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To Label or Not to Label

June 2, 2016

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Who I Am: A Collection of Labels

by Nancy Weinstein

Using labels, particularly when discussing children, tends to create visceral reactions. Many rightly argue that no one can or should be defined by a single word, or placed in a category from which there is rarely an escape. Here’s one well-written exposition on the unfairness and detriment of defining  or labeling children by a single test. It can have negative consequences for struggling learners and gifted learners alike. Labels can have an ever-lasting negative impact on self-esteem and mindset.

But there are others who embrace labels. They rightly claim that only when labels are properly given can challenges most effectively be addressed. Advocacy groups such as Say Dyslexia and Autism Speaks are notable examples. In the case of dyslexia, we know there are programs that have proven efficacy to help a child with dyslexia learn to read and write. And yet concerns with labels have created a world in which students are more generally categorized as specific learning disability, a most unhelpful way to get them the support they need. When concern about a label overrides the concerns about children not learning to read or write, something is most certainly wrong. And this is only one example.

Imagine how complicated it would be if we went to the doctor and rather than saying, “Your child has strep throat,” she said, “Your child has a red throat that is contagious and ….” Sometimes a label can be the most efficient way to let others know what we need and why. It gives the necessary context to address our greatest needs.

To label or not to label? We live in a world where efficient and effective communication is valued more than ever. A label can help. Yet an understandable sensitivity to misconceptions breeds hesitation to use labels even when we know they can be more helpful than harmful.

But what if…

What if we agreed that it might be okay to describe our children as a collection of labels? What if we gave our teachers in the new school year a head start in knowing how our children perceive themselves and how others perceive them? What if we let them know a student’s greatest strengths? Needs? Interests? Sensitivities? What if we told them upfront rather than trying to let them figure it out for themselves in the midst of all of the other challenges and responsibilities that they have in the classroom?

Perhaps we can start by agreeing that no child can be summed up in a single word but could perhaps be generally understood in no fewer than ten. A combination of objective and subjective, self-identified and externally perceived, academic and emotional. And then we entrust our teachers to use those labels in the spirit in which they were intended–to help them understand our children for who they are, what they want to be, and what might get in their way. And then? And then teachers our empowered to more readily help our children learn. Wow! Could it be that simple? Probably not. Could it be huge step forward? Maybe.

Learn more about self-esteem and learning

Concerned that your child might have a learning difficulty? Read more about the potential signs and the importance of early identification.


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