A culture of labels

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It seems as if humans have evolved an innate desire to categorise. This is probably a reason for our cognitive power but it can have unfortunate consequences, especially when we start labelling each other. Politicians of the left and of the right have used this to the advantage of themselves and the detriment of society.

We need to recognise this dangerous tendency in education. The learning styles fad is not just an idea for which there is little evidence. It’s about labelling people. And once we label them, we tend to view any differences between us and them as relatively permanent: I may be an auditory learner but this boy from an ethnic minority background is a kinaesthetic learner so we cannot possibly expect him to sit still and learn to write. 

If we modify our expectations – if we try to accommodate the perceived difference rather than address it – then we compound that difference. A child who cannot write needs more work on his writing not a label that means we expect him to write less.

This is what may happen when we label a child ‘dyslexic’. I am not here to argue whether dyslexia does it does not exist but to point out that, at least in some cases, the label might not be helpful. 

We know, for instance, that a rigorous phonics-based intervention can help children with dyslexia. But the label is as likely to prompt us to try to accommodate reading difficulties by lowering our expectations for reading and writing or perhaps make us susceptible to spending money on unproven interventions such as coloured lenses. 

And this is why I feel queasy at the explosion of learning difficulties and disabilities. These are all diagnosed by the behaviours that a child displays. The fact that such diagnoses rocketed towards the end of the last century and the start of this one shows us that these behaviours used to be considered part of the spectrum of normal behaviours. A child will now attract a label that he would not have attracted in the past.

This is clearly well intentioned and reflects a growth in attention and resources aimed at children who are identified in this way. This is probably a little circular – once you have the resources in place, including staff with a role to coordinate those resources, you’re likely to identify ever more children with needs and disabilities.

The problem here is that these labels may prompt the wrong actions on the part of teachers. If a child behaves poorly because she has a learning disability then we might be tempted to try and accommodate this – to work around it. Indeed, this is what the law suggests we have to do once something has been labelled a ‘disability’.

However, it might be better for that child to address the poor behaviour. Punishment and rewards might be one way to address it but other ways could include the use of a restorative approach where the child reflects on her behaviour or a proactive approach where the child receives explicit teaching of the right behaviours. All of these approaches are far more optimistic than one that consigns a child to a box.

We need to be wary when we see labels in education. The labels don’t really exist. The children do.


6 thoughts on “A culture of labels

  1. When I get my new classes at the beginning of the year I never really look at the various SEN labels that get attached to some students. My expectations of everyone in my class is the same and I would rather get to know them as individuals and work out my own strategies for motivating and engaging them rather than read their IEP that someone has taken the time and effort to write.

  2. Good post and you know I am with you on this. I think it’s important to try to put ourselves in the shoes of the typical primary teacher because the proliferation of labeling does indeed happen in primary schools. I’d like to make a few points:

    1. The SENCO has different priorities to the class teacher: one is not judged on academic outcomes, can focus on the needs of a minority of children, the other is judged on 30+ children’s academic progress at pupil progress meetings. A label helps the CT in the pupil progress meeting.

    2. The increase in identification of children with SEN also reflects how perhaps a typical teacher cannot actually cope with the huge range of children day in, day out. Many secondary teachers and leaders forget that a huge number of children with SEN leave the mainstream school system at 11 to join a special school or be home educated. I think this expectation that all 30 in a primary school class, including a very high number of children with high/extreme needs, meet year group expectation is beyond what most, if not all, human beings can cope with and to save ourselves soul crushing guilt, we label.

    3. I’ve got two children myself and find bringing them up, accommodating their vastly different personalities and preferences very hard indeed. A primary teacher has to teach the ‘whole child’, but to do this with 30 children? For example, I could be expected to do interventions for PPG children to teach them how to have nice conversations. If behaviour is poor because the teacher has no ‘teeth’ as it were (lack of SLT support for example) then again it is easier to label rather than the teacher being judged as ineffective at teaching the ‘whole child’ (ie bringing them up).

    4. Parents are also very quick these days to label their own child as possibly having ADHD for example. It doesn’t help that ADHD has taken on an almost celebrity cause, and only this morning Heston Blumenthal was waxing lyrical about how he should’ve been allowed to cook his way through school. I think many parents like the idea of their child being some kind of repressed artist who is just not being allowed to flourish rather than perhaps acknowledge that being up all night watching YouTube on the iPad might be the real reason for their child’s ‘SEN’.

    5. Many educators lack an understanding of the real world and how, in order for society to work well, certain behaviours and traits need to be contained. Yesterday I read about a HT of a PRU sympathising with children who need to throw a chair because of their anger about their own unfortunate home circumstances. But what happens when these children turn into big, testosterone fueled men who throw a chair at another human being just because they’re still angry with their lives? The increase in labels here reflects idealism about a theoretical world ‘out there’ that will embrace such children, when in fact we should be preparing children for the real world.

    I didn’t expect this comment to be so big!

    1. Point #4, YES! In the US, the main problem is lack of sleep. Ask any elementary school child “Who woke you up today?” And the answer is either a person or an alarm of some sort. Children who get enough sleep wake by themselves. Tired adults can somehow get ourselves through the workday. Tired children cannot. The best teaching methods are insufficient to overcome that lack of sleep.

  3. Thanks, Greg, I’ve flagged up this post via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction and added a little comment myself which is, “I have a thing about ‘the fine line’ in all situations.

    Relative to the topic of ‘labelling’ in education, for example, I think the issue may be the need to make some allowances with some compassion and understanding – but we should be mindful of when making allowances has actually slipped over into making ‘excuses’.”

    See here:


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