Teachers form an early defense in violence prevention. That’s because they see potential problems early enough for proper intervention. Many, by their observations, save lives by noting deviations in language and behavior significant enough to raise concern of a very serious problem.
Ben McGahee, a mathematics instructor at Pima Community College, described for the Washington Post problem behaviors exhibited by Jared Loughner, who is being charged with the shooting of 20 people, including Representative Gabrielle Gifford, and the death of several others, in an Arizona shopping mall. McGahee said, Loughner wrote the words “Eat+Sleep+Brush Teeth=Math.” “He just miserably failed the test,” McGahee said. This was one of several clues the instructor used to describe Loughner to college officials so something could be done. Loughner was referred to a psychiatrist, although it has been reported Loughner never followed up. Nevertheless,, McGahee’s observations supported attempts to get the young man help.
Loughner’s verbal confusions, evidenced in what he wrote as well as the words he used, is the kind of evidence psychologists use to make definitive diagnoses of problem behavior that warrants intervention.
Mental health professionals have a diagnostic manual to help assess how writing problems may indicate a serious problem exists. This is what the criteria is for making that initial assessment. ” The DSM-IV diagnosis of disorder of written expression includes writing skills substantially below those expected for the child by age and measured intelligence. Poor writing skills must result in a significant interference with academic achievement and/or the activities of daily living that require the composition of texts (ie, grammatically correct sentences and organized paragraphs). In contrast to the previous editions, the DSM-IV allows for concurrent diagnosis of disorder of written expression with sensory, motor, neurological, and intellectual conditions; however, if a patient is concurrently diagnosed with any of these, the writing skills difficulties must be in excess of those usually associated with the condition.”
A simple writing test is one of those classroom tools that reveals learning problems or possibly a troubled mind. It’s one of those front line defense tools that classroom teachers use.
As a teacher of troubled teens and those with learning problems, I helped to provide consultation and diagnostic overviews for other teachers as students moved from my classroom to the mainstream or entered my program for special needs young people. I found that one of the valuable clues to student problems was how they wrote and what they wrote about, including scribbles, pictures, symbols that they used. A close examination of student writing often helped uncover learning problems and mental issues too, sufficient to make proper referrals for getting them proper help.
The signs of troubled teens are not always overtly made. They are suggested in the way they write or move. The movements may be slow or fast, but dramatic deviations from age-appropriate behavior can be seen in how one walks and gestures and makes symbols on pieces of paper, where they shouldn’t be at all. These types of behaviors are among the many clues teachers find in problem teens.
That messy scribble instead of a completed essay or paper done in class provides evidence of possible scrambled thinking, confused thoughts and stresses that can be great enough to create outbursts of pain. These markings are different than the doodles people make. Instead the marks are hard, the slashes strong, the thoughts and words erratic, unrelated to the topic, or just tangentially so. Margins aren’t used well as good boundaries for the writing. Top and bottom spaces fill with letters, words and pictures where they really shouldn’t be.
Writing is an area of classroom work where screening can take place. In fact formal tests use specific criteria in the fashion just discussed, but with standardization applied to the results. The unusual details and behavior, however, in observing a student’s writing can often be coherent with what a psychometric test might discover later on.
Sometimes those irregular markings, words that don’t relate appropriately in sentences, or sentences confused in order or in style are signs of brain dysfunction or confused language skills. On the other hand, they may reveal impulsive and problem behaviors coming from another source of mental illness. Psychologists and psychiatrists tell us in expert manuals written language and other communication detail tells us many things. It is one of the ways differential diagnosis is made as a form of communication.
There are myths and misconceptions at the same time teachers need to know about writing as well as recommended tests that can be used to assess it. Writing is a complex operation, as one expert observes, requiring not just the mechanics of spelling and handwriting but the ability to sequence ideas and facts as well. It is the range of these issues examiners look at to make their evaluations and to offer remediation support or recommend further diagnoses beyond just what language reveals.
The teacher on that front line of defense in the classroom has many tools to use, to help determine who might be in trouble, so the child gets help in time. That piece of writing one might think is nothing, or discard, may offer the signs and symbols of a very troubled mind. It surely is worth the time it takes to find out even more and thus prevent more serious acting out that can happen later on, when it might be too late.
David A. Fahrenholdt
Jared Loughner’s college instructor: I was worried he might have a gun in class
Washington Post – Politics
Bettina E. Bernstein
Learning Disorder, Written Expression: Differential Diagnosis and Workup
Smoumitro Deb, Tim Matthews, Geraldine Holt, and Nick Bouras
Section 2: Assessment Procedure, Practice Guidelines for the Assessment and Diagnosis of Mental Health Problems in Adults with Intellectual Disability, p. 37
Melissa Farrall, Ph.D
Testing Written Expression: Myths and Misconceptions