Wednesday, April 12, 2017

L is for Labeling – We Act as We Are Treated

It is normal for us to use labels to create categories of things.  This is a shortcut to gaining an understanding of the vast amount of information we come into contact with.  Yet we also have a habit of labeling each other as well as the children entrusted into our care.  The problem is that when we have a label we stop seeking information that might go counter to the it and when have labeled something, or someone, we feel empowered to take action.

This does not have to be a problem and in fact, it is helpful when we are talking about some sort of diagnoses.  When we have determined that a certain diagnoses is warranted, that provides implications for curing or managing the condition.  We know that when someone has a Strep Throat certain antibiotics should be given to treat the infection.

Yet when we use labels for each other, more often than not these are negative judgement calls.  Once a label is assigned it often sticks with the person a long time, sometimes for life.  When the label is passed from person to person and setting to setting this can be extremely damaging. A prime example is teachers passing labels such as ADHD, hyperactive or even calling a child a “behavior problem,” a label that suggests this describes everything about the child and there is nothing else to learn.  When labels are passed one to another we tend to see what we have been told to see rather than get to know the person and form our own judgements based solely on our own perceptions.

Unfortunately, when we label someone, especially a child, they will begin to live up to our expectations.  I am reminded of a classmate I had in nursery school, named J.J.  I don’t know how or when it came to be but everything negative that happened in the classroom was attributed to J.J.  Did he terrorize the other kids in the classroom?  Maybe.  But I can’t help but wonder how his behavior might had been different had he been referred to as a leader or good friend or sharer.  One thing is certain, call a child a “behavior problem” year after year and regardless of whether he’s one to begin with chances are he will certainly become one.  Why wouldn’t he?  If no matter what he does, he’s perceived that way, why not give people what they seem to want and expect?

Research has shown just how powerful this effect is.  Two groups of teachers were given descriptions of made up students.  The two descriptions were identical except for the final sentence.  The descriptions for one group ended with the statement that the child was diagnosed with ADHD.  They were then asked to rate the imaginary child on positive and negative characteristics such as friendliness, disruptiveness, polite, cruel etc.  The teachers who received the description with the ADHD statement, rated the child as far more negative that did those with the other description (Ohan, Visser, Strain & Allen, 2011).

At the same time, research has shown the positive side labeling.  Teachers’ positive expectations for student intelligence and achievement has been shown to predict life outcomes for decades afterwards.  Teacher judgments of student intelligence at age 12 has been found to predict adult intelligence and other major life outcomes Including educational attainment, socioeconomic status and physical and emotional health at age 52. These effects seem to be accounted for by Grade Point Average (GPA).  In particular, teacher’s positive expectations were associated with higher GPA and educational attainment which in turn predicted the other outcomes (Fischbach, Baudson, Preckel, Martin & Brunner, 2013).

This research and other like it teaches an important lesson.  When children are expected to do poorly and act out, they will learn to do so.  Likewise, when they are expected to excel and achieve they fulfill this prophecy as well.  Children will act in a manner consistent with the way in which we treat them. And they will continue to do so over time well into adulthood and possibly throughout their lifetime.  This shows the how critical it is for us to take into account how we treat each other.

When we believe the worst about someone based on hearing things about them instead of getting to know them personally our actions will communicate this.  Similarly, when we view someone based on unconditional positive regard that person will live up to those attributions, which can correct for negative early life experiences.  We have the power to influence others in a way that instills either positive or negative beliefs that the person may come to adopt, acting in such a way that the prophecy is fulfilled.  It is our responsibility to act in such a way so as to affect others positively and avoid creating negative impressions that are communicated both to the individual as well as to others.  Each of us has the capacity to help or hurt.  Which one will you choose?


 Fischbach, A., Baudson, T. G., Preckel, F., Martin, R., & Brunner, M. (2013). Do teacher judgments of student intelligence predict life outcomes? Learning and Individual Differences, 27, 109-119.

Ohan, J. L., Visser, T. A., Strain, M. C., & Allen, L. (2011). Teachers' and education students' perceptions of and reactions to children with and without the diagnostic label “ADHD”. Journal of School Psychology, 49(1), 81-105.

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