Labels are limiting

Kids notice what you say. I know this because if I accidentally say “back clat” instead of “black cat”, 23 little people will point it out to me. And then remind me of it every day for the next week.

So teachers have to be careful not to dish out labels.

Calling a child “shy” pigeonholes them into an introverted existence where they’re never challenged to do outgoing things, speak up for themselves or grow into their confidence.

Other students will talk for them, branding them with an “oh, he’s just shy” excuse that teaches them that it’s ok to not have an opinion.

Worse, it makes them think that it’s perfectly reasonable to let their peers do all the hard work that goes along with communicating effectively.

Conversely, giving a kid a tag of “bossy”, especially a girl, implies that there’s something implicitly wrong with taking charge, with being a leader, with showing an inner drive.

Saying that a boy or girl is “always off with the fairies” can be an observation that you plan to do something about, of it can be a summation that allows you to throw your hands in the air and give up on trying to ever get them engaged in learning.

And if you share that daydreaming idea with the child in question, they might start to think that that’s just who they are. And always will be.

Fascinatingly, if you ask a group of prep students within the first few weeks of school who the smart kids are, invariably, they know. They’ve already sorted each of their classmates into neat little categories: smart/not smart, sporty/not sporty, nice/mean, naughty/not naughty.

And these reputations are tough to break free of. A student in one of my classes worked his butt off all year to make good choices and to do the right thing. The one time he made a mistake and his choice wasn’t so good? Within a minute, I was informed “yeah, he’s the naughty kid.”

What motivation does that label give him to do better? None at all.

High school subgroups form rapidly. Lunch areas are segregated into nerds, jocks and the like. Like stick with like and very few break free from the stereotype.

And it’s not just kids. Adults will say “remind me about that closer to the date, I have a shocking memory”. As though that’s something that’s fixed and unchangeable and somehow allows them the right to be less organised than the rest of us.

Labels are also dangerous when it comes to differing ability. Referring to a child with autism as “that autistic kid” implies that their neurodiversity defines every facet of their existence.

And of course we know that labels about appearance can haunt kids well into adulthood. Those who were told they were “fat” may end up with eating disorders. Those who were classified as “ugly” may develop body dysmorphia or an unhealthy inclinations towards cosmetic surgery.

They may harbour such little self-regard that they attract abusive partners and, worse yet, believe that that’s all that they deserve.

On the other hand, a girl who’s told she’s “pretty” may think that that’s her only redeeming feature, that being attractive is more important and valuable than having a brain. That without this perfect outer beauty, she’s worthless.

If children latch onto labels when they’re young, they may pick up the habit of self-labelling, which is potentially even more disastrous.

It’s been said that self-labelling is like wearing a pair of glasses that you can never take off. You’ll see the world only through that lens, and even evidence contrary to your firmly held beliefs will be so fuzzy and blurry that they’ll easily be forgotten and swept aside.

Only data that matches your limited perspective will be crystal clear, cementing your faith in the identity you’ve created fir yourself.

Praising a whole class of kids for their efforts is one way that labels can be a powerful motivator. Educational studies suggest that just by telling your class that they’re the best readers you’ve ever taught, they’ll all step up to be better readers.

So think carefully about the adjectives you use. And those that you allow to circulate in your space.

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  1. Our brains are so interesting. We can only focus on moving towards things rather than away from things. For example,if someone says “that was a stupid thing to do” then we are drawn into thinking we are stupid rather than thinking about how we could have made a better decision. But it someone says “I know you can make a smarter decision next time”, that is much more positive and helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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