Labels Hurt Students but it Happens

As a child, I was 'labeled.' I was one of the 'good kids,' one of the 'smart children' and I could have gotten away with pretty much anything had I not been so painfully shy. I learned very early that if I could keep up that label, homework could slide; I received special privileges and was the darling of the school. That was more than thirty years ago. It took me years to shake off the effects of this label, although it would be considered desirable by many. I learned on my own how to make things happen for myself and through my philosophical explorations; I became a strong, intelligent, highly ethical person, which is not what the label I received in school prepared me to be as an adult. Unfortunately, the practice of labeling students is still in place today.

As a former teacher and a parent, I see children labeled every day. Teachers and administrators, even parents, label these children as 'the good child,' or 'the bad kid,' or 'the smart child.' This is unfair not only to the child, but to his or her classmates as well. Children are very perceptive and they can pick up on a teacher's or parent's feelings toward them. This creates a bias, a prejudice that spreads to the other children and teachers while it pollutes the child's own image of him or herself.


There are no "Good" Labels

Even if a child has a, per se, 'acceptable' label such as smart or good, this can be destructive because the child has a tendency to place himself or herself above other classmates. It can also place undue pressure on the child to excel in everything. They forget to just be a kid. Additionally, teachers may tend to favor this 'good' child and let them slide on infractions of behavior and even assignment deadlines while peers may single them out as the 'teacher's pet.'

Also, and this may be the worst part, if one child is labeled as good then that means somewhere another child is being labeled bad. When you are placing labels on people you can't help but compare them to each other and that is perhaps the most destructive part of this entire process.

In sharp contrast to "the good child," the 'bad child' is looked upon as a menace to the classroom, a nuisance that must be endured and tolerated. This child may also be subject to increased disciplinary actions and even the most minor infraction can land him or her in the principal's office, detention, or the recipient of other disciplinary action. Teachers are less tolerant of the 'bad child,' and that prejudice spreads to the child's classmates. This child is doomed from the start because this attitude presents an environment that is not conducive to success. All the child sees is failure, therefore, he or she feels that is their destiny or fate.

Student Labels create a Potential for Bias

I have seen this again and again in the classroom. Many teachers see a child as one way or another and they are labeled. Once that child in labeled, it sticks with them unless someone steps in and stops it. Children should be celebrated for their strengths and they should be encouraged and guided to play upon those strengths. They should not be condemned because they have an unfair label. I am a parent and have been a teacher. I have seen children walk into my classroom carrying the burden of a label such as 'stupid' (yes, a teacher actually said this student was stupid), 'bad,' and even 'the model student.' I also saw all of these children fall into roles that did not allow them to grow and reach for more than they had already achieved.

I have seen teachers walk into a classroom that was notorious for ill-behaved students and they would write behavior referrals for the most minor infractions. I knew these children and recognized how unfair this was. I was the teacher who volunteered to take on this 'ill behaved' class and they thrived with the encouragement and guidance I gave them. I didn't let them slide on the behavior infractions and I expected a lot from them, but I was fair and they recognized that. They worked hard in my class and I rewarded them with praise and respect. I can tell you right now that my 'bad kids' were some of the best, coolest kids I have ever encountered. They are insightful, funny, smart and quick-witted people with value and a lot to offer the world.

Once you look through the behavior, not focus on it, and see the child beyond something wonderful happens, they blossom. I work to see the child and his or her personal gifts. That is my focus. The behavior is there for a reason, but I do not make that the center of my relationship with the child.


It's Personal

I have a daughter who is grown now, but as a child was epileptic with absence seizures and struggled with dyslexia. Sometimes homework and class work were a struggle due to her special challenges. Sometimes homework did not get done because she was just overwhelmed. One of her teacher's labeled her; they harassed and humiliated her in front of her classmates.

My daughter is very quiet and extremely shy and she loved school. She tried so hard but this teacher marred her experience. She lost some of her spark and stopped talking about how much she loved school and math. This math teacher single-handedly created an environment where my daughter no longer felt happy and safe. In that classroom, my daughter felt like a failure because of the vicious words and actions of just one woman.

Parents, take Action

All it takes is one teacher to ruin a child's educational experience and we, as parents, must stay ahead of the game and know just what is going on in our children's classrooms. My daughter had me, fortunately, to do damage control. I also strongly reprimanded the teacher as well as informed the principal of her actions. I got the strong feeling that my words fell upon deaf ears, but I didn't stop. I took it higher and kept pushing until something was done so that my little girl was no longer forced to endure this woman's abuse and harassment. She was moved to another class, but the damage was done. It took years to repair.

This is why I have written this piece, to bring to light the injustices that our children face daily in the classroom. It is time for us to take back our children's education and return equality and compassion to the classroom. Teaching is more than just a job; it is the impact on young lives that they will carry with them forever.

4 comments

DarrenB profile image

DarrenB 8 years ago from Asheville NC

Wow, what a great hub. Thanks for your openness and compassion. I only hope others can approach similar challenges as well as you. I've been teaching for years and often am surprised by those students who rise above their labels.

Good luck!


JackiS 8 years ago

My son seems to now be labeled the "bad kid" in his class. He comes home with a bad behavior rating almost every day and when he describes what has happened it seems minor. He usually says some other kids have pushed him or something and he gets in trouble when he falls out of his chair, etc. The other children don't get in trouble according to him. I am sure he is not an angel in these events but the teacher does seem to jump to the conclusion that he is the troublemaker.


marie 7 years ago

Thank you for standing up for our children. My son is very smart, shy and sensitive. He was almost labeled ADD in first grade by a teacher who just doesn't care about the needs children have! I pulled him out of the regular public school and placed him in a Montessori charter school. He loves school and has a passion for learning. This teacher would have destroyed that! The only part of the day my son liked in the public school was, "recess and the bus ride home." You are so right, A bad teacher can destroy a childs entire education! I believe that NCLB has really made a mess for many children and some teacher just don't care what all of this labeling is doing to our children!


Elizabeth 2 years ago

My daughter was labeled this year too - as a perfectionist - when we dared to complain to the school administrators and teachers about a homework load of over 2 hours, often up to 5 hours a night for a seventh grade. Though my gut told me that they were really trying to blame her for their lack of planning and organization, I tried to take the high ride and to let it go, but it snowballed out of control, with teachers calling her a perfectionist to her face and trying to provide "counseling" to her about it." This from teachers who assign 25 algebra problems per night on top of 10 in class problems per day, and who count off for "poor color choices" on visual presentations. To add insult to injury, the same school tried to label my son, 3 years younger, as probably ADHD. Despite knowledge that he had been speech delayed as a toddler and in school as well as standardized testing pointing to a language disorder, they tried to convince me he needed an eval for ADHD. I took him for a neuropsych eval instead which revealed a mild dysgraphia, likely slowing down his work speed at school, and probably due in part to poor instruction in phonics, reading and spelling at the same school. The whole experience left me quite disillusioned and both kids unfortunately hate school now. What enrages me the most is that this occurred at a private school.

As a trained physician, I am truly dismayed. A diagnosis is not a label but just something to define a situation, and personality traits are just things you must deal with in every relationship you have. Why teachers feel compelled to box students into certain categories when instead they are supposed to be nuturing them is beyond me. Don't know how a kid can grow if they are so confined.

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