreign national” couldn’t possible have done that. Never mind that he was from an English-speaking nation (former British colony in the West Indies), or that he had a Master’s Degree from London School of Economics and had been teaching in the US for 10 years (Sigh). They wouldn’t even meet with him so he could state his case, they just insisted that he retake the exam. He was so disheartened by this, he just gave up.